BEREA: A white SUV with a driver and a police escort whisked Bryan Wiedmeier from the airport to Cleveland Browns Stadium on Dec. 16 after a whirlwind 36-hour visit to South Florida for the 40th anniversary of the Miami Dolphins perfect team.
In his suitcase was an aqua jacket, which the 53-year-old Browns executive vice president of business operations was touched to receive since they are usually reserved for players and coaches.
Because Wiedmeier is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer with a daunting prognosis, former Dolphin Nat Moore, now the Dolphins’ senior vice president and special adviser, might have felt a sense of urgency to make the presentation. In Wiedmeier’s 29 years with the Dolphins, he rose from a jack-of-all-trades who passed out water bottles and did laundry to team president under former owner Wayne Huizenga.
While the experiences of the weekend were emotionally moving, when Wiedmeier’s wife, Mary, stepped out of the vehicle 45 minutes before the Browns’ game against the Washington Redskins, she said, “We’re so glad to be here.”
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Wiedmeier felt that way before he drove to work at the Browns’ headquarters on Oct. 25. This was he and Mary’s “great adventure,” a chance to use his wide-ranging talents as a top executive under Browns president Mike Holmgren.
Before that day, Wiedmeier brushed off the headaches he was experiencing as age- and stress-related. But as he headed to Berea from his home in Westlake, Wiedmeier said his perception and motor skills declined to “maybe 97 percent.” He felt strange as he walked up the stairs to his office. When he had to concentrate to type on his computer keyboard, he picked up the phone, called a Browns trainer and said, “Something’s off here.”
He was wrangling with a team doctor, trying to convince him to drive him to the hospital rather than call an ambulance, when he had a seizure.
Wiedmeier doesn’t remember that. The next thing he recalls is going through a CT or MRI scanner and hearing the words, “There’s a mass.”
The pathology report revealed a “golf-ball sized” tumor in the parietal lobe. It was glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), called “the most common and deadliest of malignant primary brain tumors in adults” by the National Brian Tumor Society. It is classified Stage IV, with the greatest potential for rapid growth. According to the society, the median survival rate is 15 months, with just a four percent rate of survival of five or more years.
“The news is a haymaker,” Wiedmeier said in his office last week. “Having the ability to regroup and come up with a game plan … the faith part of it, the family and friends were already there. It doesn’t put you in a quandary of trying to find out the meaning of life and all kind of crazy things. Hopefully that foundation helps us get through this.”
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Wiedmeier has always been a planner. His office shelves are filled with white binders, along with a few pieces of sports memorabilia and several photos of the Wiedmeiers’ five children, who range in age from 20-25. He attacked his cancer with the same meticulous approach he used when he dove into sales as the late Dolphins owner Joe Robbie built the first privately financed stadium in the NFL, the second in all of U.S. sports (along with Dodger Stadium).
Wiedmeier is trying to do everything he can to give himself “a fighting chance.”
The tumor was removed, with Cleveland Clinic neurosurgeon Michael Vogelbaum using an MRI as he operated.
“Years ago you’d probably lose a little bit more of your brain, your motor function and your memory,” Wiedmeier said. “I’m not 100 percent, but pretty close.”
Now Mary drives him everywhere, which she will do for six months, required by Ohio law for those who have had a seizure. Wiedmeier undergoes radiation treatments five days a week and takes oral chemotherapy daily. Although his fatigue is less predictable now, he tries to exercise. He watches his diet, although Mary said he allows himself an occasional treat.
“I knew he was all in when he told me he was going to start eating broccoli and cauliflower, things I love that I tried to get him to try in the past and he would have none of it,” Mary said in a telephone interview.
“Most days I feel pretty good,” Wiedmeier said. “I like to joke, ‘Now I’ve got an excuse for my afternoon nap.’”
With an oncology team — available to all with his condition — monitoring his care at the Cleveland Clinic, Wiedmeier is two-thirds of the way through radiation that will end in early January.
He unabashedly whipped off his Browns cap to reveal a large bald patch on the right side of his head. “I thought, ‘Hey, I’m special, I didn’t lose my hair,’ ” he said of the loss, which didn’t start until mid-December.
In early February, while still remaining on chemotherapy, he will undergo what could be the first of several MRIs to determine the next steps.
“You hate to see anyone have to go through it,” former Dolphins coach and hall of famer Don Shula said by phone from his home in South Florida on Thursday. “Bryan is strong and his wife, Mary, is great. I’m sure he’s going to be able to handle it.”
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Wiedmeier is not one to ask “Why me?” During a two-hour conversation in his office, he smiled constantly. Browns employees, worried about their futures under new owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner, are inspired by his upbeat attitude.
