Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman was one of the most feared linebackers of his day, winning the 1987 Lombardi Award and earning consensus All-America honors in 1986-87. The decorated recruit made an immediate impression as a freshman in 1984, with a style described as “brutality” after his debut against Oregon State.
Athlon Sports spoke with Spielman before his sophomore season in this piece from our archives — two seasons before he was an All-American.
Originally published in Athlon’s Big Ten 1985 Annual
By Dick Fenlon
It bothers Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman to be called a sadist. But not enough to change his mind about football.
“At this level, it’s a game of survival,” says Spielman. “You hit your hardest, or you take a chance of getting hurt. I hit to put somebody out of the game, and I would expect the same thing from him. It’s clean, but when you hit somebody you try to knock him so he doesn’t get up. I don’t care what anybody says, it’s part of the game.”
Speaking to reporters in the locker room after the first game of his college career, Spielman put it even more bluntly. “When I hit somebody,” he told them, “and I see him hurting, just grimacing, it sends something through me that’s hard to explain. A bolt. A charge. You play to hurt somebody.”
Thoughts like those — frank, unfettered, uncensored — can get a guy in trouble. Talk about putting somebody out of the game, of hurting him, and a lot of minds turn immediately to players who have been put out of the game permanently. Chris Spielman says that’s not at all what he means, but when he volunteered his football philosophy after Ohio State’s opener with Oregon State last season, a general columnist in a Columbus newspaper concluded that there was something decidedly wrong with his approach to the game.
“Is This Youth Or Brutality?” the headline on Mike Harden’s column in The Columbus Dispatch asked. “It may be folly to seek reason and compassion from a game which is comprised, as Roy Blount once said, of grown men flying through the air in plastic hats,” wrote Harden. “That fact notwithstanding, Spielman’s words still had a distinctly ruthless, if not sadistic, ring to them.”
“It bothered me a little bit because I think I am a religious person,” says Spielman. “But that’s his opinion. Freedom of the press, I guess.”
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And how, you may wonder, did Spielman come by his football philosophy. “I grew up with it,” he says. “I never had any kids my own age to play football with. They were all my brother’s age. When we played ball, I used to get the heck beat out of me. After a while, I didn’t like it. But if I wanted to keep on playing with older kids, I knew I had to be as tough as they were. So I just kept hitting as hard as could, and I wouldn’t back down for nothing. I’ve always been that way. It’s something you’re born with and grow up with.”
Spielman is the son of a football coach who is now a junior high school principal. He’s the younger brother of Rick Spielman, a junior linebacker at Southern Illinois. Chris grew up in Canton, Ohio, and played high school football in Massillon, where the sport itself takes on overtones of a quasi-religious nature.
When Spielman arrived at Ohio State, he was accompanied by a reputation uncommon even for Massillon blue chippers. Coach Earle Bruce said he was the best high school player he had ever seen. And everybody knew he was tough as iron.
Spielman had started every game at Massillon High and played both ways — as fullback and linebacker. Parade magazine named him the top high school linebacker in the country in 1983. Selected as the All-American Boy football player and pictured on the side of a zillion boxes of Wheaties, he stared at America from the shelves of every supermarket across the land.
When Spielman turned 17 on Oct. 11, 1983, he received more than 400 birthday cards from coaches and schools. That astounded even the football-hip Spielman. “Guys who didn’t know me from Adam were saying, ‘How are you doing?’” he says.
He visited five schools — Penn State, UCLA, Miami of Florida, Michigan and Ohio State. It came down to the last two. Some schools said he might be able to make it as a fullback, if that’s what he wanted, but he had no delusions about that.
“I think I was just an average back,” Spielman says. “If we needed a couple of yards, I’d say, ‘Give me the ball,’ and I’d put my head down and go.” But he know that average wouldn’t be good enough in college. “And I’d rather be the hitter than the hittee. It’s less painful.”
Naturally, Bruce was ecstatic when Spielman signed on. Then, in the Ohio High School North-South All-Star game after graduation, he suffered the first injury he could remember, an inversion sprain of his left ankle. He reinjured it in preseason practice. When Ohio State trainer Billy Hill handed Spielman the yellow slip-on that players not sound enough to take part in full practice wear and insisted he wear it for the day, he literally threw it back at him. Only grudgingly did he finally tuck it into his waist.
Even with no particular connotation, yellow is hardly Spielman’s favorite hue. “I’m glad to see you back,” Bruce wisecracked the next day. “I thought we changed our colors.”
By this time, Spielman had gained something of a reputation among older teammates. He wasn’t just the freshman linebacker with the big reputation and his mug on a cereal box. He was the gung-ho, flaky kid who just wouldn’t ease up, even in practice.
“They think I’m a little weird,” admitted Spielman at the time. “When I’m on the field, I’m weird. When I’m not, I’m just a normal 18-year-old freshman.”
When the Oregon State opener arrived, Spielman was beside himself. Not starting the first game of his life was bad enough. Getting in for only two plays in the first half was worse.
Finally, with Ohio State trailing, Spielman was inserted to blitz Oregon State quarterback Ricky Greene. In less than a half, Spielman had five tackles, five assists, two tackles for a loss, one sack, one forced fumble — and one victory put on ice. He was voted Ohio State’s Defensive Player of the Game. His career was on fast-start.
It didn’t stay in that gear for long. Spielman started the next two games, against Washington State and Iowa, but in the first quarter of a 45-26 rout of Iowa, he tore ligaments in his right ankle.
“It was a nightmare,” says Spielman. “I thought I had the strongest ankles in the world, and I never even taped them in high school. I was crushed. I didn’t know what to do. I sat out three weeks, and I told myself that if I had to crawl, I was going to play the next game against Michigan State.”
One of the student managers taped his ankles. Tight. If the tape had been around his neck it would have strangled him. Spielman figured that if the tape was tight enough, it would numb the pain, but by the time the game started, he could hardly walk. “Like a dumb, silly kid, I didn’t tell anybody.” he says. “I told them I was feeling great. Pretty dumb, huh?”
Pretty dumb. Three plays into the game, a Michigan State tackle landed on the sore ankle and he was out again. When the regular season ended a month later, Spielman was a part-time player, and with 12 tackles and 18 assists, ranked no better than 13th on the Ohio State hit list.
When the Rose Bowl game against Southern California began, he was still a substitute, but by this time, both of his ankles had had time to heal. He was also mentally ready.
“I wanted to play so bad, and I was determined to play the best game of my life,” Spielman says. “I don’t know if I did, and I hated losing, but my consolation was that I was satisfied with my performance.”
He had 12 unassisted tackles and three assists, and the 103,000 fans in the Pasadena gulch and a nationwide TV audience got an eyeful of just how good he can be when healthy.
Offensively for Ohio State this season, all eyes will be on senior tailback Keith Byars as he goes for the Heisman Trophy. Many of them will be on the 6-2, 225-pound linebacker Chris Spielman in his sophomore season.
“I set my goals high, both for me and the team,” he says. “For the team, I want to go back to the Rose Bowl and win, go 12-0 and be No. 1. For me, I’d like to be All-Big Ten.”
What about shooting for All-American?
Obviously Spielman is a first-things-first kind of guy. “In my junior year,” says Spielman. “I’d like to be an All-American. I think with a lot of hard work and experience I can be.”