Almost from the moment he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer last November, Mike Heimerdinger started to put together a game plan.
Just as was the case when he directed an offense, he was not interested in three yards and a cloud of dust. Sure, the traditional elements of cancer treatment were necessary, but chemo therapy, for example, bored him other than that it gave him time to review game film.
So he set out to explore other ways to gain ground on the disease that had penetrated his body. Early on, he studied the restorative powers of food and in an interview with The City Paper shortly after the 2010 season he joked that he had eaten chicken “every way it could be prepared.”
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator was in Mexico undergoing an alternative form of treatment Friday when he passed away at 58 years old.
“You don’t expect these types of things to happen and they shouldn’t happen,” Titans tackle Michael Roos said. “I felt confident that he was going to beat this after seeing his resolve last season in dealing with it. He was such a competitor and a fighter — the things that made him such a good coach were also the traits that I thought would lead him to beat the cancer.
“My prayers are with his family.”
Heimerdinger joined the Titans in 2000, the year after they made their Super Bowl appearance. In five seasons, the offense finished among the top 10 in passing yards three times. In 2003, Tennessee scored 435 points — the second-highest total in franchise history. Four years in a row (2001-04), at least one wide receiver topped 1,000 yards — the longest such streak in franchise history.
He returned in 2008 and a year later helped make running back Chris Johnson one of the most explosive players in league history. In addition to Johnson’s franchise record 2,006 rushing yards that season, he had the second-longest streak of 100-yard rushing games (12) in NFL history and became the first player ever with three touchdown runs of 85 yards or more in a career — and he did so all in one season.
“He was a great coach and a tough coach. I know I wouldn’t have become the player I am without his confidence and the trust that he showed in me,” Johnson said. “My thoughts go out to his family.”
Heimerdinger remained on the job through the final six games of last season even after he was diagnosed.
He also interviewed for the job as head coach after Jeff Fisher was fired, a clear indication that he planned to continue to work. The position, though went to Mike Munchak, who replaced Herimerdinger.
“Mike was a great football coach; and over the years, we had a great relationship,” Munchak said. “I learned a lot of football from Mike, and I have a number of great memories and experiences that will always be with me. It is just hard to believe his is gone. It is a sad day for his family and for those who knew him.”
Heimerdinger played football and baseball at Eastern Illinois University, where he was a roommate of current Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan.
That turned out to be a fortuitous relationship as Shanahan helped Heimerdinger get a job as a graduate assistant at the University of Florida after five years as a high school coach. Those two worked together again in Denver, when Shanahan was coach of the Broncos, first with Heimerdinger as wide receivers coach (1995-99) when that franchise won back-to-back Super Bowl titles, and again when he was assistant head coach/quarterbacks (2007).
He also spent one season as offensive coordinator with the New York Jets (2005). His NFL career was preceded by numerous jobs in college football.
“ ‘Dinger,’ as many people knew him, was a great coach and a good man,” former Titans and Jets center Kevin Mawae said. “For those who knew him and played for him, they knew Dinger was a man who loved his family, enjoyed his players, and loved the game of football.
“Dinger's fight with cancer was indicative of the type of person he was: determined and courageous.”
Heimerdinger is survived by his wife Kathie, daughter Alicia and son Brian.
“Any time you lose a friend, you feel it,” former Titans running back Eddie George said. “My heart goes out to his family, it is a terrible loss. Mike was a highly competitive coach and person, who expected and demanded nothing but the best from you. He was a good guy to be around and he will surely be missed in this world.”