NEW YORK – Mike Westhoff has always been blunt and brutally honest. He pulls no punches and sugarcoats nothing.
And the way he sees it, he could be no other way.
He's a cancer survivor who has multiple times beaten long odds. He's an innovator who established himself over 32 NFL seasons as arguably the game's greatest special teams coach. He has been a relentless fighter and constant achiever his entire life. And he's always confident — although some might suggest cocky or arrogant.
“I don’t consider myself a writer,” Westhoff said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “I mean, I’m not Ernest Hemingway. But I always thought I had a good story to tell.”
So the 74-year-old Westhoff did just that in writing “Figure It Out,” an entertaining autobiography published by Mascot Books that's everything anyone he coached with or against, played for or against, or covered him in the media would expect. There are plenty of chuckles, eyebrow-raising comments and inspirational lessons shared.
And it's told in Westhoff's refreshingly candid words, with colorful anecdotes mixed in from several dozen others who know him best — from his humble beginnings growing up in the Pittsburgh area to his multiple college stops as a player and coach to his years with the Colts, Dolphins, Jets and Saints.
“Even though I can be a little bit difficult, I think I’m pretty respectful and I know I’m very respectful to the game because it means a lot to me,” Westhoff said. ”I’m not trying to just write a book and be stupid. But come on, if you’re going to tell a story, you’re going to be honest, you know? What people never quite got was that I was 10 times more hard and critical on myself than I ever was on anyone else: player, coach, anybody.
“I mean, unless they were really just stupid — which some of them were.”
During the two-year writing process, Westhoff would put his thoughts on paper and then ask his girlfriend to take a look — especially when he was being critical of someone. He didn't want to go too far over the top, even for him.
“She called herself the ’dial-down instructor' because I would call her and she would say, ‘Mike, you need to dial that down a little bit,’” Westhoff said with a laugh. “So I would rethink it. I would say, 'OK, let me scratch that out. Let me rephrase that a little bit,’ and that’s kind of how it worked.”
Inside the book’s more than 400 breezy pages, Westhoff details how coaches such as Lee Corso, Woody Hayes, Paul “Bear” Bryant and Don Shula helped shape his approach on the field. Westhoff discusses the inner workings of special teams, including detailed diagrams of plays, and how his philosophies changed that aspect of the game.
“We hold most of the records,” Westhoff said. “We were pretty damn good at what we did.”
He also devotes a portion of the book to his “All-Star Special Teamers” — all players he coached. They include kicker Olindo Mare, punter Thomas Morstead, long snapper James Dearth, returners Leon Washington and O.J. McDuffie, and special teams standouts such as Zach Thomas, Larry Izzo, Louis Oliver, Bernie Parmalee, Kenyatta Wright, Brad Smith, Eric Smith and Taysom Hill.
“There are guys who played for me thanking me and talking about how I changed their lives,” Westhoff said. “It’s the greatest thing ever.”
On the flip side, Westhoff also calls out some of his least favorite coaches and players. That includes one coach he refused to mention in the book by name. With a little bit of research, readers could, well, figure it out.
“I can’t stand him," Westhoff said, "because he was the stupidest (guy) I was ever around.”
There are plenty of other football-related tales, including Westhoff's first college practice as a player at Wyoming coming immediately after he stepped off a bus following a 36-hour ride. How he turned special teams into his specialty is also in there. Plus his bemoaning never getting a chance as an NFL head coach; the deterioration of his once good friendship with Bill Parcells; the Jets' failed Tim Tebow experiment; and coming close but never coaching in a Super Bowl.
“I was a guy in a great place at the right time and made the most of it,” Westhoff said. "So I’m proud of how the book's come out. It's been fun and I think people will enjoy it.”
Westhoff's football journey is certainly a study in perseverance. But his battles with bone cancer, the cutting-edge procedures he endured and learning to walk again with a titanium rod in his left leg make it even more remarkable.
He opens “Figure It Out” — a nod to his never-give-up approach — with a touching recollection of the moment while completing a chemotherapy treatment on July 3, 1988, he made a promise to himself that guided him the rest of his coaching career.
As the national anthem played outside his hospital room window and fireworks brightened the sky during a pre-July Fourth celebration, a reflective and appreciative Westhoff devoted himself to doing his job better than anyone else — ever.
“Did I do that? I don’t know. I came pretty darn close,” he said. “That’s how I look at it. Every Sunday, 657 times, that’s exactly what I did.”
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