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Westhoff: Surgery Was Hard but 'I'm Glad I Did It'


On the latest day of his latest medical journey, Mike Westhoff was already making like a modified Lance Johnson, albeit on his back.

"I'm in one of those 'orthomatic' machines that moves my leg back and forth, so it's a good time to talk," Westhoff said Wednesday, sounding a little tired but otherwise like the special teams coach that the Jets and their fans have come to know and respect. "I'm able to walk on crutches, toe-touch on my left leg. I'm showering, eating. I've been outside."

What's next, back to the sea in his boat?

"No, I'm not ready for anything like that," he said with a laugh. "I'm going to take my time on this."

Considering what "this" represents, it may sound slightly amazing that Westhoff's as active as he is. After all, last week he went into Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York to undergo the latest surgery on his left leg — "It's about nine now, depending on how you count them," he said.

And Operation No. 9 was as tough as they come, a 10-hour procedure for the crusty, straight-talking one-time linebacker and Pittsburgh native that was like meeting an unblocked David Harris in the A-gap.

"This is the hardest for me physically — I'm getting older," said Westhoff, who turned 60 in January. "The surgery itself didn't hurt, but being under the anesthetic for so long, it just beats you up. It feels as though you've really been through the ringer."

Not to mention the sewing machine. "How many stitches? I have an incision basically from my knee to my hip," he said. "It looks like a million."

Perhaps the shortest part of the surgery, performed by Dr. John Healey and his team at MSK, was the installation of a state-of-the-art titanium prosthetic femur in Westhoff's left thigh. The time-consuming part was removing the "old bone and hardware" from many of those eight previous procedures to try to fix the femur that two decades ago was diagnosed with cancer.

'Long, Involved Process'

"There was so much in there. That's what took all the time. Dr. Healey wanted to get everything out," he said. "I had screws everywhere, nuts and bolts and plates. ... It was something I had to do and it was a long involved process, but I'm glad I did it."

Helping him get through his hospital stay to his discharge this past Monday were his son, John, who works in campaign financing for the City of New York, his girlfriend, Patti, and his old friend, John Gamble, the former Miami Dolphins strength coach. And for the road ahead, he'll continue to meet with Dr. Healey and rehab under Dr. Ken Montgomery of Pro Health, the Jets' director of orthopedics.

Long and involved could also describe Westhoff's career path, which was altered by the state of his leg, with plates and bone that bent and cracked and had to be repaired over the years. He persevered through it to string together 15 consecutive seasons as the Miami Dolphins' special teams coach, winning two significant awards along the way: the Dolphins' 1989 Ed Block Courage Award, which almost exclusively goes to a player on each team each year, and the 2000 NFL Special Teams Coach of the Year as voted on by his peers.

Then he came to the Jets in 2001 and the success continued, especially in but not limited to kickoff returns as five different players, most recently Leon Washington and Justin Miller, have produced a league-leading 10 kickoff-return touchdowns the past six seasons.

However, this latest medical episode has also taken its toll, as we all heard that it would when head coach Eric Mangini announced after the Jets' regular-season finale that Westhoff was stepping down as a Jets coach. However, there is hope he can work this season in a consultancy role, and in fact Mangini said Westhoff "was very involved in the process" that led to hiring Bears assistant Kevin O'Dea as his new special teams coordinator.

"I know Kevin, not real well, just as a competitor," Westhoff said. "He certainly has paid his dues. He's very experienced. He was the special teams coach at Arizona and did some good things. He was a fairly integral part of helping the Bears. Of course, Devin Hester has helped them, too, as has [Bears coordinator] Dave Toub, but Kevin had a good hand in that."

O'Dea also has a strong grasp of feet, specifically NFL-quality placekicking and punting.

"That's not ever been a real strength of mine. I'm not Butch Harmon, PGA Tour swing coach," Westhoff said about kickers. "I think I do know how to pick 'em and how to practice 'em. But in this instance Kevin's expertise with kicking will probably be pretty good for our guys."

'I Want to Stay with Football'

As for Westhoff, he gets most emotional not about his immediate football future but about how he observed him and his fellow patients being treated during his weeklong hospital stay.

"I can't say enough good things about that facility, Dr. Healey and that entire team," he said, pausing to collect himself. "If you're in that X-ray area, on a bed, and you look around, you see the different people, from children to very infirm adults of all ages, all with different, very serious issues, being handled in an extremely efficient manner, with incredible care and dignity. If you're in New York and your looking for a charity to donate to, I'd call Sloan-Kettering."

But Westhoff talks clearly and calmly about his uncertain career road ahead, even though he doesn't know how long his rehab will take and still can't rule a return to coaching in or out.

"That's a good question. I honestly don't know," he said. "There's a part of me, I want to stay with football. I sort of believe I'll be back coaching. I just can't picture myself totally retiring.

"But I really have to give this proper time or I won't be back doing much of anything. I'm anxious to see where it all heads, how it goes."

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