Cleveland Browns’ VP battling against cancer
WESTLAKE, Ohio — The Cleveland Browns office of vice president Bryan Wiedmeier is never cluttered. A binder always sits within arm’s reach on his gleaming desk.
That binder is Wiedmeier’s work, studied and distilled to its essence. Anyone who works with or for him asks a question and he’ll go to a tab and find the answer. Little fazes him, and when something at all controversial is mentioned he talks with the same calm tone he would use to order lunch.
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Organization like that that is one of Wiedmeier’s strengths. The man in charge of the Browns business operations and league affairs can break down complex challenges into small parts. It’s his approach, developed from a life in football: Learn, assess, game-plan.
Little did Wiedmeier know or expect that this skill would help him deal with his most significant challenge: Grade 4 brain cancer diagnosed about three weeks ago.
“Take the haymaker,” he said recently in a lengthy talk at his home. “You reboot, focus, and then you’re proactive. You’re not a victim. And you do everything you can. It’s either helping or hurting. There’s not a middle ground. If it helps then we’re gonna do it.”
Wiedmeier learned of his condition after he arrived at the Browns facility on Oct. 25 and simply felt off. His finger could not find the right key on the typewriter. He called trainer Joe Sheehan to say something was wrong, then went down to the training room where team doctor Tom Waters happened to be visiting Sheehan.
There Wiedmeier had a seizure, which he said he does not remember.
He was rushed to Cleveland Clinic, where a day later Michael Vogelbaum, a neurosurgeon in the Rose Ella Burkhardt Brain Tumor and Neuro-Oncology Center, performed surgery to remove a GBM tumor from the parietal lobe in the back of his head. Wiedmeier said doctors were positive about the amount of tumor removed, and the fact it was localized. But he also knows this is a very aggressive kind of cancer, and he now is going through six weeks of a daily chemotherapy pill and undergoing radiation treatment.
He wants nobody to look at his situation as a “Debbie downer.”
His focus was to talk about the positives that come from his situation, which include no significant brain damage following the surgery. He hopes to bring something good to others who might be in a similar situation, and to point out what he called the incredible strength and value of the treatment he’s receiving at the Clinic and the support he’s received from the Browns — two entities he called “Cleveland institutions.”
“What you look for now,” he said, “ are the advantages.”
First and foremost is his family, his five children and wife Mary, a woman he called “exceptional.” In 27 years of marriage, the Wiedmeiers always made their kids their focus. They never spent lavishly on themselves, instead giving most of what they had to their kids. They traveled nationwide as all five — Lauren, Victoria, John, Danielle and Matthew — played youth hockey, flying from Florida to Wisconsin or Ohio to games or clinics.
“They’ll all be here for Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Wiedmeier said. “That helps.”
He said the Clinic allows him to be home during treatment, and said the care is “not just great for me at this point in time, but for the community.” He pointed out Vogelbaum has refined techniques that are not used everywhere. Vogelbaum spoke generally about brain tumors and not about Wiedmeier, and said the procedures include mapping the brain before and during surgery to minimize risks, and using an MRI during surgery.
“In very general terms, the concept of having a multi-disciplinary, highly coordinated brain tumor center is a very important advancement in the field,” Vogelbaum said.
Wiedmeier said his relationship with the Clinic does not ignore other excellent care available in the area — like University Hospitals, where Jim Donovan, the team’s play-by-play voice, was treated for leukemia. Wiedmeier simply wanted to thank former owner Randy Lerner for insisting employees have a strong medical plan.
“It was important to him,” Wiedmeier said.
Outgoing president Mike Holmgren and his wife Kathy were in the room when Wiedmeier came out of surgery. Coach Pat Shurmur gave him a game ball after the win over San Diego. New president Joe Banner and owner Jimmy Haslam have been “incredible” since the surgery. “When we had the storms and power outage, Jimmy came over just to see how we were doing,” Wiedmeier said. (In the same time, Haslam was dealing with major issues at his own home in Bratenahl.)
And Wiedmeier reflected back on 30 years with the Dolphins, where he drew something from the many successful people he worked alongside.
“One of the great things with the NFL and with football when I played, if you’re in tough spots you can always go back in your reservoir when you had some victory moments,” Wiedmeier said. “Those always relied on the ability to keep your head, think, understand, be brutally honest with yourself — because if you’re in denial or kidding yourself about something, you’re not going to do it. And then intelligently come up with a game plan.
“Your mind is racing, you’re not sleeping, the medication is affecting you a little bit … when chaos happens, you need to get into a zone. That’s the ability to just singularly focus, tune it all out, assess, learn, game-plan.”
His game-plan now includes big picture things. Listening to the doctors about what he should or should not do. Taking part in programs at The Gathering Place, a cancer support center near his home. Read about changes in diet and how that can help. (“Broccoli used to make me gag,” he said. “Now I can’t get enough of the stuff.”)
But the game-plan also includes day-to-day things. He and Mary keep a white board in their kitchen where they list the things they want to accomplish that day. Things like remembering to write a thank you note or return a phone call. Remembering things day by day to take it day by day.
Everything is rooted in what he calls his four foundations: faith, family, game-plan and your affairs. His faith is Catholic, and he relies on it. His family is his strength. His game-plan gives him the ability to accomplish something positive every day. And by affairs he said: “It’s not meant to be morbid. But you take care of that now so as this goes on you can focus on the big picture.”
Wiedmeier does not hide from the reality.
“You know when it is hard? It’s hard when you think of your family,” he said. “I’m at peace. Not that I’m perfect. I gotta hope St. Peter cuts me a little slack. But the reason that is, though, goes back to when the crisis hit, and you try to regroup and it’s the stop, assess, think (process).
