BOSTON (AP) – On the practice field, in a recruit’s house, at halftime in the locker room when he is channeling Knute Rockne, Notre Dame football coach Charlie Weis speaks – growls – and darn near always gets what he wants.
That style has not worked in a courtroom, where he is suing two doctors over a gastric bypass surgery that left him so close to death that a clergyman was summoned to administer last rites.
A first trial ended in a mistrial, and the physicians have refused to settle or concede carelessness. Doctors say it was Weis who rushed through pre-surgery exams because, at 350 pounds, he was desperate to lose weight.
“I’ve always felt pretty good about being able to control things in my life,” the coach, who lost 100 pounds after the 2002 surgery and now weighs about 270, testified this week. “I always felt very disappointed that this was something I couldn’t control.”
A whistle-wearing grizzly with Super Bowl rings for four fingers, Weis was lapsing in and out of consciousness when he awoke in intensive care to see the priest above him. “Don’t you dare,” he recalled saying.
“He told me he would give me a prayer for the sick and not a prayer for the dead,” Weis said.
The doctors have been more difficult for Weis to master.
Harvard-trained Drs. Charles Ferguson and Richard Hodin say it was reasonable to wait more than 30 hours to see if Weis’ internal bleeding would stop by itself, rather than subject him to the risks of another surgery. They have dismissed the notion of a settlement.
“There was no carelessness,” their attorney, William Dailey Jr., said before a mistrial was declared in the first trial in February – the day before it was expected to go to the jury – when one of the jurors collapsed and the doctors on trial rushed to help him.
Weis, a notoriously foul-mouthed understudy to Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick in the NFL, sat quietly and alone in a Suffolk County courtroom this week while the doctors and lawyers discussed his medical care.
Called to testify, Weis spoke in a low voice, only occasionally growing animated and sprinkling his comments with “OK?” and “trust me” – the super-confident verbal ticks common in coaching.
Quarterback Tom Brady attested to Weis’ disappointment over being unable to attend a preseason game. Largely unable to walk or stand, Weis described how he was forced from the sideline to the coaches’ box above the field, a spectator.
“He’s always been an extremely intense person, an intense individual, an intense coach,” Brady said in the first trial. His testimony was read back to the jury by a stand-in on Thursday – depriving the retrial of its star power.
“I think he’s never allowed anybody to give any less than his best,” Brady said. “It was never perfect. He had the highest expectations of anybody I’ve ever been around.”
Weis expected much of himself, too.
With a family history of weight problems and heart disease – his father died of a heart attack at 56 – Weis was himself a poor athlete and out of place among the professional football players he commanded.
He worried about leaving his wife a widow, his children without a father. At the time he was the Patriots’ offensive coordinator and had started getting “nibbles” for NFL head coaching jobs.
But watching the DVD of the Patriots’ run to the championship, “I looked at myself and saw a disaster,” Weis said. “I wouldn’t hire that guy.”
Weis made the circuit of fad diets before deciding, after seeing a slimmed-down Al Roker on TV, to consider gastric bypass.
By the time he met with Dr. Lee Kaplan at the Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center that June, his mind was made up. And with the decision came high expectations.
He told doctors he needed to get into the operating room quickly, so he could recover by training camp and not be a “distraction.” He didn’t need the six-week pre-op program. He asked no questions of the doctors.
“I would say he pushed himself through it,” Ferguson said.
Weis told no one but his wife and Brady; he told Belichick it was “a stomach procedure.”
But Kaplan had tests to schedule: A psychiatric evaluation was necessary, and Weis needed to meet with a nutritionist. Appointments that usually took two weeks to get were set up in a day or two.
“He was busy with a number of events during that time period that related to the Patriots’ previous season, events related to the fact that they won the Super Bowl. But we got it done,” Kaplan said.
“Do I believe we cut corners?” Kaplan asked and answered: “Quite the opposite.”
From the beginning, Kaplan said, he laid out the risks of surgery, up to and including death.
It was the fear of a pulmonary embolism, or a blood clot in the lung, that led doctors to monitor Weis rather than go back in when he bled internally after the bypass. The bleeding will normally stop on its own, the doctors testified.
It did not for Weis, and surgeons had to open him back up to repair a leak.
Weis spent the next two months in hospitals and in the first-floor study his wife converted to a bedroom. Brady visited his mentor after training camp for “a rah-rah pep talk,” Weis said.
“I felt like I was kind of at a crossroads in my life,” Weis said. “I’m a football coach. I’m paid handsomely to be a football coach. I thought that might be the end of it.”
The doctors note that Weis got his dream job after the surgery, as he had hoped. And though he still walks with what he described as “a slow waddle,” Weis dropped more than 100 pounds – to 242 – before settling into “the 70s.”
And, Brady testified, “the old Charlie” was back.
“Oh, yes, certainly,” the quarterback said. “I got the brunt of it, too.”