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Austin Murphy
September 30, 1996
Buffalo Bills linebacker Chris Spielman is a monster on the field but a pussycat at home with his family
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September 30, 1996

Tough Love

Buffalo Bills linebacker Chris Spielman is a monster on the field but a pussycat at home with his family

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There was no rule against crashing into the water so often and so hard that your belly turned puce, so the lifeguards left him alone. But they kept a close eye on this peculiar, glowering eight-year-old. Undeterred by his almost total lack of diving ability, Chris Spielman had decided not to leave a public pool in Massillon, Ohio, until he completed 10 consecutive 1½ dives off the high board. Spielman was not executing what you would call rip entries.

"I was scared to death, but I made myself do 10," says Spielman. So what had he been trying to prove with that diving exhibition? Was he out of his mind? He takes the question literally.

"No, no, no, no," he says. "I was very much in my mind. Even at that age I was putting myself through mental tests. I've always wanted to make the training and everything else as difficult as possible. That way, the game is easy."

Spielman, who last March signed as a free-agent linebacker with the Buffalo Bills after eight seasons with the Detroit Lions, sees life as a series of self-imposed ordeals designed to make Sundays proceed more smoothly. At age four this son of a high school football coach was ambulating around the house in a curious, bent-knee gait: He had already learned to assume the linebacker's "break-down" position. One morning last spring Spielman drove to Rich Stadium around six o'clock to enjoy a half hour's suffering on the Stairmaster. Already on a treadmill was his new boss, Bills owner Ralph Wilson.

"He came up and put his face really close to mine," recalls Wilson. "He said, 'Thanks for bringing me here. You won't be disappointed.' He didn't smile. I was a little afraid." Wilson smiles at his Spielman anecdote, then adds, "He's the most intense player we've had here in 37 years."

That same warrior's intensity made him much beloved in Detroit. But the Lions couldn't come anywhere near matching the four-year, $8 million package the Bills offered Spielman, which didn't exactly break his heart. Detroit has not advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 1991, and Spielman, who speaks of "a sadness" he will feel if he concludes his career without having played in a Super Bowl, felt as if he were spinning his wheels in the Motor City. He wanted to join a team with a real Super Bowl shot. The Bills gave him one. That didn't mean he had to speak to his teammates.

By 7 a.m. on the first day of a May minicamp, he was sitting in his stall, ankles taped, staring straight ahead like some oversized gargoyle. His teammates began trickling in a couple of hours later. "He really didn't talk to anybody until somebody talked to him," says fullback Tim Tindale. On the field, without discussing it with anyone, Spielman assumed the responsibility of calling defensive signals. "He didn't know anybody on the team," says defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, "but he was going to take over because that's the way he thought it ought to be. That told us a little about his mentality."

The Bills' newest alpha male has not disappointed. Signed to add starch to Buffalo's interior run defense, Spielman has done just that. He had nine tackles in the Bills' 10-7 win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday and helped limit Emmitt Smith to 25 rushing yards. In Buffalo's season opening 23-20 overtime win against the New York Giants, Spielman had a team-leading 17 tackles—most of them of Rodney Hampton, who gained an insignificant 50 yards on 18 carries. "That guy must read film pretty well," Giants guard Ron Stone said afterward, "because he would see the formation and know what was coming. He was always in the right spot."

Indeed, Spielman's fumble recovery set up the game-winning field goal. His teammates awarded him a game ball. Sitting in his stall, his pants splotched with blood from abrasions on both elbows, Spielman said of his night's work, "Not bad for an overachiever."

Two days earlier he had responded crankily to the suggestion that he has overachieved in the NFL. "A lot of stuff doesn't bother me," he said, "but that's one thing that does. I've heard that a million times."

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