Jerry Azzinaro: From last rites to the BCS 

January, 10, 2011

The most interesting man involved in the BCS National Championship Game no-showed at Friday's media day. Like the rest of the Oregon Ducks' assistant coaches, Jerry Azzinaro opted not to attend the session. Instead, he figured that time would be better served watching a little more game film of Auburn.

The 52-year-old with the raspy New York City accent is the fiery leader of the Ducks' undersized defensive line. The group will give up almost 50 pounds per man as it tries to contain QB Cameron Newton and the Tigers' potent offense. Biggest challenge of Azzinaro's near 30-year coaching career? Yeah, sure. Then again, Azzinaro knows a lot about challenges.

Almost 12 years ago, Jerry Azzinaro was given last rites while his body was laid out on a hospital bed in Maine. At the time, he had been preparing to start a new job as the defensive line coach at Syracuse. He was flying to his home in Orono, Maine, after taking part in a coaching clinic at the University of Pittsburgh. Azzinaro went there to talk about the finer points of the "G-Defense."

On the flight, he felt sharp pain in his chest. Azzinaro, a former Golden Gloves boxing champ and judo brown belt who was always known amongst his grizzled colleagues as the toughest guy they'd ever met, was able to make it home. He went up to take a shower, hoping the feeling would ease up. It didn't. The pain worsened. He knew something inside him was very wrong. Since his wife was out of town, Azzinaro drove himself to the emergency room.

Doctors determined he needed emergency surgery. The 41-year-old Azzinaro had suffered an aortic dissection, which occurs when the inner layer of the wall of the aorta -- the body's largest artery -- splits open (or dissects). Then the blood that is being pumped out of the heart forces its way between the separated layers, causing the aorta to split even further apart.

Most people don't survive it, Azzinaro was later told.

The staff at University of Maine hospital didn't think he would, either.