Peter Westerhaus: Stronger than a rock, tougher than a disease

Two big blows ended Peter Westerhaus’ U football career but didn’t damage his spirit.

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.

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  • Peter Westerhaus will receive the Courage Award from the National Football Foundation’s Minnesota Chapter on Sunday night.

  • His football career over, Westerhaus remains upbeat. “I was given a great opportunity to play football, but God has a different plan now.”

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