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In the Fight of His Life, His Family by His Side

Posted Sep 6, 2011

Jets fans come in all shapes, sizes, ages and conditions.

Take Steve Mendelsohn. He's 67 years old and back in his heyday he stood about 5'9" and 154 pounds. He follows sports and football and he's a longtime resident of the metropolitan area, but his hobby of ham radio brought him to the NFL and the Jets later in life. He's not a member of the team, but he's around the team — has been since he became the Jets' frequency coordinator in 1999 when the league decided it needed that kind of technician around all its teams every game.

He's a polished public speaker. He's rubbed elbows with more famous folks than you can shake a rolled-up People magazine at. He's won an Emmy.

Despite all these lines on his résumé, Mendelsohn was a little nervous when, at the end of the Aug. 17 practice at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center that he was attending, head coach Rex Ryan beckoned for him to come from the sideline into the middle of a forest of large green Sequoias — otherwise known as the Jets' breakdown huddle — and then said:

"Steve, I want you to tell the team who you are."

"I call it a fantasy moment," Mendelsohn reflected. "Every Jets fan would love to have an opportunity to talk to the entire team, to be given that incredible honor. This was the family, this was the core of the family concept. I honestly don't even know what I said. I cracked a joke. I spoke from the heart. I told them why I really enjoyed the privilege of being the gameday coordinator for the Jets.

"I liken it to the President or the Pope. It was one of the most memorable moments of my life. ... I'm not an 'awesome, dude' person, but it was an awesome experience."

As Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum knew and the players found out, it was also an experience with his extended family that he needed, that would help him down the road ahead. Because Mendelsohn is dying of cancer.

Tackling "the Little Monster"

"The people at ABC, my primary employer, the Jets, most of the people in my life are aware I have pancreatic cancer," Mendelsohn said. "I found out in January when I was having what we thought were digestive problems. It turned out to be much more serious. I was at that point at Stage 4, the worst it can get, and that's altered pretty much my whole life."

Mendelsohn began chemotherapy treatments at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, during which his weight dropped to 110. Then came radiation. Last week he began Round 2 of chemo.

"It's the size of a golfball. We're trying to get it down to the size of a pea or a quarter," he said of his tumor. "We're trying to get the little monster under control."

Mendelsohn is taking on his cancer with openness and humor. Partly that's because, as he says, "You get to the point where the best thing you can do is laugh at it."

"I can't believe how positive he is," tight end Dustin Keller recalled about those post-practice remarks. "It makes you think. Everything I've been through is irrelevant. It makes me so much more grateful for my situation."

Mendelsohn's approach is also partly because he is a humorous, even sardonic, and erudite gentleman by nature.

He grew up "in a little town on Long Island that you've probably never heard of" — Amityville — during the period of its "horror." He spent 30 years in the Navy and the Naval Reserve (part of that time as a cryptologist, or as he sometimes calls it, a spy). And early on he became enraptured by ham radio. "That radio hobby has played into almost everything I've done," he said.

Mendelsohn began working at CBS News, where for a decade he was Walter Cronkite's engineer. From there it was a short hop to becoming the Eye Network's transmission engineer for many press pools in this country and abroad and for events involving Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Also while in the line of duty, he has been blessed by Pope John Paul during his Central America trip in 1983 and by Pope Benedict in his visit to New York in 2008.

Production Trucks, Football Sound and an Emmy

Then came Mendelsohn's ABC period. The network, well aware of his work on overseas remote broadcasts, threw him onto a team whose work would have worldwide implications — designing the network's new fleet of state-of-the-art Monday Night Football mobile production trucks.

Early in his tenure, he was in another working group summoned by ABC Sports legend Roone Arledge to discuss how to get those Monday night viewers more into the game. And so Mendelsohn became a champion of wireless microphones on the field and a key member of the team that developed those ubiquitous parabolic mikes on the sidelines.

One more stop in this illustrious career would be 2000 and "Millennium Around the World." You may recall hearing from someone in each of the globe's 24 timezones on ABC as the new year dawned there. How in the world do you sort out all of the satellite, telephone and intercommunications issues for such a project? Mendelsohn composed one of the most complicated communications systems ever devised for television. That's what he won his Emmy for.

We could throw in his work as the communications director for a Super Bowl or two, for the New York City and Miami marathons and the NYC triathlon. But we won't.

All of it was prelude to his affiliation with the Jets.

"In the late '90s, the NFL went to radio beltpacks," Mendelsohn explained of the method by which coaches communicated with the QB on the field and other coaches in the booth, "and they found there was interference from many different sources — everybody shares the same radio spectrum.

"It got to the point where there was interference from broadcasters to the beltpacks and vice versa, because nobody knew the complexity of the 'universe,' if you will. So the NFL put together a group of technical assistants, the gameday frequency coordinators. Our job is to make sure there is no interference between the coaches and the broadcasters."

And by broadcasters he means anyone who's broadcasting: TV and radio stations, radios used in the stadium by state police, local police, stadium security, ticket takers, the wireless used by writers in the pressbox. The primary mission is to protect the coaches' beltpack frequencies and if there is interference, to get that broadcaster away from those frequencies during the game.

"On a slow day we use about 110 frequencies," he explained. "On a Sunday night or Monday night game, we'll use as many as 230. My job is to park 230 cars in a parking lot built for about 100."

A Member of the Family Just Celebrating Life

Steve and his second wife, Heidi, handled those tasks with aplomb — up until his illness intervened as the Jets began last season's playoff push. Now he's got a much larger goal ahead. His prospects, he acknowledges, aren't good. Yet consider that another of his remarkable traits is a resilience that would do any Green & White player proud.

"I was told six years ago that I had lung sarcoid, that I had a year to live and I should get my affairs in order. In January I was told I had three to five months to live," he said with a knowing smile. "Now what my doctors tell me is 'You really don't listen well, do you?' "

"Steve just celebrates life," said defensive tackle Sione Pouha, whose father succumbed to pancreatic cancer a few years ago, "especially his opportunity to work with the Jets. You can tell he's very thankful."

Steve Mendelsohn plans to be here Sunday night to see the Jets kick off their 2011 season at MetLife Stadium against the Dallas Cowboys. And if his toughness and his heartfelt appreciation for his big green family have anything to say about it, he will be around in the new year to see how they fare in the playoffs.

"The organization has very much taken me to heart and made me a part of their family by the way they've treated me," he said. "Two years ago, Woody Johnson said to me, 'We're not a business, we're a family.' Everybody on down the line has adopted that. To me it's an incredibly wonderful thing.

"When I'm asked if I'm a Jets fan, I say no, I'm a fan of the Jets."

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