MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The Minnesota Chapter of the National Football Foundation will present its annual Courage Award to Gophers linebacker and Holy Family graduate Peter Westerhaus. That may not be a name you instantly recognize. But his impact on the Gophers program has quietly been as influential as any.
Three years ago, the Gophers were at rock bottom. Westerhaus felt like he was on top of the world. He’d just been named Mr. Football, as the best high school player in Minnesota.
So when he signed with the Gophers — the first Mr. Football to do so — it came with high hopes. Here was a guy to build a program around, to lead the turnaround.
“And about that time is when he was going to get an opportunity to play, is when this thing spun on him,” coach Jerry Kill said.
It was the fall of 2012, Westerhaus’s red shirt freshman year. Two-a-days had just begun.
“I started having some symptoms,” he said. “Just not being able to eat, and constantly going to the bathroom, can’t sleep.”
He was diagnosed with a severe form of ulcerative colitis, a painful and debilitating disease of the large intestine. Over the next year, Westerhaus lost 85 pounds.
“I kept thinking I was going to turn a corner,” he said. “I was going to be able to keep playing. And things just weren’t, I wasn’t responding.”
This past winter, at barely 150 pounds, he realized his football career was over. The guy to build the program around would never play a game for the Gophers.
“It definitely took a toll,” he said.
But to say he hasn’t lead the turnaround, nothing could be further from the truth. Westerhaus is still on the roster, goes to practices and games, and gives speeches to the team.
“It’s so tough not being able to help and contribute on the field. If I can help in other ways, to be a part of that, yeah, a part of the building of this program here, and the turnaround, that’s really great,” he said. “I know the guys on the team are putting in the time. They’re working so hard and everything. If I can somehow inspire them or encourage them, I feel like that could help, you know.”
And that’s exactly what he’s done.
“Him coming around and in the situation that he’s in, and when our players see him, they have no excuses to feel bad,” Kill said. “So I think that part of it alone and his toughness, mental toughness, certainly I think has helped our football team.”
“Life is about fighting through adversity. Everyone has their struggles and being able to overcome that, it’s just like football,” Westerhaus said.
Westerhaus had surgery in March and has put some weight back on. He says it’s the best he’s felt in years.
He has two more surgeries scheduled, then he’s planning to return as a full-time student.
He’s also talked with Coach Kill about working as a student-coach.