Chris Spielman – Wall of Champions

It took just one game for Massillon fans to realize that Chris Spielman was heading for something special.  On a warm September evening, in front of a season-opening crowd of 15,653, the Tigers were enroute to a 33-0 shellacking of the visiting Perry Panthers.  On the team was a lone sophomore, who managed to work his way onto special teams during the preseason.  Massillon kicked off to start the game and the play ended with the announcer stating that Chris Spielman made the tackle.  Not a big deal.  But then, he repeated that remark again on each of the next three kickoffs.  Plus, all of the tackles were made inside the 20 yard line.  Finally, on the fifth kickoff, the announcer said, “This time the tackle was NOT made by Chris Spielman.”  Suddenly, the young sophomore was high on the radar of the avid Tigers fan base.  And it pretty much set the tone, as the stalwart inside linebacker / running back held sway for the next three years, leading his team to a 28-5 record and a trip to the elusive playoff state finals.  He continued that success as an All-American at Ohio State and then as an All-Pro performer in the NFL.  Although he was not the biggest or the fastest defender on the field, he had an uncanny ability to (1) anticipate the play based on the formation and (2) respond quicker to his reads than any other player.  He also performed with extreme physicality.

The Early Years

Charles Christopher Spielman, known to everyone as “Chris,” was born in Plain Township on October 11, 1965, to “Sonny” and Nancy Spielman as the second born son, the first being Rick, also a future Tiger.  The Spielmans were a football family, with Sonny serving at the time as the head coach of Timken, so it was natural that Chris would be engrossed in football during his early years.  He was on the practice field with his father every day and when old enough played midget ball.

Just prior to entering junior high, the family moved to Canton and Chris set his sights on playing for the best team in the city: Canton McKinley.  But as fate would have it, a potential athletic director position for Sonny at McKinley did not materialize.  So in 1980 the family moved again, this time to Massillon, where Sonny was hired as an assistant coach under Mike Currence.

At Longfellow Junior High as a freshman, Chris played both linebacker and running back and his team won every game.  He also impressed the varsity coaching staff with his play in a post-season match against the sophomore team.  So, the stage was set for that fateful game against Perry.

High School

Sophomore year (1981) – He was assigned No. 33 and he kept that number throughout his time at Massillon.  At that time life as a Tiger would begin on the sophomore squad, as only juniors and seniors were permitted to suit up for varsity.  But his size (6’-1”, 195 lbs.), strength and athletic ability were immediately evident.  And it didn’t take long for him to become a starter at inside linebacker, joining his senior quarterback brother Rick in the lineup.  Massillon finished with a 7-3 record that year, nearly upsetting state champion McKinley in the final game.  Meanwhile, Chris recorded three pass interceptions, one coming in a 14-7 victory over Warren Harding and another against Niles that he returned for 27 yards.

“To start as a sophomore you had to be good and you had to be lucky,” said assistant coach Dale Walterhouse.  “And you had to be lucky in that you better not have an All-Ohio player ahead of you in that position.” – Massillon Memories, by Scott Shook.

“People said that I couldn’t start as a sophomore at Massillon,” said Spielman.  “I just felt like that didn’t have anything to do with me.  I just thought that I’d be starting.  It turned out things worked out for me.” – Massillon Memories, by Scott Shook.

Junior year (1982) – The junior year was a breakout season for this young player.  Now up to 206 lbs, he was also assigned the position of starting running back, along with Jim Busche, and rushed for a team-high 844 yards and 15 touchdowns.  He also caught 15 passes for 154 yards and a TD.  On special teams, he returned 16 punts for 83 yards and blocked a field goal against Sandusky that turned the playoff game in the Tigers’ favor.  He scored in every outing except one and tallied 96 points.  On defense he recorded 156 tackles, intercepted four passes and recovered two fumbles.  For his outstanding performance, Chris was named First Team All-Ohio Linebacker.

The team finished with a record of 12-1, while coming up short in the playoff state finals to Cincinnati Moeller.  “We were a great football team in 1982,” Spielman said.  “We were 12-1, got beat by Cincinnati Moeller.  We were outmatched, when they were getting kids from three different states and all over Cincinnati.  Like they were, it was very tough to compete against them.  Any other school in the state or the nation, I believe, we would have beaten them handily.  I think that was one of Massillon’s finest teams.”  – Massillon Memories, by Scott Shook.

