Jets assistant battled through cancer, leg ailments

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – Mike Westhoff would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, get out of bed, fall to the floor and then literally crawl to the bathroom before he could lift himself.

Figuratively speaking, the New York Jets special teams coach was crawling toward a life in a wheelchair. Diagnosed with cancer in 1988, Westhoff, 61, had his left femur ravaged as a result. It was put together time and again with bone grafts, screws and other hardware associated with that procedure.

Photo Westhoff with then-Jets coach Eric Mangini in November of ’08.
(Rick Stewart/Getty)

Unfortunately, bone grafts don’t work forever. Bone from a donor’s body at best only partially bonds with the existing bone, making the graft the equivalent of an elaborate Band-Aid. Westhoff, a man who often stands in the middle of the field during live coverage drills, turned those grafts into some version of the gnarled, dirty bandages you see on rough-and-tumble kids.

One time in a Houston airport during the 1990s when Westhoff was coaching with the Miami Dolphins, a graft literally snapped while he was walking because of the gradual wear. He had to be taken by a private jet to Boston for emergency surgery.

Over the years, Westhoff’s ability to walk eroded. He went from a limp in the late ’80s to a brace in the 1990s to a cane this decade to having to use crutches for the entire 2007 season.

Along the way, he went through a myriad of surgeries, including grinding down bits of bone from his hips to place into the leg to generate some healing. He wore special shoes to compensate for the fact his left leg had become progressively shorter than his right, which created other problems. His back, neck, shoulders and hips twisted as if someone was treating him like a wet rag. After the final game of the ’07 season, he quit the Jets and a career he had spent more than two decades becoming one of the elites of his field.

“I was 60 years old and the doctor told me I needed this radical surgery if I ever wanted to walk without pain again,” Westhoff, a divorcee and father of an adult son, said as he sat in the Jets complex in September. “It meant quitting what I was doing. But you get to a point where [you say] ‘What are you going to do?’ When I used to stand there on the field, I looked like a pretzel, I was so bent over and off-balance with the special shoes and everything.

“It’s gets to the point where you ask yourself, ‘Do you really want to do this stuff until you can’t walk anymore?’ ”

Ironically, that radical surgery was the very thing that got Westhoff back on the field – by the end of the Jets’ 2008 training camp.

“You got a little tweak, my man? OK, as I see that plane flying over and it goes ‘tweak, tweak,’ I’ll now you’re on it.”

Kicker Jay Feely(notes), like every Jets player who knows Westhoff, smiles wryly when asked about the irascible special teams coach. Feely and special teams ace Ahmad Carroll(notes) keep a running list of Westhoff quotes, all of them dripping with sarcasm like a triple-scoop in the Florida sun. They’re also sprinkled with profanity and almost always feature “my man,” as if Westhoff was imitating Frank Lucas from “American Gangster.”

Feely recites the above quote along with about a dozen more he has written neatly on a sheet of college-ruled paper in his binder. While Feely appreciates Westhoff’s humor, he admires the coach’s intelligence and guts even more.

“Last year, we’re playing New England up there and he sees something and draws up a new return [alignment] right there on the sideline,” said Feely, 33, who has been with four teams and at least seven special teams coaches during his nine-year NFL career. “Most coaches in this league won’t do that because they don’t have the guts. They don’t want to take the blame if it doesn’t work. They just want to run what they’ve practiced all week and then, if that doesn’t work, it’s on the players because they didn’t execute it.

“Mike is not afraid to take a chance on something … but you better have some thick skin. Mike is tough on you. He’s not for everybody. Like that ‘tweak, tweak’ remark. That’s telling guys who complain about having a tweaked hamstring, you better get your butt on the field.”

Westhoff’s gamble in New England last season worked perfectly. Leon Washington(notes) followed the changed pattern and broke a 94-yard kickoff return, one of four touchdowns he has had during the previous two seasons on either kickoffs or punts. Since 2001, the Jets have 11 kickoff returns for touchdowns, the most in the NFL.

“I’ve never seen anything like what coach Westhoff does,” Washington said. “He visualizes what everybody is doing because he stands out there in the middle of the field right as we’re doing it [in practice] … No other coach does that. He visualizes the return the same way I do because of what he does and that makes it so much better because he knows exactly what I’m saying when I tell him what’s going on and he can make the changes just like that.

“With Coach Westhoff, he’s not just teaching you the plays, he’s teaching you the philosophy of what he’s trying to do so that you understand exactly where he’s coming from. … He’s the most charismatic coach we have, so guys really listen.”

