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Spielman Finally Hangs Helmet

Linebacker Chris Spielman retired today after feeling numbness from a violent hit in an exhibition game, ending his comeback with the Cleveland Browns from neck surgery.

"We're all football warriors, and being that, you have to accept your mortality. And my mortality is today," he said.

Spielman, an Ohio football icon after starring at Massillon High School and later Ohio State, was regarded as the heart and soul of the expansion Browns before they even played their first regular-season game.

Like the reborn Browns, Spielman was making his own comeback to the NFL from vertebrae-fusion surgery in 1997 while he was with the Buffalo Bills. The 10-year veteran joined the Browns in February, grateful for a second chance.

Spielman had delayed his comeback for a year while his wife, Stefanie, recovered from breast cancer surgery.

But during the first quarter of Cleveland's 35-24 win over Chicago on Saturday night, Spielman took a crushing, blindside hit from Bears center Casey Wiegmann on a running play and lost some feeling in his body.

Spielman said he then told his doctors about symptoms he had kept to himself, tingling he felt when he took a hard hit. He and team president Carmen Policy said the doctors' advice closed out any possibility that Spielman could return to the field without risk.

Spielman was reluctant to retire, however, and he and Policy talked around the word in a news conference that focused more on Spielman's pride and the pain of his decision.

"My effort level and my toughness were never questioned by anybody," he said.

Wiegmann said after he hit Spielman, he tried to help him up but the linebacker said he couldn't move. Spielman eventually walked to the sideline under his own power, but looked unsteady.

He was treated on the sideline before making a slow walk to the Browns' locker room. As he left the field, his helmet tilted back on his head, Spielman tossed his gloves and arm pad into the stands as fans near the Browns' tunnel gave him a warm ovation.

Little did they know it would be the last time any of them would see Spielman on the field in his familiar No. 54 jersey.

After refusing to get on a stretcher, Spielman was taken to the Cleveland Clinic for an MRI, the second he has required this summer following a high-impact collision.

During training camp, Spielman was slow to get up following a helmet-on-helmet hit with fullback Tarek Saleh. Spielman, known for his maniacal offseason workout routines, walked all alone baconto the practice field an hour later and hit the tackling dummy to check his neck.

He thought something was wrong, and after a restless night pondering his life without football, Spielman requested an MRI be performed the next morning.

Spielman was already a household name in Ohio before he became an All-American at Ohio State. At famed Massillon, where Paul Brown began his coaching career, Spielman was a national high school player of the year who was so dominant that his picture appeared on a Wheaties' cereal box.

Considered too small and short to make it in the NFL by many teams, including the Browns, Spielman slipped to the 28th overall pick in the 1988 draft when he was selected by the Detroit Lions. He made the Pro Bowl three consecutive seasons for the Lions (1989-91) and then again in '94.

Following the '95 season, he signed as a free agent with the Bills and in '96, led the team with 206 tackles.

All the pounding caught up to Spielman in 1997 when a neck injury, which had gradually worsened over the years, forced him to have surgery following the Bills' eighth game. Spielman had played in 114 consecutive games at the time of the surgery, and then found himself in the unfamiliar role of spectator after two vertebrae were fused in his neck.

He wanted to return last year, but when Stefanie was diagnosed with cancer, Spielman decided his family needed him more than the Bills.

When his wife lost her hair following chemotherapy, Spielman shaved his head and kept a picture of the two of them, both bald and smiling, in his locker.

Just a few weeks ago, Spielman said he was ready to hand in his jersey if he didn't think he could play up to his standards.

"I will have no problem walking away, and when I do walk, it's not going to be a tearful walk because when my time comes, I'll have no regrets. I know I have played this game the way it should be played. I've played for the team, not for me."

©1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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