The Minnesota chapter of the National Football Foundation is honoring former Gophers captain and assistant coach Mike Sherels at its annual ceremony May 7.
Sherels will receive the Courage Award at the 10th annual Minnesota Football Honors banquet at U.S. Bank Stadium.
I can’t think of a more deserving person for this honor.
For those unfamiliar with Sherels’ story, he nearly died last summer after suffering an intestinal problem that led to a series of complications.
He underwent four surgeries in one week. Doctors said chances of his survival were poor. If he did live, one doctor told his wife Emily that Mike would not eat again, work again and his quality of life should be considered as his family weighed additional surgeries.
Mike overcame incredible odds and returned to coaching Gophers linebackers this past season only a few weeks after his last surgery. Mike and Emily invited me to their home last fall to share his miraculous story. Here is their story.
Sherels’ recovery continues to amaze. He had two surgeries in January to re-connect what remains of his intestines. He is now able to eat again and almost all of the tubes have been removed from his body.
Sherels had a tube in his stomach that removed fluids and bile through ostomy bags worn on his leg. He no longer has that tube or his ostomy bags. The scar from the 12-inch incision down the middle of his abdomen has nearly healed.
Sherels still has a port in his chest that provides him nutrients at night to supplement his diet. He suffered a severe infection with his stomach tube and his port last month. That required him to return to Mayo Clinic for additional surgeries.
“That was the rough patch,” he said. “It was a bad, bad deal.”
Doctors fixed the problem and Sherels is on the mend. Now that he is no longer restricted by tubes, ostomy bags and a PICC line in his arm, he is hopeful that he soon can begin swimming for exercise several times a week.
“I tried to skip rocks the other day and thought my stomach was going to explode,” he said, laughing. “It’s inside of a year from everything happening. It’s still pretty surreal. It’s not without its challenges. Some days I get into the why me and all that kind of stuff. Some days I feel pretty blessed.”
Especially with his family. Emily learned that she was pregnant with twins while Mike was on a ventilator fighting for his life. Their twin girls are now seven weeks old and doing well. The Sherels have four kids – three girls and a boy – ages 4, 2 and seven weeks.
“Things are finally trending upward,” he said. “I’ve had a string of good luck recently so things are looking up.”
Sherels remains on medical leave from the university and unsure about his coaching future. He’s focusing solely on his health and getting stronger but he hopes to be around football at some level this fall.
“Whether that’s volunteering or coaching high school or asking Coach Zimmer if I can hang out and learn from him,” Sherels said. “I can’t just sit. That’s never been my personality. Ultimately I want to be the best coach I can be.”
Here is more from my conversation with Sherels this week.
Q: You getting much sleep with newborn twins?
Sherels: Not sleeping much. Usually one of them sleeps pretty well. [Laughing].
Q: How are you feeling physically?
Sherels: I’m feeling pretty good. I’m still figuring everything out. I can eat again, which is awesome. I don’t have a whole lot of restrictions. For the most part, I eat what I want. It’s been really good. What’s left of my large intestine has responded better than even my doctors had anticipated up to this point.
Q: We talked a few days after you had re-attachment surgery. When did you start eating again?
Sherels: I had my first food three days after. I had mashed potatoes and gravy. It was awesome. And it stayed in my digestive track for roughly two minutes before it left. [laughing]. That’s been the other side of things. What’s left of my digestive track had to learn how to do everything over again. My large bowel was not used to taking solid food and doing anything with it so it just passes it along. I really have to watch what I drink. I can’t drink water. Anything I drink has to have certain sodium content. I drink a lot of Pedialyte and G2 Gatorade with salt added. Liquids are probably the biggest restrictions.
Q: Have you had steak yet?
Sherels: I’ve had steak and it was glorious. [laughing].
Q: Was there a favorite food that you couldn’t wait to eat again?
Sherels: Well, I was 290 pounds. I didn’t have many foods I didn’t like. [laughing]. … When I couldn’t eat, I craved nothing but pasta. The team during the home games we had a pasta bar [at the hotel]. That’s about the only time I cried over food. I walked down and was going to sit with my linebackers during the meal. The smell hit me about halfway down the hallway. By the time I got to the door, I was bawling. I turned around and went back to my room. I came back for meetings. …
I was able to coach through the season and be around my guys. I told myself I’m going to listen to every word the doctor says from now on. I’m a horrible patient because I’m pushy and I like to do things my way and I want to get back. I did that the first time. I was able to coach through the year and I really feel like I did right by all my guys. But I limped to the finish. I wanted to make it to the [postseason team] banquet. Well, after the banquet I collapsed and went to the hospital.
This time I’m not going to do that. If coaching is something I’m going to be able to do long term, I can’t just regress through the entire year and then crash.
Q: You literally collapsed after the team banquet?
Sherels: Yes. My fever spiked, I couldn’t move. I ended up in the ER. I had worn myself down. I was badly dehydrated and overly tired. I ran myself into the ground.
Q: What are your plans now? You weren’t offered a job of Fleck’s coaching staff but I’ve heard Mark Coyle has indicated that he’d like to find a position for you in the athletic department.
Sherels: I’m on medical leave so I can’t accept a job even if I was offered one. I’m trying to listen to my doctors this time. I’m fully prepared to sit out this year if that’s what the doctors determine is best for my health.
NOTE: The NCAA is expected to vote to approve a rule that would allow football teams to hire a 10th full-time assistant coach. Sherels said he believes that rule could go into effect in January.
Sherels: The U of M has been great about handling this. If and when the time comes and the 10th coach passes and I’m able to work, all I would ask of Coach Fleck is that I get interview. If I’m not the guy for the job, by all means give it to somebody else.
Q: Do you want to stay in coaching if that happens or would you accept an administrative job inside the athletic department?
Sherels: I’m not sure. I go back and forth. I went and visited [former Gophers defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel at Wake Forest] for four days. It was eye-opening. I really, really love coaching and I’m good at it. I really enjoy being around the kids. I enjoy being around other coaches and drawing stuff up on the backboard and shooting stuff back and forth and coming up with ideas. The question will be, can I do it in a way that’s fair to the kids? If I can’t do that, if I have an infection one week and have to miss three days here and three days there, then I won’t coach. I’ll go do something else. But if things continue the way that I feel like they’re continuing, I feel like I’ve got a good shot.
NOTE: The NFF even is open to the public. Registration and more information can be found at www.minnesotafootballhonors.com.