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Spielman settles for nothing less than beating odds

The Browns LB helped his wife successfully battle cancer. Now he sets his sights on another comeback.

It was three days before the Cleveland Browns' preseason opener, and the euphoria surrounding the return of the team after a three-season hiatus has swept up every person in northeast Ohio.

Except one.

The single-minded focus of linebacker Chris Spielman would not allow him to buy into the hype. It was, after all, just a glorified practice.

"I'm working for Sept. 12 and getting this team to win," Spielman said with a stone face, stitches above his right eye adding to the intensity.

"If you haven't been around football, preseason is preseason. I think the emotional energy and the home crowd, that comes into play when you line up for real, when there's a W at the end of the game and it counts.

"It goes into the standings, it helps get you to the playoffs, which gets you to the ultimate goal, which is to win the Super Bowl."

Don't think Spielman's banter is just lip service. Although the Browns are an expansion team, Spielman is reviving his career in Cleveland because he wants to be part of a championship team, not a fledgling ballclub hoping to break .500.

Earlier this year, when he read comments from team executives Dwight Clark and Carmen Policy that the Browns did not have designs on making the playoffs in their first season, Spielman, 33 and an 11-year veteran, stormed into the team facilities and asked coach Chris Palmer, "Am I wasting my time?"

Spielman was assured he was not part of a rebuilding effort, but a true move to be successful in the first year. He needed to know the focus was on victories and playoffs, because he always has been about victories.

Whether he was manning the middle for Detroit or Buffalo, creating awe for Ohio State fans or just playing in the schoolyard, Spielman always was willing to pay the price for wins.

"We used to get in trouble, we used to get detentions in school for playing tackle," Spielman said. "I don't get caught up in where it is or who's it against. My harshest critic, my harshest opponent is myself. I'm very hard on myself. I don't really get caught up in where we're playing, who we're playing in front of.

"It really does not matter to me. What matters to me is winning, winning when it counts."

Winning never mattered more to Spielman than last summer, but the foe was cancer and it was wife Stefanie who was fighting it.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer and needed six months of chemotherapy. Spielman, who had missed most of 1997 with a career-threatening neck injury, put his comeback on hold and sat out 1998 to care for his high school sweetheart and children, Noah and Maddie.

"Any man that can make that decision financially, that's the only thing you can do," Spielman said. "Any man who doesn't make that decision who can do it financially, then that's a pure act of cowardice. You're running from something when your family needs you.

"As a husband and a father, you'd better step up to the plate."

Spielman stepped up by doing more than just taking Stefanie to the doctor. When Stefanie began losing her hair because of the chemotherapy, he shaved his head. Chris set up a strict vitamin regiment and rid the house of sugar and carbohydrates because he read they could feed cancer cells.

"Whenever I was down, he'd say, "It's a proven fact that positive thinking can boost your immune system, so you can't be negative," Stefanie told Cleveland's Plain Dealer.

As far as the children, he was again a model parent. Spielman made the meals, (learning that Maddie doesn't like different foods on her plate to touch). He bathed them (learning Noah hates to have his hair washed).

"One of the descriptions I have for love is that when your spouse does well, you're happier than she is, but when she's sick, you wish it was you," Spielman said. "When my wife got sick, I wished it was me, so I knew I had to stay with her I know she appreciated what I did by the fact that she cried more at the news conference when I announced I wasn't going to play to take care of her than she did when she found out that she had cancer."

The devotion paid off. Stefanie has been deemed in remission in her past two checkups, so Spielman has resumed his career with what he perceives as divine intervention. Buffalo granted his wish and traded him to Cleveland so he could be closer to his family in Columbus.

"There's a lot of circumstances that brought me here," Spielman said. "The moons kind of lined up right, or however you want to say it. If it wasn't for the Buffalo Bills honoring a request that I had, if it wasn't for Cleveland being interested in having me, if my wife did not have cancer, if I didn't live two hours away, I probably wouldn't be here."

So far, Spielman has proven to be a valuable leader. His devotion to football and his command in the huddle have been good examples for the young players.

Still, some are questioning if he can bounce back from the injury and a year off. Spielman, a classic overachiever, said when it comes to football no one has bet against him and won.

"I've been given up for dead twice in my career," Spielman said. "Now I get a chance to compete at the highest level, which is really what any guy in my position would want."