Her tears of protest didn't change his mind. She blamed herself. "It's not your fault," Chris said. "It's cancer's fault." Now, sitting at the kitchen table, Stefanie takes off the brown corduroy hat she often wears in public. She's not ashamed of the baldness caused by chemotherapy. "I knew he was a great person," she says. "I knew we had a strong marriage. But for what he did for me and our family, I can never repay him. I just hope he never looks back at this year and regrets it."
"Never," he says firmly.
He needed only a day to reach his decision. "I would have considered myself a fraud if I didn't do this," he says. "Lots of guys would have done the same thing. I'm just blessed because we have the money to do it."
What has the season away from football taught him? "Homemaking is difficult," Chris says. "Before I never cared if the kitchen was clean. Now I clean it three times a day. I've learned how important mothering is. Women are the only people who can do it perfectly. I've gained so much respect for mothers, and I've learned patience. Real patience. You sit here waiting for a biopsy report after your wife has had a mastectomy, wishing it was you who had the cancer. You need patience for that."
Stefanie writes in a journal every day, and some of her entries sound like a cross between Norman Vincent Peale and Chris Spielman. July 11: "Now is the time to suck it up and follow the path put before me." July 19: "I will beat this thing. I have to. Maddy and Noah are so much motivation. I will do anything for them. Chris too. I need him so much it's not even funny."
He has needed her too. When he remarked one day how the family seemed snakebit, with the neck injury and the miscarriage and the cancer, she fired back, "How can you say that, with all the blessings this family has?" She has raised $237,000 for breast-cancer research at the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Research Institute in Columbus, and her story has become the centerpiece of a drive to have women do self-examinations and have mammograms. One woman called a Columbus TV station to say she wouldn't have done a self-exam had it not been for Stefanie's story. She found a lump and had it removed.
"Sometimes," Stefanie says, "it's hard to believe this is my life and not a nightmare. But I've learned a lot from the way Chris approaches football. He's taught me strength and discipline and motivation."
His shoulders have been strong too. In August, a couple of days after Stefanie bought a pricey wig, a hairdresser came to the house to shave her head. Stefanie wondered where Chris was, because he had promised to be there for the trimming. He arrived late in her shearing with a bald head of his own, nicked and cut. He had shaved himself. She cried.
She has never worn the wig. He says jokingly, "That was a great investment."
"Men go bald all the time," she says. "Why should I try to look like someone I'm not? I'm sick."