Oh no, thought Charles (Sonny) Spielman. My kid is nuts. It was 1971, an October afternoon in northern Ohio. Sonny, then the head coach at Timken High in Canton, was running practice when he spied five-year-old Chris on the sideline, curiously engaged.
Knees bent, arms dangling before him, Chris was in a linebacker's stance, keying on an imaginary quarterback. He would take his drop steps or rush up to stuff a phantom fullback, just like the big boys.
You see, when either of the Spielman kids—Richard Charles and Charles Christopher—reached the ripe age of two, Sonny would pick them up each afternoon at three o'clock to watch football practice. Charles Christopher watched the closest. Linebackers in particular engrossed him. "He'd go into a trance," Sonny recalls.
Chris wasn't nuts. He was simply on schedule. By the time he was 12, the parents of the other boys in the midget football league tried to have him banned. He was breaking too many of their sons' limbs. Chris went on to distinguish himself at Washington High in Massillon, Ohio—in one of the country's preeminent scholastic football programs—as the only high school athlete ever to appear on a Wheaties box. He was an optimal blend of heredity and environment.
Today he is the best linebacker in college football, 6'2" and 236 pounds of tapered muscle and ill will. After Ohio State's 26-24 loss to Michigan last fall—in which Spielman made 29 tackles—the Buckeyes vented their frustration in the Cotton Bowl, beating favored Texas A & M 28-12. Spielman's contribution: 11 tackles and two interceptions, one for a touchdown.
Spielman's natural gifts are surpassed only by his consuming drive to get better, faster, stronger; to pack ever more whack into his tackles. His weight workouts are awe inspiring. "Time to enter a different world," says Chris of these sessions.
His first year as a Buckeye, Spielman had a strong fall camp but didn't play in the first half of Ohio State's opener, even though Oregon State was moving the ball well. Pacing directly behind head coach Earle Bruce, Spielman spent the half shouting "Play me! This is why you recruited me!" At halftime, Bruce and defensive coordinator Bob Tucker had this exchange:
Bruce: Why isn't he playing?
Tucker: He's just a freshman. He isn't ready.
Bruce: He's ready.
Spielman went in, made 10 tackles, deflected a pass and forced the fumble that enabled Ohio State to win. He was ready.
Today his game is so complete that Spielman knits his brow and thinks...but cannot cite a weakness in it. Speed? He runs a 4.6 40. Pass drops? "I do those pretty well." Plugging the run? He had 105 solo tackles last season, more than the likes of Tom Cousineau, Marcus Marek or Randy Gradishar ever made in their best years.
Spielman does offer this self-criticism: "I guess sometimes I'm over-aggressive. Sometimes when I make a great play, I come off the field and I'm hyperventilating. I need more of a controlled insanity."
At Washington High, where the team draws more than 10,000 spectators a game, Tigers learn early how to handle pressure. But Spielman will never know the absence of that pressure. It is a solid rocket booster in him. After it's ignited he can't switch it off Solemnly, almost chillingly, he says, "There's no way I've played my best football. My goal is to be the best that ever played."
DAVID L. JOHNSON/ACTION IMAGES
Spielman has been preparing for his role as OSU's designated destroyer since childhood.