Standing on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Peter Westerhaus was filled with wonder, not fear. A winner of Minnesota’s Mr. Football award, he had mastered every other physical challenge, and there was no reason to think this hourlong hike would be any different.
It was March 29, 2011, two months after he had signed to play with the Gophers, and his family was enjoying a spring break adventure.
On a gorgeous day for hiking, Westerhaus started down a popular trail with his parents and younger brother. Fifteen minutes later, Westerhaus heard a woman scream. A rockslide had started. He turned to look, and a football-sized boulder came crashing onto his head.
“There was blood all over,” said his mother, Sue. “I could see down to his skull. I was really afraid he was going to die right there in my arms.”
Westerhaus survived with a fractured skull, 50 stitches and a severe concussion. He was house ridden for weeks and lost about 30 pounds. By that fall, he had willed himself back in shape and was practicing with the Gophers.
If that was the only battle Westerhaus had to wage, however, the National Football Foundation’s Minnesota Chapter wouldn’t be preparing to honor him with its Courage Award on Sunday night.
After coming back from the near tragedy in the Grand Canyon, Westerhaus was soon waylaid by an inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis. That disease shriveled the 6-3, 235-pound specimen into a 150-pound patient fighting for his life — again.
It has ended his football career but has not broken his spirit.
Westerhaus, 21, had surgery in March to remove his large intestine — the first of three procedures he will face this year — and has pushed his weight back above 170 pounds.
“I was given a great opportunity to play football, but God has a different plan now,” Westerhaus said. “I might never know why all this has happened, but there’s a plan. There is a reason.”
Westerhaus struggled at times to keep that faith, he said. Football had meant so much to him. He learned the game from his father, Jon, who had spent time working as a college coach.
Jon and Sue used to walk into their son’s bedroom, only to find him sleeping in his helmet, cradling a ball. As a tight end and linebacker, Westerhaus scored 11 touchdowns and recorded 139 tackles as a senior, leading Holy Family to the Prep Bowl.
He remembers the despair in the intensive care unit in Flagstaff, Ariz., when a nurse hinted that he might never play football again.
“The neurosurgeon came in and said, ‘I looked at your stuff. I think you’re going to be all right,’ ” Westerhaus said. “That was unbelievable. We just broke down crying.”
After redshirting that fall with the Gophers, Westerhaus went through spring practice in 2012, believing his goal of playing Big Ten football was well within reach.
Disease not curable
Sue Westerhaus said her family has wondered all along if the head trauma helped trigger her son’s ulcerative colitis. Doctors don’t know for certain what causes the disease, although his risk of developing it was higher because his mother has it, too.
Sue was diagnosed in her early 20s, but medication quickly regulated it. Her son’s case has been infinitely more severe.
Shortly after two-a-day practices started in August 2012, Westerhaus began suffering from diarrhea and found blood in his stool. Doctors quickly diagnosed the problem, but the medication couldn’t stifle it.
“Ulcerative colitis is not a curable disease,” said Dr. Mary Kwaan, a University of Minnesota surgeon. “So the treatment is all about controlling the symptoms, making it a livable disease.”
According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America, up to 700,000 Americans suffer from ulcerative colitis, which specifically affects the large intestine.
Former Chargers kicker Rolf Benirschke nearly died from the disease in 1979, early in his career, but came back to kick after having his large intestine removed. Westerhaus said he drew inspiration talking to Benirschke and reading his book, “Alive and Kicking.”
“There were times when it was honestly living hell,” Westerhaus said. “I would get 15 minutes of sleep here and there through the night. You’re constantly going to the bathroom. I feel like I have a high pain tolerance, but these [pain episodes] lasted six hours.”
Coach Kill reaches out
Desperate to find a remedy, Westerhaus volunteered for research studies at the university. He tried a gluten-free diet. In case his symptoms were stress-related, he tried acupuncture, massage therapy and yoga.
He still had hope of making a comeback in January 2013, when things took a serious turn for the worse. An infection formed, and his doctors feared his colon could rupture, which would threaten his life.
Westerhaus was at the Mayo Clinic that winter, with his weight down to about 180 pounds, when Gophers coach Jerry Kill and his wife, Rebecca, made a surprise visit to his hospital room. Westerhaus said it’s as if Kill has “a sixth sense” about when to reach out to players in need.
“His dad and I would run out of words, and that’s when Coach Kill would call,” Sue Westerhaus said. “That meant so much to Peter, just to know he hadn’t been dumped from the team.”
Sue Westerhaus had worked as a nurse for seven years treating cancer patients, so she was used to seeing suffering.
“But to watch your child suffer through this, you feel so helpless,” she said. “He has been so incredibly brave. His strength, the way he handles things with such grace, inspired us as a family.”
In January, with Westerhaus barely weighing 150 pounds, his surgeon said the time had come to remove his large intestine.
“I was ready at that point,” Westerhaus said. “I’d given it a good fight.”
Westerhaus said he felt so lousy heading into surgery that it didn’t take long to feel remarkably better. The doctors have encouraged him to put on weight heading into the next two surgeries, which could come this summer.
“I’ve been eating and eating and eating,” he said. “Food is fun again. I think I gained 11 pounds in a week and a half. But the surgeon was happy about that. He said, ‘You were starving yourself. Your body was craving these nutrients.’ ”
Westerhaus has moved back home to Chanhassen, but he is working toward a degree in finance. He carried a 3.95 grade-point average through high school and could graduate as soon as December 2015.
He said he would like to open his own business someday, like his father, who owns Survey & Ballot Systems in Eden Prairie.
Westerhaus will remain on full scholarship, with a medical waiver, allowing the Gophers to award another player one of their 85 allotted scholarships.
“He’s still a huge part of this team, in my opinion, and he will become more a part of it as he gets healed up,” Kill said. “I told him, in some ways, he’s done more here than some of the ones who’ve played. You look at him and what he’s gone through, if you can’t get inspired by that …”
Westerhaus loves to hunt and fish and intends to throw himself into those hobbies, now that his playing days are finished. He once dreamed of an NFL career. Now?
“I’m just enjoying every day,” Westerhaus said recently, while devouring a cheeseburger near campus. “Like this lunch — this is fantastic.”
His friends are thrilled to see him back on his feet. Holy Family football coach Dave Hopkins said more than 45 people have let him know they’ll be at the Hilton Minneapolis on Sunday, to see Westerhaus accept his award.
It’s been tough for Hopkins to see Westerhaus’ football dreams ripped away, but neither wastes time asking why.
“I know there will be more good than bad that comes out of it because it happened to Peter Westerhaus,” Hopkins said. “And he can bring out the best in anything.”