Season highlights:

  • Perry – Rushed 10 times for 130 yards (13.0 ave.) and one TD in a 29-8 victory.
  • Canton McKinley – Rushed 19 times for 101 yards (5.3) and scored the only touchdown of the game on a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter. Caught 5 passes for 50 yards.
  • Sandusky – Rushed 23 times for 113 yards (4.9) in a playoff 29-7 victory.
  • Moeller – Caught 5 passes for 60 yards in a 35-14 loss.

Senior year (1983) – It was another outstanding season of running back and linebacker play.  But this time, in addition to earning First-Team All-Ohio honors, he was named All-County running back (the offense was voted on first), Northeast District Lineman of the Year, Akron Beacon Journal Player of the Year, Ohio National Guard Player of the Year, Parade Magazine All-American, Armour-Dial Male High School Athlete of the Year and Street and Smith Magazine National Top 15.  He was Parade Marshall of the Massillon Downtown Merchants Christmas Parade.  Plus, he was featured on the cover of the Wheaties Box, with the award made in New York City.  However, as a shy young man, he just didn’t want to embrace all the fuss and the obligations that went with it.

“Being on the Wheaties box was great – but it was also very difficult for a 17-year-old kid,” said Spielman.  “Over night I became a role model for a lot of kids.  It was the first time I had people start staring at me, recognizing me.  It made me feel funny.  I became very self-conscious.  You feel like you have to live up to their standard.  I was just trying to hang out with my buddies.  I was visiting sick kids in the hospital.  And that was great.  If I could make a kid who was sick feel better, or get better, I certainly didn’t mind doing that.  But at 17, I wasn’t prepared for it.  Every time I was in public I felt like I had to live up to ‘the boy that was on the Wheaties box.’  I was afraid to be myself.” – Massillon Memories, by Scott Shook.

For the season, Spielman rushed for 459 yards and scored 8 touchdowns, while teaming with All-Ohio running back and state champion track speedster Craig Johnson (No. 34 in photo above).  He also caught 10 passes for 151 yards and 3 TDs.  On defense, he recorded 112 tackles, 6 pass interceptions that he returned for 126 yards and recovered two fumbles.  Again, he returned punts, this time 17 of them for 245 yards.

Unfortunately, playoff hopes were squashed when Massillon (9-1) suffered an early-season loss to Akron Garfield, 14-10.  The Golden Rams were led by Charles Gladman (U. Pittsburgh), who was named Ohio Back of the Year.  Garfield advanced in the playoffs that year to the state finals, but lost to Cincinnati Princeton.

Chris finished his football career at Massillon with single season records for tackle points and unassisted tackles.  The following summer he participated in the Ohio High School All-Star Football Game.  But his time on the field was cut short with a sprained ankle, which would hamper him at the next level.

Spielman credits Steve Studer and his tortuous workouts for giving him a great start to his football career, preparing him to play with great physicality.  “I’m 15, I’m not even driving yet,” he recalled.  “I’m walking by his house every Saturday night, trying to get up the nerve to go in there and ask him if he would teach me.  Finally, I did.  He took me in.  He taught me.  If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be where I am today.” – Massillon Memories, by Scott Shook.

A 3-sport athlete, Spielman played basketball and earned All-County honors in that sport.  He also participated on the track team, where he placed in the shot put at the state meet.

Chris relished his time playing for the Tigers.  “Every time I tell someone I played at Massillon a feeling of pride comes over me.” – Massillon Memories, by Scott Shook.

Recruiting – High on Spielman’s list of colleges were, in order, Michigan, Ohio State and Miami of Florida.  The Buckeyes, under head coach Earle Bruce, recruited him hard, with Bruce even bringing his squad to Massillon for a preseason scrimmage and Ohio Governor Richard Celeste getting in on the action.  Dozens of OSU boosters would flock to any airport Chris flew into to add their support.  But he still leaned toward Michigan.  Until, that is, his father intervened and pushed him the other way.  So, it was Ohio State.


