By People Staff
December 31, 1999 12:00 PM

I always joked that it was time to stop playing when I had to be helped off the field,” says four-time All Pro Chris Spielman, 34. The time came last August, when the Cleveland Browns linebacker found himself briefly but agonizingly paralyzed after a jarring collision with Chicago’s Casey Wiegmann. The Massillon, Ohio, native and 10-year NFL veteran has dangerously compressed spinal disks, and doctors warned him that any further injury to them could mean permanent paralysis. “I couldn’t take the risk,” he says. Neither could his family. Stefanie, 32, his wife of 10 years, was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, and their daughter Maddie, 5, and son Noah, 3, had come to depend on Dad during their mother’s illness. “Maddie said, ‘I don’t want Daddy to be in a wheelchair—he won’t be able to go swimming with me,’ ” Spielman recalls. “It was a no-brainer. The stakes were too high.” Spielman’s decision was applauded both on and off the field. “People say they’d put family first, but most aren’t put to the test,” says pal Dave Kennedy, the strength and conditioning coach at Spielman’s alma mater, Ohio State. “Chris has been—and he passed with flying colors.” Oprah Winfrey nabbed him for her show in October, telling him that his devotion to family was “true inspiration. You are what a real man is.” Spielman first proved it last year when he took the season off to care for Stefanie and the kids. “It was my turn to sacrifice,” he says. “To show Stefanie how much I loved her.” When the former model began losing her hair while undergoing chemotherapy, Spielman shaved his own head in solidarity. “I didn’t think our relationship could get stronger,” Stefanie, who is now cancer-free, said at the time, “but it did.” With his gridiron career over, the athlete is down but not out. “I’ll always miss football,” says Spielman, now an analyst for FOX Sports Net. “But I’m not going to let it dominate my life.”