Counting His Blessings
Patriots assistant Charlie Weis is glad to be alive after complications from stomach-reduction surgery
All seemed so right in the world of Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis late on Sunday afternoon as he relaxed in a meeting room underneath Gillette Stadium. He had chess-played all his modest weapons-employing three runners and five receivers on the first touchdown drive alone—in a 24-17 win over the Vikings. With five games left, the 6-5 Patriots were still scratching and clawing to reach a second straight Super Bowl. And this was the new Weis, about 85 pounds lighter than a year ago, when he weighed an estimated 330. "I haven't weighed 244 since 1991," Weis said.
Of course, looks can be deceiving. Weis is no sporting version of Al Roker, the jolly NBC weatherman who successfully underwent stomach staple surgery last March. Weis is grateful to be alive more than five months after undergoing the same procedure, which is also known as gastric bypass surgery. The operation went so horribly wrong—Weis began bleeding internally—that he nearly died.
The 10 days after the surgery are a blur for Weis, who lapsed in and out of consciousness. He lifts up his pants legs to reveal a pair of sturdy plastic braces that extend from just below his knees into his shoes. He has numbness in his right leg from the knee down. He's finally getting some feeling back in his lower left leg. But if he didn't wear the braces, he'd have a bad case of drop foot in both legs. At times Weis's anger is palpable. " Al Roker can take that happy story of his," he says, "and shove it up his ass."
Weis has been overweight for most of his 46 years. "My one failure in life," he says. "The one thing I couldn't control." He tried Weight Watchers, Slim Fast, the Atkins diet, the Cabbage Soup Diet, the Heart Diet, the 1,000-calorie-a-day diet. None of them worked. He says the combination of health concerns (his father had two heart attacks and died at 56) and his belief that NFL owners wouldn't hire a fat man as a head coach led him to have what he thought was a fairly routine surgery on June 14, a Friday. He believes he bled internally until that Sunday night, when doctors went back in and repaired the damage.
"Whatever was leaking led to an infection throughout my body," Weis says. As his condition worsened, his wife, Maura, had a priest administer last rites. Charlie's best friend, former Notre Dame classmate Jim Benenati, flew in to Boston four days after the surgery and was shocked by what he saw. "I called all our buddies from Notre Dame," recalls Benenati, a Miami doctor, "and told them, 'I don't think Charlie's going to make it.' "
The Weises have no family in the area, but in the early days of the crisis Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was at Maura's side. "Tom was incredible," she says. "I don't know if I could have gone through it without him. He really kept me together."
Slowly, Weis came back from the brink, but he had suffered nerve damage in his legs. He arrived at training camp in late July and drove around in a cart at most of the preseason practices. He graduated to a four-pronged cane, which he abandoned in early November.
These days Weis is most concerned with programming a winning offense—and raising his profile so he can fulfill his dream of being a head coach. After 13 years as an NFL assistant, he thinks he's ready. He's done a good job in New England matching what he wants to do on offense to his players' skills. "We look at who we're playing and alter our game plan accordingly," Weis says. "We don't just do things one way. You can't do that in football today."
However, there's no buzz about Weis among front-office people around the league, and there probably won't be until the Patriots' offense plays more consistently—and Weis is fully healthy. Of course, it will be interesting to see if anyone holds his stomach-stapling against him. In the macho world of pro football, it's not cool to acknowledge that you have a problem and need help to control it. Weis understands. "I think I'm ready to be a head coach," he says. "If what's happened to me is a deterrent to that, well, that'll be a shame. Owners should want to hire the best coaches, and whether you're fat, thin, black or white shouldn't matter."