M-O-M! M-O-M!" precocious four-year-old Maddy Spielman hollers. Cute kid. She spells out the words that she can, and M-O-M is a particular favorite in instances like this, when Maddy's most treasured book, the one about dogs, is missing. Except Mom (a.k.a. Stefanie) is out of the loop about the dog book because she was resting when it was misplaced. So she asks her househusband, Chris, if he has seen it.
"Maddy," Chris says, "you had that book at breakfast, right?"
"Right" she says, "but then I took it upstairs."
"All right," he says, "it'll be up there then." Maddy finds it upstairs. Crisis averted.
This is Chris's year to find the dog book and to go to Maddy's nursery-school Thanksgiving feast and to try to wean two-year-old son Noah off Lucky Charms and to give him his bath every night—and to take Stefanie to chemotherapy every other Tuesday. There wasn't much discussion in July when Stefanie, 31, had to have her right breast and 28 lymph nodes removed, and Chris, a four-time Pro Bowl linebacker, said he was taking the year off from the Buffalo Bills to care for her and the family. Although Chris hasn't spent a second regretting his decision, he has been racked with doubts about his football future and a severe case of Missing Football Blues, all the while feeling guilty that he's even thinking about football with Stefanie in the fight of her life.
But the man with the Butkus intensity can't help it. At his home in the tony Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington, four miles from the Ohio State campus where he starred a decade ago, Spielman can't bear to watch an entire NFL game. Plays and highlights have to suffice. When he takes Maddy and Noah to the park, he sometimes steers his pickup to a midget league or junior high football practice. An Indian summer has only made things worse, because every day that the temperature is in the 50s is another fall day he misses the game.
"You can smell football," Spielman said in his kitchen one afternoon last week, alternately pacing and tidying. "You go outside, and there's a feel of football I'm so used to. A smell. The leaves, the air, the wind. It's so familiar. I don't know what it's like in Florida or California, but I know how football smells in the Midwest, and when I go out, all I smell and feel is football."
In November 1997 Spielman had career-threatening surgery to repair a herniated disk that was pressing dangerously close to his spinal cord. But he rehabbed well, and by last spring the Bills were cautiously counting on him as the run-stuffing left inside linebacker in their 3-4 defense. It was shaping up to be a glorious year for the Spielmans because Stefanie was pregnant. However, in April she miscarried. A self-exam soon after confirmed what she'd felt during the pregnancy, a lemon-sized lump on the right side of her right breast. Tests confirmed one large precancerous tumor and a smaller malignant one near the chest wall; two lymph nodes had pea-sized malignancies. On July 15 she underwent surgery. Doctors prescribed five months of aggressive chemotherapy.
One late July day Chris walked into the kitchen and told Stefanie, "I've thought about this, and it's the only way. I'm taking the year off from football to deal with this."
"What?" she said. "You're crazy! Don't even say that."