“You just go back to the stuff thats worked in your life.”
Wiedmeier grew up in Washington and Montana. He went to college in Montana, and as he spoke he remembered the many jobs he had, one of which was helping clean chicken barns.
“I’m thinking, ‘If I did that, I can sure do this,’” he said.
He joined the Dolphins in 1981 after he graduated from Carroll College in Helena, three hours drive north of Yellowstone. He played football and his coach was Bobby Petrino’s father. The quarterback of the team the final two years was Petrino. His father worked in ranch financing and dealt with Joe Robbie, former owner of the Dolphins, when he bought a ranch in Ennis, MT.
Joe Robbie told Wiedmeier’s father he was looking for a young guy willing to work, and that led to Bryan becoming one of 44 non-football employees with the team. He met Mary in Florida when she worked in the ticket office and he was a management trainee and made $10,400. The two rented a tiny apartment on Miami Beach, and both worked while going to University of Miami Law School. In that same time, they had their first two children — and took care of her mother, who had cancer.
Wiedmeier worked his way up the Dolphins organization, through team travel to game operations and other departments to learn the business. Eventually he was named the team’s salary cap expert when the league first went to a cap. When he met with the media that summer to explain the cap, he had two binders stuffed full or legal interpretations from the league, each of which had to be eight inches thick.
Eventually he became the team president, a guy from Montana running the Miami Dolphins. Through it all there were 4 a.m. wakeup calls to take the kids to hockey practice, and trips to hockey camps and the games and tournaments. The family became friends with the Granato family and Cammi Granato, captain of the 1998 and 2002 U.S. Women’s Olympic team; the Granatos have been in touch. Wiedmeier proudly showed a photo on his computer with five former Dolphins — Dan Marino, Jimmy Cefalo, Bob Griese, Joe Rose and Kim Bokamper — sending good wishes with a toast. He responded with a photo from the hospital toasting back — with a Dr. Pepper.
Wiedmeier worked with some disparate personalities in Miami and in the NFL. From Don Shula to Jimmy Johnson to Dave Wannstedt to Nick Saban to the Robbies to Wayne Huizenga to Bill Parcells to (with the Browns) Holmgren. And with former Dolphins president Eddie Jones, one of the truest gentlemen the NFL has known.
“I always believed that you could work with pretty much everybody,” Wiedmeier said. “The key to that is to understand their perspective. Have the guts to speak candidly. Take politics out, take all the other stuff out that get people get caught up in. Get through the stuff that didn’t matter. Have a dialogue with them on things that do did matter. And then if you were honest, your input was credible, you did your research and you were prepared — it didn’t mean you were always right — then you had respect and you had a dialogue.”
“I’ve always felt,” Shula said, “that if I left the Dolphins and started somewhere else in the league the first person I would hire would be Bryan Wiedmeier.”
Wiedmeier calls the quote an honor, but also humbling.
“If you distill down what coach Shula believed in, Jimmy and Dave, coach Saban, their approach to how to be successful. My college coach. It all comes back to commitment, focus and effort,” he said. “Being able to be single minded, focus on the things that are important and tune out the other stuff. If you do that the rest is out of your hands. One play at a time.”
At Wiedmeier’s introductory news conference in Cleveland, he sat alongside Holmgren and Tom Heckert while they answered questions. When Wiedmeier was finally asked a question, he smiled and said he was very comfortable being in the background. He never felt he was the story, and he doesn’t now. He emphasized over and over that he only spoke to highlight the good that can come from his situation.
“We love Cleveland,” he said. “This is a great place to live. We’re thankful for everything Cleveland has offered us.”
He then rattled off the positives, and talked about how it became his community, a community that is as much a part of him as his family community and his nationwide hockey community and his Dolphins community.
“This,” he said, “gives you an appreciation for the power of communities.”
He knows brain cancer has affected the NFL, that Pete Rozelle (former commissioner), Steve Sabol (NFL Films), former Browns owner Al Lerner and Jones, the former Dolphins president, died from brain cancer. He knows his father and wife had benign tumors removed.
“But until this, I couldn’t tell you one thing about the illness,” he said.
He now knows what Vogelbaum said, that this is a rare form of cancer that affects 18-to-20 thousand people annually. That the tumors that start in the brain itself and do not spread from elsewhere. He knows kids usually develop Grade 1, and he knows he is taking treatment to keep the cells from regenerating.
He keeps a quote from Winston Churchill in his office, one he heard from Wannstedt: “It’s no use saying we’re doing our best. You’ve got to succeed at doing the things that are necessary.”
He talks about being an avid reader and studier of Shakespeare. He knows the plays well, his favorite Henry V. He describes it as Shakespeare writing about his “prototypical hero English king.” In the play Henry gives a well-known speech before the Battle of Agincourt, a battle the English won despite incredible odds against them. That speech originated the phrase “band of brothers.” During World War II, the British used the movie and play as a rallying cry against the Germans.
“That speech,” Wiedmeier said, “was given on the feast of St. Crispen’s Day. It’s called the St. Crispen’s Day speech. Well, as it turns out, I had my seizure on St. Crispen’s Day. I called Mary and told her because I couldn’t believe it. Life is full of surprising twists. For us it was a powerful positive. When chaos happens, what do you do?
“This thing has happened. It’s tough news, but if we can create a positive out of a negative, that’s what we want to do. I don’t want a mystery about what it is, or a pity party. There’s an opportunity here, no matter what happens, to make this circumstance into a positive. That’s the good that’s going to come out of it.”