When the Titans' 2010 season unraveled, it was a huge disappointment. But it was laced with sadness too because in the middle of it all, offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger learned he had cancer and began a battle he couldn't win.
Heimerdinger, who had two stints in the coordinator post for Jeff Fisher in Tennessee, died Friday night at the age of 58.
It’s a big blow to those who knew him. He was a gruff and demanding coach, but his public persona was painted too broadly based on those qualities. He was not all about screaming and hollering, though he tended to be loud as he tried to help players see the errors of their ways and come to understand the right way to do things.
Beyond that exterior coaching personality, he was funny and smart, loyal with high standards. He was a no-nonsense Chicago guy who I thought could one day wind up coaching the Bears and being reunited with Jay Cutler, a player who had some of his best days working with Heimerdinger in Denver.
Two successful NFL head coaches, Mike Shanahan and Fisher, counted Heimerdinger among their closest friends and valued his football opinion.
In Heimerdinger's first term as Fisher’s coordinator with the Titans, he helped round out the late Steve McNair’s game and was a big factor in McNair’s co-MVP award in 2003.
I got to know him as a Titans beat writer, and he was the kind of coach a reporter had to respect. If he saw something he thought was wrong, he’d search for you and spell out why.
Once, after I’d written that the organization was simply too protective of McNair when they maintained a poor game was not his fault, he pulled me into his office.
He clicked through film of every drop-back McNair took in the game in question, his red laser pointer drawing my eye to the important spots. McNair made the right read and went to the right place with all but two throws that day. He showed me that in great detail, spelling out the reads. A lot of plays that didn’t come off correctly, he illustrated, were because of good defense, a bad block or route, or a bad play call by the coordinator. I left with a new understanding I could put to use as I covered that offense going forward.
It amounted to the best, most memorable postgame review of a player I’ve ever had with a coach.
Heimerdinger was in Mexico, where his search for aggressive treatments led him, when he died.
His wife, Kathie, released a statement that’s part of Jim Wyatt’s piece on his passing.
We have been overwhelmed and incredibly touched by all of the support that we have felt from family, friends, fellow coaches, players, fans and the league this past year. It is with a heavy heart, but a trust in God, that we say goodbye to our beloved Dinger who lost his courageous battle with cancer yesterday. Mike approached cancer with the same vigor and tenacity that he approached any football game — to win. Even in the final minutes he never gave up — that was our Dinger.
He was a deeply devoted husband and father, loving son and brother, loyal friend and committed coach who loved the game and life. The coming days will be challenging for our family and we graciously and respectfully ask that you allow us to grieve privately.
Here are statements on Heimerdinger released this morning by the Titans:
General manager Mike Reinfeldt
We are saddened today to hear the tragic news of Mike passing. Mike was a good man that brought a great level of dedication and professionalism to his job. He was brave in his fight over the last year and showed such a commitment to the game. Nothing was going to stop him last season from being a part of the team and having his stamp on the games. Our thoughts go out to Kathie and his kids through this difficult time. Mike and his family will always be with us.
Head coach Mike Munchak
My prayers are with his family. Mike was a great football coach; and over the years, we had a great relationship. 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.
Running back Chris Johnson
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. My thoughts go out to his family.
Tackle Michael Roos
You don’t expect these types of things to happen and they shouldn’t happen. 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.
Former Titans center and current NFLPA President Kevin Mawae
It is with great regret and sorrow that we learn of the passing of Coach Mike Heimerdinger. "Dinger", as many people knew him, was a great coach and a good man. 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. It was my privilege to play for Dinger while with the New York Jets and the Tennessee Titans. I am better for having known and played for him. The NFL community has lost a great member of its fraternity this week. On behalf of the National Football League Players Association, the players offer their condolences to Kathie, Alicia, Brian and the rest of the Heimerdinger family.
Former Titans running back Eddie George
Any time you lose a friend, you feel it. 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.
Former tight end Frank Wycheck
I am really sad to hear the news today. Mike was a man of many qualities – he was humble, he was funny and he was demanding. I loved being with him on the golf course, he was a lot of fun to hang out with. From the coaching side, he brought a different element to our offense when he arrived. He took us to a different level in the passing game. He expected all of us to be accountable and he was a perfectionist when it came to executing his offense.
Over the last year, what he went through gave him great perspective of his life -- he was thankful and proud of what he accomplished.