By Chris Tomasson
St. Paul Pioneer Press
WINTER PARK, Minn. - When Vikings general manager Rick Spielman stands on the sideline at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium during the team’s exhibition opener Sunday night at the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, he just might be reminded of the great moments he has had on that field.
During Spielman’s senior year at nearby Massillon High School in 1981, the quarterback ran 40 yards on a bootleg for a touchdown against Canton McKinley at what was then known as Fawcett Stadium. Spielman’s younger brother and high school teammate, eventual NFL star Chris Spielman, called it “the greatest play Rick ever had.”
But Spielman’s Tigers lost that game 9-6. If you want to hear about his exploits in a Massillon victory over McKinley at Fawcett Stadium, talk to Mike Currence, his former coach at Massillon.
“In 1980, we lost to McKinley (16-7 at Massillon) and we drew them in the playoffs the next week,” Currence said. “We lost our linebacker, and I told (Spielman’s) dad Sonny (then a Tigers assistant) that we’ve got to move Rick to inside linebacker because we didn’t have another one. He had been our backup quarterback and hadn’t practiced (at linebacker). But he went out and had, like, 10 or 12 solo tackles and he led the defense, and we won that game (14-6).”
Three and half decades later, Spielman, 52, will be back in Canton - where he was born in December 1962 - when his Vikings face Pittsburgh in the exhibition opener for both teams.
Spielman spent his first 17 years in Canton before moving to Massillon, eight miles west on Route 172. Because the towns have such a fierce rivalry, don’t even try to get Spielman to say whether he’s a Canton or a Massillon guy.
“I’m a Northeast Ohio football guy,” he said.
Regardless, Spielman is thrilled to be going back to Stark County. It will be his first time back since 2008, when he returned for the funeral of his father, Sonny Spielman, a longtime football coach in the area.
“I’m very excited to be going back,” Spielman said. “I haven’t been back in a while because in this job it’s tough to get back just because of the time constraints. But I’m looking forward to seeing some old friends and just to be a part of something that meant so much to me when I was growing up.”
When Spielman was growing up, his father was an assistant coach at Canton Central Catholic High School and at McKinley, which is next door to the Hall of Fame, before becoming head coach at Canton Timken High School from 1970-79. When Sonny Spielman moved on to Massillon as an assistant in 1980, the family followed.
“We grew up about five blocks from the Hall of Fame,” Spielman said, referring also to his brother Chris, three years younger and two behind him in school. “We went through the Canton school system. I always have great memories of playing in the midget leagues to little league football and all the way through to junior high and then at the high school level. It was just an experience experiencing those crowds, the tradition in that area. I don’t think there’s any greater passion (for high school football).”
Rick played for his dad at Timken, which held home games at Fawcett Stadium, before attending Massillon for his final two years of high school. When Rick was a senior in 1981, Chris joined him on the Tigers varsity and went on to become one of the greatest players in school history.
Chris Spielman, who will be on the sideline for Sunday’s game with Rick, was pictured in his Massillon uniform on a Wheaties box as a senior in 1983. He then starred at linebacker at Ohio State and in the NFL with the Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills.
“It is really unique for Rick coming back,” said Chris Spielman. “I just hope he takes a minute and kind of reflects on all those memories we had as kids on that field because we were there all the time in the fall (starting with practices and games their father coached). I think it’s kind of cool we both got to play in the Hall of Fame Game. I was there in (1991 with the Lions), and I thought what a great experience to come almost full circle.”
Growing up, the brothers visited the Hall of Fame regularly. Rick was a Washington Redskins fan and Chris a Vikings supporter, especially admiring Canton native Alan Page, who played for Sonny Spielman at Central Catholic.
“That’s where me and my brother did our shopping for each other at Christmas,” Rick said. “I would get him wristbands and he would get me wristbands and we would buy T-shirts. We went to the Hall of Fame gift shop.”
EVERYBODY LOVES A PARADE
The Hall of Fame Game was played each summer, and the brothers were able to attend a few. But the big event for them was the parade.
“We lived two blocks from the parade route, and we would go out and put our chairs up the night before,” Rick said. “When we were old enough, sometimes our parents would let us sleep on the chairs (during the night) just to save your spot.”
Rick Spielman said he was “blessed to have the parents we had.” He said his mother, Nancy, who now lives near Rick and his family in Eden Prairie, provided great support, and his father was an inspiration in his decision to make football his livelihood.
“My brother and I would watch my dad give pregame speeches, and we would both have goosebumps,” Rick said.
Sonny Spielman was demanding. Chris remembers when Rick was late once to a Massillon practice because of a misunderstanding, their father made Rick do bear crawls up and down a snowy field until late into the night.
When the brothers began to play football, Chris looked up to his older brother. Rick emerged as a leader, one reason he played quarterback.
“Our coach (at Massillon) ran the run and shoot (offense), and in Rick’s senior year he threw for 315 yards in our opener against Perry, which was a school record then,” Chris said of what was his first varsity game. “He was a good quarterback, but he wasn’t a great quarterback. He was like he is as a general manager. He worked his rear end off, and he was always prepared and did his due diligence.”
Currence called Rick Spielman one of the brightest and hardest-working players he ever had.
“He could actually play any position,” Currence said. “He was that kind of player: smart, intelligent, and he practiced hard. He would practice as many hours as you wanted and then come back at 7 or 8 and practice some more. He was a good player, but he lacked the size and speed to make it in the pros.”
Rick was recruited by Southern Illinois as a quarterback before eventually being moved to linebacker. He had tryouts with San Diego and Detroit but was unable to make an NFL roster.
Rick’s time in Canton this weekend will be brief. He will fly in with the team on Saturday and attend that night’s Hall of Fame enshrinement, which includes the induction of longtime Vikings center Mick Tingelhoff. He then will leave with the team after Sunday night’s game.
Currence, who is retired and lives 30 miles north in the Akron area, doesn’t plan on attending any Hall of Fame events. However, he said he will cheer for the Vikings while watching on television and be thinking about how far Rick Spielman has come.
“It’s been one of my best moments, I guess, in coaching to see a player like that go on and stay in the game the way he has done and do as well as he has done,” said Currence, who also coached Chris Spielman for all three of his Massillon seasons. “So, yeah, we are proud of him. We are very proud of him, and very proud of Chris.”
By Chris Tomasson