January 11, 1999 12:00 PM

It’s 6:45 a.m., and in the kitchen 6’1″, 245-lb. linebacker Chris Spielman is going over his game plan: First, feed the kids—Madison, 4, and Noah, 2. “None of the food on Maddie’s plate is allowed to touch,” he says. “She hates that. Noah needs his sippy cup.” At 8 he will awaken his wife, Stephanie, and prepare her breakfast. Later he will do the laundry, take the kids to gymnastics and administer the Neupogen shots to Stephanie that will help build up her immunity.

Stephanie, 31, is recovering from breast cancer. This past summer, when Spielman realized what she was up against and how much she would need him, he simply walked away from pro football’s Buffalo Bills and the game he’d spent 26 of his 33 years playing. A four-time All Pro, Spielman was one of the NFL’s fiercest competitors, the sort who would sleep nude with the air conditioning on to prepare for the brutal winter weather in Buffalo’s Rich Stadium. Although coming off an injury, he was at the top of his game. “It was a nondecision,” says Spielman, staring into his cup of coffee. “It was the least I could do.”

Perhaps in his eyes. “I never cried about the cancer or how it hurt,” says Stephanie. “I cried because of what it was doing to Chris.”

Understand that there are but two great passions in Spielman’s life. The first is football, and perhaps that should come as no surprise. The younger son of Sonny, a high school football coach, and Nancy, a teacher’s aide, he grew up in the football-crazed town of Massillon, Ohio, just a few miles from Canton, home of the NFL’s Hall of Fame. “I love the game,” he says. “I love the competition and the courage it takes to play.” At 17, going to Massillon Washington High School, he was already a star when he encountered his even grander passion, Stephanie. “Every spare moment I wanted to be with her,” he says, still astonished by the intensity of the emotion. “I’ve never felt that way about anyone.”

The two attended Ohio State in Columbus, and when Chris was drafted by the Lions, they moved to Detroit, where Stephanie became a part-time model and TV reporter. They married in 1989, and when Chris signed with Buffalo in 1996, the couple moved into their dream home, a three-story Tudor in Columbus. Then 1997 was a tough year for Spielman. He injured his neck, underwent surgery and a grueling rehabilitation program. He was looking forward to returning in 1998, but then in July a precancerous growth was discovered in Stephanie’s right breast. “I was really scared,” she admits. “I kept looking into the mirror and saying to my breast, ‘Okay, you’re not going to be there anymore.’ ” It turns out she had good reason to be anxious. When the surgeon performed a mastectomy, he also found a tiny malignant tumor. The entire breast and 28 surrounding lymph nodes had to be removed. Six weeks later chemotherapy started—and at that point, Chris decided his family needed him more than football. “It was my test. It was my defining moment,” he says. “She always supported me 100 percent. I had to offer it back.” Stephanie tried to talk him out of it. “I was pretty devastated,” she says. “I knew how hard Chris had trained to make his comeback.”

But Chris had made up his mind and was now a full-time member of her team. She realized how relieved she was; Chris brought the same focus and intensity to her illness that he did to football. “He became an expert on cancer and vitamin supplements,” she says. “He held my hand during chemo. He’s helped me out so much.” Neighbors, friends, even sorority sisters have pitched in by preparing meals for the family. When Stephanie lost her hair during chemotherapy, Chris even shaved his head in solidarity, a gesture she still finds amusing and touching. “I didn’t think our relationship could get stronger,” says Stephanie. “And it did.”

Chris, who works out daily and plans to return to the Bills next season, has had his own revelations. “I’ve learned the value of paper plates,” he says. “I hate doing dishes. And I’ve learned I’m completely neurotic about having a clean kitchen. I find myself cleaning all the time.”

He’s also realized more complex truths. On July 15 the couple was driving to see Stephanie’s plastic surgeon to arrange for reconstructive surgery. “I said to Steph, ‘This is not fair at all,’ ” recalls Spiel-man. ” ‘Don’t you feel cheated?’ ” She said, ‘How can I feel that way when I’ve been blessed by so many things?’ ”

Jack Friedman

Barbara Sandler in Columbus

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