Freshman year (1984) – Spielman was slated to be the starting inside linebacker for the opening game against Oregon State.  Only, just prior to the game, he reinjured the bad ankle and was forced to the bench.  But that didn’t stop him from pacing the sidelines and nagging Bruce to put him in.  So, he got the call in the fourth quarter and on his first play he broke through the line and sacked the quarterback.  He ended up playing just shy of ten minutes in that game, but recorded ten tackles and was named Defensive Player of the Game.  For the remainder of the season he would play on and off as the ankle would permit.  The Buckeyes finished with a record of 9-3, losing to USC 20-17 in the Rose Bowl.  But they did win the Big Ten championship.

Sophomore year (1985) – As a starting linebacker, he recorded 140 tackles, 9 tackles for loss and three pass interceptions.  He was also named All-Big Ten.  His team posted a 10-2 record and repeated as Big Ten champions.  Then they defeated BYU 10-7 in the Florida Citris Bowl.

(Eleven Warriors photo)

Junior year (1986) – Chris had another good year, with a team-high 205 total tackles, 9 tackles for loss and 6 pass interceptions.  He also tied a school record with 29 tackles against Michigan.  After the season, he was named All-Big Ten and First Team All-American by Associated Press, Kodak, Football Writers Association, Sporting News and Football News.  He was also a finalist for the Lombardi Award and the Butkus Award.  Earle Bruce called him, “the most intense player I have ever seen.”  The Buckeyes finished with a record of 10-3, losing to Michigan 26-24, while tying the Wolverines in the standings for conference first.  In the Cotton Bowl, they defeated Texas A&M 28-12, with Spielman returning a pass interception 29 yards for a touchdown and being named Top Defensive Player of the Game.

Senior year (1987) – Chris wrapped up his career at Ohio State as expected, with a team-high 234 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 4 quarterback sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 4 pass interceptions.  He was a team captain.  He was named the team’s Most Valuable Performer.  He was named All-Big Ten.  He was named All-American.  He won the Lombardi Award.  And he left with a school record of 283 career solo tackles.  However, the Buckeyes finished 6-4-1 and did not receive a bowl bid.  Thus, Spielman’s sensational career at Ohio State had come to an end.  As had Earle Bruce’s.

In 2000 Spielman was inducted into the Ohio State Hall of Fame and in 2009 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.


The Detroit Lions selected Chris Spielman in the second round as the 19th pick overall of the 1988 NFL draft.  Spielman would spend the next eight years in Detroit as the starting linebacker, under had coach Wayne Fontes.  In his first year, he was named NFC Rookie of the Year.  Four times during his time at Detroit he was selected to play in the Pro Bowl and twice he was named the team’s defensive MVP.  And he was All-Pro twice.

Detroit had four playoff appearances during his 8-year span, with best one in 1991, when they finished 13-5 and advanced to the NFC championship game against the Washington Redskins.  Spielman finished with the Lions as the all-time leading tackler with 1,138 stops.  He also led the NFL with 195 total tackles in 1994.  The Lions later recognized his achievements by adding him to the stadium’s Ring of Honor

In 1996 Spielman signed with Buffalo and played for two seasons.  But he heroically walked away from the game when his wife, Stephanie, was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Two years later, with the disease under control, Chris connected with the Cleveland Browns.  Only, a neck injury in an exhibition game led to a permanent retirement.

For his NFL career, Spielman finished with the following statistics:

  • 148 games
  • 148 starts
  • 985 solos, 378 assists
  • 11 sacks
  • 12 forced fumbles
  • 19 fumble recoveries (1 TD)
  • 6 pass interceptions


Tragedy struck in 1998 when his wife Stephanie died at the young age of 42, leaving behind four children.  Prior to that, the pair managed to raise millions of dollars for Ohio State’s James Cancer Hospital.  Their story is documented in a book he co-authored, titled, “That’s Why I’m Here.”

The  following year Spielman began a career as a TV color commentor for college and professional games, working alternately for Fox, ESPN and Lions Preseason TV and spending nearly twenty years in that capacity.

In 2009 Chris tried his hand at coaching, assuming the head position with the Arena Football League’s Columbus Destroyers.  However, a 2-15 record made that stint short-lived.

Finally,  in 2020, he landed his current position, special assistant to Detroit Lions chairman and president and CEO.

In 1994 Spielman was inducted into the Wall of Champions.  In 2016 he was inducted into the Massillon Football Hall of Fame.