You can take this story all the way back to a baby’s crib in Chicago. See that little boy hugging his crying 8-month-old brother in the middle of their first night in a new home? It’s that image of a bond that has remained ever firm and still tugs at the heart of one of the key decision-makers in the NFL.
Flip forward a few pages. Find the humidity of south Florida and a field cluttered with miniature football players. See the youngest one out there? JD Spielman was the only 6-year-old to make the team. The older boys have trouble tackling him. That won’t change. By the time he's a high schooler up north, some opposing coaches will say he has maybe the best highlight footage to come out of Minnesota.
Patience. We’ll get to all that and why Spielman decided he wanted to play college football at Nebraska, too.
But let's first check in on Spielman as a high school freshman with a lacrosse stick in his hand. It's telling. State championship game. Tied. Time is running out. Panic time. Or, if you are of a certain make, the time you love the most.
Eden Prairie High School lost in the state championship game the previous two years. Now, in those final seconds, a senior teammate has possession of the ball. He’ll take the shot, right? Wrong.
He’ll pass it to the youngest player on the team, the one who politely told a reporter after the game he was screaming for the ball.
JD had already scored 29 goals that season. Might as well score one more. So he did. Leaping to snag a high pass, then firing it into the net in one motion. Just 13 seconds left. Hand out the medals.
The general manager of the Minnesota Vikings clapped his hands. Of course he did. That’s Dad.
“I knew that that stage wasn’t too big for him even as a freshman,” Rick Spielman remembered, not forgetting what JD told him after that game. “He said, ‘Dad, I want the coaches to know that I want the ball when we need something to happen.’”
This is something well understood by most in Minnesota now. Whatever the sport, Spielman just makes plays. Consider his roles on Eden Prairie's football team include running back, wide receiver, defensive back, kick returner, punter.
He is Mr. Football in his state after having run for 19 touchdowns, scoring three more on kick/punt returns, another two off interceptions, and two more as a receiver.
That’s 26 visits to the end zone to go with 1,259 rushing yards on just 102 carries, and 203 yards on 13 catches. That’s from a 5-foot-8, 175-pound prospect who, when it comes to talk of size, said: “At the end of the day, it’s all about how big do you want to play?”
He’ll sign to play football as a slot receiver for the Huskers on Wednesday, the kind of significant moment not lost at all on JD. “A lot of people can dream and stuff, but not a lot of people get the opportunity to turn it into something real.”
It’s as real as his family’s love.
Kids used to ask him why he was black and his parents were white. JD didn't worry about that. He just saw the blessings and ran with them.
* * *
They were born on the south side of Chicago, JD and Ronnie Spielman, biological brothers separated by two years, with Ronnie the eldest.
They were born at the same time Rick Spielman was working as director of pro personnel for the Chicago Bears. Rick's wife, Michele, had come from a big family. They wanted that same thing in their house but couldn't have children.
This is what led them to adopt, and to their boys, JD and Ronnie.
The first night of parenthood is easy to remember. Excitement. Then that quick rush of worry when hearing on the baby monitor JD cry for the first time.
“My wife shoots up, as a new mother would, to see JD," Rick recalled. "And Ronnie, who was 2½ at the time, was actually holding him, trying to calm him down from crying. That’s a pretty unique bond."
They'd soon have more siblings. The Spielmans have adopted six children, including their beloved young daughter Whitney, who has cerebral palsy.
Rick feels he's been able to "see the world in a whole different light" by viewing it from the eyes of children who have different skin color than he.
"People always say, 'Boy, what a great thing you’ve done adopting six kids and all that stuff.' I look at it kind of the opposite," he said. "They gave us the family we couldn’t have, and how much we've grown and learned as parents that we may have never experienced if we had our own family."
JD is quick to thank his dad and mom and counts himself fortunate.
“You’re born into a situation that’s not that great and all of a sudden you get put into a situation that most kids would die to have," he said. "It’s a blessing for that, with the opportunities I get."
He's been around NFL locker rooms since he learned to walk, as his father moved from working with the Bears to the Miami Dolphins to the Vikings in 2006.