When the Jets improved to 3-0 with a victory over Tennessee on Sept. 27, Westhoff was again prescient. During the week, he told his players to be ready for Tennessee Titans return man Ryan Mouton(notes) to cough up a fumble. Mouton did it twice and the Jets recovered both times, setting up touchdowns in the 24-17 victory.

Photo Westhoff is back to giving instructions without a cane or crutches.
(Al Pereira/New York Jets)

While rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez(notes) has helped elevate the Jets to the top of the AFC East this season, he has been far from alone. In fact, the Jets had to overcome his mistakes (one interception and one lost fumble) against the Titans and needed Westhoff’s special teams units to pitch in.

Expect that to be the pattern for the entire season. For all of Sanchez’s talent, the key for any team that starts a rookie quarterback is to limit the number of big plays he has to make. Between the special teams and coach Rex Ryan’s aggressive defense, Sanchez has only been asked to come up with two or three key plays a game for the Jets.

In short, if ever there was a premium on having a good special teams coach, that time is now.

“A doctor told me how to cure your problem, my man. Take three steps up a flight of stairs, jump down and land right on both feet. Your head will fall right out of your (butt).”

Dr. John Healey of the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York is as brilliant as he is painfully shy. He stumbles over words in a halting fashion. It’s not for lack of knowing what to say – just the opposite, in fact. According to friends and colleagues, it’s because he has so many ideas flowing through his vast and creative mind that the cascade gets in the way.

“He’s a truly brilliant doctor,” said Dr. George Caldwell, an orthopedic surgeon in Fort Lauderdale who studied under Healey at one point and treated Westhoff when he was still coaching with the Dolphins. Caldwell was one of the two doctors who told Westhoff years ago that he’d end up in a wheelchair.

“[Healey is] the type of person who won’t throw out any idea. He’ll go through every scenario searching for the right plan …,” Caldwell said.

Instead of another bone graft for Westhoff, Healey designed a titanium rod that completely replaced the femur. While that sounds like a hip or knee replacement, another doctor chuckled when Westhoff described it that way one day.

“He said, ‘Yeah, it’s like a hip replacement … times 10,’ ” Westhoff said. “You wouldn’t believe what this thing looks like. If I showed you an X-ray you’d think it was something you jack your car up with … if you tried to put this thing into a mannequin, it would be a hell of a day’s work.

“Our [Jets team] doctor [Elliott Hershman] thinks [Healey] is the greatest surgeon out there … he looked at my X-rays after Healey did the surgery and his quote to me was, ‘That’s the most impressive surgery I have ever seen.’ ”

Healey, who rarely does interviews because his schedule is so busy (his beeper went off twice and he was called by intercom once during a five-minute interview), quietly agreed that this surgery is far beyond a joint replacement.

Prior to operating on Westhoff in February 2008, Healey had done the surgery one other time and has done it once since. Despite the relatively low need, Healey designed the rod and had it built by Biomet Inc. It includes a surface made of porous titanium because existing bone will eventually grow and adhere to the surface, making the rod more natural and stable. In addition, there’s a rotational control in the rod that allows the patient to bend and move more normally without fear of snapping the metal or breaking a bone graft.

“What’s difficult is, how do you get it to fit to the hip and the top of the knee exactly?” said Healey, who is regularly consulted by other doctors, even ones outside his area of expertise. “It’s sort of a press-fit situation.”

Complicating the surgery is that patients like Westhoff have all the previous hardware from the other grafts. It all has to be removed so that it doesn’t interfere with the new titanium rod. The problem is that there’s no proverbial road map to find all the pieces.

That meant a 12-hour surgery for Westhoff. As Healey removed each screw or other piece, Westhoff would have to be X-rayed as he lay on the operating table to find the next piece.

“It took so long that the X-ray technician had to be relieved. They went through two technicians … my leg should probably glow,” Westhoff said.

Then came the rehab, months of grueling leg extensions, walking and other drills to build the strength in the leg. But Westhoff was able to toss out his cane and the special shoes. The chronic pain in the rest of his body subsided. He was walking normally. By August 2008, the Jets were begging him to return to the team. He refused once, but was talked into it the second time after Healey gave him the go-ahead.

“I knew I was going to come back at that point,” said Westhoff, who sports a scar that runs almost three feet along his left side from just above his left knee to his ribcage. “I was feeling great, moving around. I thought, ‘this stuff will be easy now.’ ”

These days, he can even do a physical joke with players, occasionally getting into a cornerback stance to challenge a receiver to run a pattern. Westhoff repeatedly says he owes his new-found physical freedom to Healey.

