Chris Spielman spoke to his grandfather for the last time on July 4, on the way up from Ohio for training camp. It was the old man's 82nd birthday. For years, he had bat tled cancer, arthritis and various other ills, and he did not look well.< But Richard Baechel didn't complain to his grandson. Talking about pain was some thing you simply didn't do. As always, he sent him off with an encouraging smile. "I'll be watching you," he said.
"I know you will," Spielman said.< Spielman also knew, in his heart, that it was the last time he'd see him alive. Early last week, Spielman got the bad news. Baechel died of a heart attack.
On Wednesday, the Bills' star linebacker drove the four hours to Massillon, torn be tween his desire to be with his family and the need to leave the Bills for a single day.
On Thursday, he attended the funeral. He left early so he could be back in Fredonia for team meetings that night.
"He supported me 100 percent in every thing I did," Spielman said. "Both of my grandfathers did. I knew he was mad that I was at his funeral. He would rather have me at practice and not wasting time coming down to his funeral.
"He was 82, and he had the aches and pains and problems of 82-year-old people. But he never complained to me once. Ever. Never, ever. He was a World War II veteran whose ship was attacked by the Japanese and he survived it.
"So whenever I get up at 6 in the morning and work out and start feeling sorry for myself, I see that man getting up and making his wife breakfast and taking it to her every morning, going through chemotherapy and all that."
Spielman said he comes from a driven, hard-working family. That's why he is per haps the most intense player in the NFL. "I have this weird feeling -- not a sad feeling -- like I know my grandfather is there," he said. "It's the same with my other grandfather, who died in 1987. Before a game, I think of these people in my head. I put pressure on myself to represent them. I represent what the City of Buffalo is. I'm very sincere about that."
There's been a lot of talk about leader ship on the Bills. And then there's Spielman, showing up at a Thursday night meeting on the day they buried his grandpa.
"That's my commitment to this football team, and to my players," he said. "(Management) told me to stay as long as I wanted to stay, but I have a commitment from 80 guys right now, to be my best."
By Saturday, he was still working extra hard, as if he had to make up for lost time. After the workout, three men stayed to run: Tim Tindale, Mark Pike and Spielman.
When he was done, Spielman ran into some reporters. There's a lot of negative talk about the Bills lately. Magazines are picking them to fall apart in the post-Kelly era. Bruce Smith is holding out. Spielman decided it was time for some optimism.
"People are questioning this team be cause of the people who left," he said. "That doesn't mean dogs are left over. Obviously, you lose great leaders. But people lead in different ways. The most effective leadership is what you do when nobody's looking -- how you prepare, how you practice and conduct yourself.
"We have that in the huddle. Because that's my huddle. I guarantee it. If anybody questions that, they can get out. It's either me or them. I took over the signal-calling duties, and when we're in that huddle we're there for one purpose. Get the call, go out, and play football. Let your actions speak.
"Today's athletes," Spielman said, "all I hear is this ... " He made a yapping ges ture with his fingers. "Show me something. Show me by what you do on the field."
Spielman was careful not to criticize Smith. He said no one plays harder. He said holdouts are a reality of pro sports, and he expects Smith back. But the defense isn't going to fold in the meantime.
"The world ain't stopping," he said. "It ain't going to stop when I leave. It ain't going to stop when Bruce leaves."
Someone mentioned that the Bills are being picked for last in the AFC East by Sports Illustrated. Spielman, 31, was still huffing. For a minute there, you thought he might hit someone, or run another sprint.
"We will win," he said. "I promise and guarantee, we will win our football games. We'll be a better football team than last year. If you have a healthy Henry Jones, a healthy Bryce Paup, you're better right there. Plus, we've played together for a year. And I'm a better football player than I was last year. I know that for a fact."
No one with a pad and pencil was especially interested in arguing with him.
"This team has one goal in mind," he said. "To win the Super Bowl. There is nothing else. It ain't about making the Pro Bowl. It ain't about leading the team in rushing or tackles.
"God made this game. It's the greatest team game in the world, and it's an honor to play it. When you have pro players, you're dealing with egos. The great teams put their egos aside. You've got 11 playing as one, and there's no greater feeling."
He was on a roll. He was Patton in the opening speech. The average fan would have been volunteering to run to Denver to make the first hit of the season.
"I'm fired up because I love this game, and this team and the opportunity I have," Spielman said. "I thank God every day I'm an NFL player.
"It's my 10th year. I cannot believe I walk out on the field and watch a Thurman Thomas, or Bryce Paup or Bruce Smith. I say, 'Hey, I'm playing with these guys!' That's why I practice hard. That's why I play like there's no tomorrow, because you never know when it's going to end."
It was almost noon. Outside the gates, about 30 fans were waiting. Spielman went out and signed autographs. He signed for everyone, then asked if there was anyone else -- any little kids -- just to make sure. Then he climbed into a waiting golf cart, thanked the fans and drove away.