JD grew up going to training camps, folding towels, working as a ball boy, watching the world's best football players from the front row. "They don’t know any other life since we’ve adopted them," Rick said. "They’ve seen the ups, they’ve seen the downs. So they’re pretty well-tuned into what the business is about."
Not to mention JD's uncle, Chris Spielman, is a College Football Hall of Famer and three-time All-Pro, and currently one of the most respected college football analysts in the country.
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All this football knowledge was at JD's disposal as he decided where to play his college ball.
One of the things his father made clear to him: You won't get a better gameday experience than a Saturday in Lincoln and you can't go wrong if you play for Mike Riley.
"They all were excellent and excellent programs," Rick said of JD's options. "But I think Coach Riley made a difference, to be honest to you. Just because I know the type of coach he is. If you want your son to play for a major college team, you’d want him to play for Coach Riley and what him and his staff stand for."
As great a talent as JD was at lacrosse, which Ronnie is playing at Ohio State, football was his passion. He just had to figure out whether he could earn a scholarship from a major program playing it. By his junior year, the answer was clear.
His coach at Eden Prairie, Mike Grant, son of legendary Vikings coach Bud Grant, thinks lacrosse has contributed to the great balance JD exhibits on a football field.
"In lacrosse, they just beat on you constantly, but they can’t take you down, so they hit you, hit you, hit you all the time, and he just continues on with his balance," Grant said. "He's very difficult to take down."
Spielman sets up his moves sometimes 20 yards in advance, according to the coach. "When he makes his cut, he can do it at full speed."
Opponents tried to keep the ball out of his hands best they could. It still often didn't work. Spielman would find the ball, then make guys tackle air. "I'd say to other coaches, 'I thought you weren't going to kick to him.' They'd say, 'We weren't kicking to him,'" Grant said.
Against Maple Grove, one of the best teams in the state, Spielman scored three touchdowns: a 95-yard punt return, an 87-yard kickoff return, and a 25-yard rushing touchdown. He also leaped high to pick off a pass in the end zone to help his team win 28-20.
"My God, your kid!" Maple Grove coach Matt Lombardi said when shaking Rick Spielman's hand after the game. The coach then told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune the flat truth: "He single-handedly destroyed us."
Opposing coach Jeff Ferguson, of Totino-Grace High, told the paper, “He’s got the best 15-play highlight film in the history of Minnesota high school football.”
JD is humble when asked about his successes. His highlight tape has been often praised by others, but the recruit is looking forward. He doesn't single out a favorite play and hasn't looked at those highlights in at least three months.
There are no guarantees for anyone at the next level, and he'll need to continue to get stronger. One thing he doesn't have to familiarize himself with is winning.
“In his high school career, you can count the number of losses he's had in two sports on one hand, probably," Grant said.
And while Rick and JD try to not overdo the football talk at home, the Husker recruit will have some top-level advice just a phone call away if ever needed.
Rick admits he has to make sure he separates his father and talent evaluator hats sometimes. After the Maple Grove game, when talking to JD, he mentioned a shanked punt he had.
"I got the look from my wife, 'Are you kidding me?'" Rick said with a laugh.
Be sure the man wearing the father cap is plenty proud.
"I always tell him or text him before a game, ‘Go out there and do what you get paid to do. You get paid to be a playmaker.' He seems to do that every game."
* * *
That brother who hugged him in the crib many years back is still a best friend. They talk all the time. If they ever butt heads, it's only because they're both so competitive.
It especially meant a lot that Ronnie understood football was JD's future.
"Just having him be able to say, 'I’m fine with you giving up lacrosse and playing with me to go pursue your dreams' was a big deal for me," JD said.
The closeness of the family was evident when JD was named Mr. Football. It was the same weekend NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was in town to watch the Vikings play the Packers.
Rick delayed his arrival for his Vikings duties that weekend to be there when JD was announced the winner. Father and son shared a big hug that day.
Seems like another one is coming Wednesday.
"It's a proud moment for us, but I also told JD it’s just a beginning," Rick said. "It’s a great honor. It’s a privilege, especially to go to the University of Nebraska, and a privilege to play for Coach Riley.
"I said, 'Now they’ve done their part, you got to go down and do your part.'”