“He’s a wonderful human being,” Shula said. “I always said after I met Bryan and worked with him in Miami that if I ever went anywhere, Bryan would be the first guy I’d hire to take with me. He can do so many things. He’s always been very positive. Kind of guy you like to be around.”
Although he faces an uncertain future, Wiedmeier said in his 32 years in the NFL “there’s never been a guarantee.”
“I feel very fortunate that I’ve been around winning people … Coach Shula, Mr. Robbie, Wayne,” he said. “With all those guys, there’s never been a ‘Why me?’ or ‘What if this?’ It’s usually ‘Analyze the situation and how do we approach what’s here? And be brutally honest.’ ”
Mary said that’s the way Wiedmeier has been since the day they met when she worked in the Dolphins’ ticket office. They got to know each other better when he was assigned to help with a deluge of orders before a big game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“It was so hard to hear the diagnosis, but he looked at me and said, ‘We’re going to get through this. I’m not a statistic,’ ” Mary said. “His parents are the same way. They both faced issues and they’re always, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do.’
“If you look at the people he’s worked for, the coach Shulas, the Wayne Huizengas, Mr. Robbie, these are not people who sat around, they made their own way. It’s hard to even describe how positive these people are. Bryan was a scout growing up, all the way up to Eagle Scout, which was a real positive influence. Playing sports his whole life, [football] through college [at Carroll College in Montana], he could rely on his experiences. Seeing other people who were able to overcome things. All of that built into what he is.”
Wiedmeier insists the dark days have been few.
“This will sound kind of strange,” Wiedmeier said. “There have been a couple times where you’ll let yourself slip, but I wouldn’t characterize it as a dark day. Energy wasted dwelling on things, every minute of that takes away from working on a solution.
“If you do all the things you were supposed to and the negative result happens, there wasn’t anything you could do, anyway. Now the path to get to that result, you can spend your time absorbed in self-pity or negative things, sadness … That’s not me, that’s not my wife.”
He pointed to a memorial No. 88 Dolphins cap on his shelf, a cancer research fundraiser after the death of Jim Mandich, a Solon, Ohio, native and University of Michigan product who was a backup tight end on the Dolphins’ perfect team. Later a Dolphins broadcaster, Mandich passed away in April 2011 of bile duct cancer.
“He fought cancer for a couple years. His outlook and approach to it was really inspiring,” Wiedmeier said. “He had a lot of visible signs, he lost a lot of weight. He worked as much as he could and always was uplifting to the people around him.
“You look at that with such great admiration because of his legacy for his family and for others. They remember that was his spirit before the illness. During the illness if he had been a fraud, you had every excuse not to be that person. Just the opposite, it just reinforced. His spirit really burned right.”
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Wiedmeier has his affairs in order, but hopes “for a long runway.” Since their 25th wedding anniversary trip was scuttled when he was hired by the Browns in January 2010, he and Mary are planning to go to Italy, because of their Catholic faith and his fascination with history. It will be only their second European vacation.
He’s not sure how much longer he will be able to work for the Browns. He wants to help employees in the transition because he went through four ownership changes in Miami, where he had only five losing seasons in 29 years.
“My early conversations with [Haslam and Banner] were there’s a side of me, like today, I feel like my old self, can think clearly, but I can’t be what I was,” he said. “Even if I may want to do that, you can’t do that, the medical, what you’re asked to do. That’s probably the toughest part of it.
“The transition, hopefully I can be a positive influence because I’ve been through it a few times. If we get this thing beat, you never know what happens down the road.”
No matter what lies ahead, the Wiedmeiers feel blessed to be in Cleveland.
“We’ve always felt everything happens for a reason,” Mary said. “We were really excited to come to Cleveland to start with, then when this happened, we knew as terrible as the diagnosis was, there was no better place in the world we could have been. Between Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals, people travel from all over the world in these circumstances. We’re able to have all the benefits of that wonderful care right here at home.”
The Wiedmeiers feel the support of many communities — from the Browns, the Dolphins, the University of Miami, where they both attended law school, from the hockey teams they have been immersed in with their children, from their parish in South Florida, just to name a few. Last week, Wiedmeier spoke to University of Akron assistant coach Terrell Buckley, who played cornerback for the Dolphins for six seasons, and they planned to get together when Buckley returns to UA.
“Personally I really believe there’s a connection between your outlook and how you go about life, your health. The happier you are, the more you can laugh, the more you can share with people, I think it all helps,” Wiedmeier said. “And if it doesn’t, what was lost?”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.