Mike Westhoff saves his most inspiring story for finale
BUFFALO -- Mike Westhoff had been saving one final story for his players.
With his illustrious 30-year career set to end on the road here with game No. 624 (unless he receives an offer he can't refuse), the Jets' special teams coordinator knew there never would be a better time to share a final tale of personal perseverance.
"I haven't told them the story, but I'll tell them tomorrow night," Westhoff, who plans to retire at the end of the season, said as he sat in his office Friday morning.
A day before he planned to address the Jets in his weekly pregame Saturday meeting, the revered special teams guru addressed an audience of one.
"July 3, 1988 . . . ," he began.
Westhoff was finishing his last round of chemotherapy that day at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital. The treatment for the bone cancer that had ravaged his left femur also had left him with no hair, no eyebrows and vomiting. But in the midst of it all, he found a reason to be hopeful.
Through his hospital room window, he could hear the Fourth of July concert across the street at the Orange Bowl. Fireworks went off, then came the national anthem. In that moment, something clicked.
"I was sitting there thinking, 'I'm pretty lucky. Because I made it,' " Westhoff said.
Even with the "tubes sticking out of me everywhere," he said he knew it was just a matter of time before he was able to walk out of the hospital, regain his strength and get back to work. So he made a promise to himself: Every time he heard the national anthem on NFL Sundays, he'd remember that day in his hospital room.
July 3, 1988.
"I said to myself: I'll do this job better than anybody else ever did it," Westhoff said. "They'll never have that argument or debate that I'm not in it. I'll be in it. And that's my goal. And every single Sunday, I've stood there and I've gone back to that room."
Westhoff has no interest in discussing his legacy. His journey, he said, still isn't over. Plus, he's still chapped about the special-teams miscues that have blemished his final season. The latest example was Michael Spurlock's 63-yard punt-return touchdown on the first drive against San Diego last week.
Know how long those mistakes sit with Westhoff? "Till right now. It's still sitting here," he said, pointing at his chest. "It hasn't gone anywhere."
Perhaps the Jets (6-9) will have better success against the Bills -- who, as Westhoff cracked, "might as well be called 'New York Jets, North Branch' because they're running our packages."
Jeremy Kerley returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown and had a 12-yard touchdown catch in the Jets' 48-28 win over Buffalo in Week 1. And Sunday, he hopes to do something special again for Westhoff. "Hopefully, I'll be able to send him out with a bang," Kerley said.
Although he has made his TV aspirations known, Westhoff, a humorous blend of irritability, bluntness and endearing likability, hasn't ruled out a Brett Favre-like return to the game. "I had a call the other day from a very well-known individual that was debating on getting back in as a head coach, and if he did, would I be interested?" Westhoff said. "I didn't give him a definitive answer. I said, 'We'll see what you do first.' "
Westhoff -- who proudly touts himself as a world traveler, an avid reader and a Carnegie Hall donor ("People wouldn't know that," he said with a grin. "It's small, but I do it so I can get tickets to go once or twice a year") -- hasn't ruled out a return to the Jets, either. Though he made it clear "it would have to be the right role, with the right people."
Westhoff, who turns 65 Jan. 10, said he already was anticipating the emotions on game day. Ever since July 3, 1988, every NFL Sunday has been particularly special, he said. But Sunday, Westhoff will be joined on the sideline by his only child, John. During Westhoff's 15-year tenure with the Dolphins, his son traveled with the team and worked as a ball boy. And now John will be on hand to witness a special moment in his father's career.
Said Westhoff: "It doesn't get much neater than that."