“I feel like a [expletive] proctologist around here. I have my foot up everybody’s [butt].”

Truth be told, Westhoff would have been somewhat lucky just to make it to the wheelchair. In the late 1980s, when he first started to experience pain in his left, he almost died – but not from the cancer.

Photo Five Jets players have returned kickoffs for touchdowns under Westhoff:.
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

The first doctor he saw diagnosed Westhoff with a back problem that caused the leg pain. The doctor operated on Westhoff’s back. Not only was that useless, the doctor pierced one of Westhoff’s major arteries during the surgery and there had to be emergency surgery to patch that just so Westhoff could survive.

After that, other doctors found the cancer. Since then, he has had 10 surgeries related to it, from the aforementioned hip grinding procedure to removing a hand-sized portion of his lung after the cancer spread there.

With the exception of his eight months away in 2008, he has coached the entire time, carving out a legacy in the NFL’s subculture of top assistant coaches. He has yearned to be a head coach, interviewing once with the Dolphins and again with the Jets this offseason before Ryan was hired. He has been part of an increasing movement in the league to put a higher priority on an area that was long ignored in the game.

In the ’70s and ’80s, special teams were viewed as little more than a sideshow. Sure, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson was cool and George Allen was a stickler for good coverage units, but few teams could really devote a lot of resources to special teams. Between limited rosters (the roster limited was 40 players in the early 1970s) and general disinterest from players and coaches, special teams weren’t a priority.

That started to change in the late 1980s after coaches like Marv Levy and Dick Vermeil started to have success. Westhoff joined the Dolphins in 1986 and took special teams even further. Helped by the increase in roster size to its current 53 players and, most significantly, by the salary cap which began in 1993, special teams became critical. The cap helped disperse talent more equally around the league, meaning that the differences between teams became minute. As a result, any strategic edge a team could find was worth it.

Head coaches like Jimmy Johnson, who led the Dallas Cowboys to two titles and set the table for a third, kept players specifically for special teams. In 1996, when Johnson took over in Miami, he kept Westhoff to coach special teams. Johnson reinforced the importance of special teams when he announced in a team meeting during training camp that two players had assured themselves jobs on the Dolphins roster: quarterback Dan Marino and an undrafted rookie linebacker from Rice named Larry Izzo(notes).

It was Westhoff who spotted Izzo. Fourteen years later, Izzo has three Super Bowl rings, has made three Pro Bowls and is back playing for Westhoff with the Jets.

“Mike is able to figure things out really quickly in a game because it’s not always how you see it on Monday when you watch film,” Izzo said. “Teams change things all the time and he sees it right away. It’s a lot more than bodies just flying around; there are schemes and ideas and things you have to be ready for. It’s really organized chaos and it has to be emphasized. You see with this team, Mike has a lot of power to make things happen. That’s a testimony to the type of respect he has.”

It’s the type of respect Westhoff has leaguewide. Dallas Morning News NFL writer Rick Gosselin has compiled stats ranking special teams play since 1990. Westhoff had the No. 1-ranked unit in 2000. While other coaches, such as Bobby April of the Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh have been No. 1 more than once, Westhoff’s consistency is remarkable. Only three times have his special teams units finished in the bottom half of the league.

“What he’s done over the course of his career is excellent,” Gosselin said. “He consistently has his teams ranked in the upper half of the league. What you don’t want is to have say three years where you go 22, 26, 25. What he has done is impressive and he’s perceived as one of the best out there.”

Likewise, April, who competes twice a year against Westhoff, gave Westhoff the highest praise.

“Mike has had just a phenomenal career when you consider the longevity of his success,” April said. “Really, his record is unbelievable. Whether it’s offense, defense or special teams, to be that consistently good for that long is incredible. He has been good regardless of whether he’s had good players or not.

“He’s on the highest of echelons of coaches in this area … Mike has been a big reason why special teams has been taken more seriously as the years have gone by and why guys like him and me and John Harbaugh have started to get the recognition for what we’ve done. … His success has enhanced the importance of special teams and has brought it to a higher stage and level of enlightenment by the coaches, the media and the fans.”

With this surgery, Westhoff is now living proof of medical enlightenment.

“Dr. Healey wrote me this email the other day,” Westhoff said. “He said one of his colleagues performed the same surgery and he thanked me for, and his quote was, ‘opening up horizons for others.’ Now how do you think I feel? Pretty damn good.

“Pretty damn good.”

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Oct 12, 2009