TAMPA – Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson was told Monday that he has melanoma skin cancer in his spine, the team disclosed today.
Johnson, who has been in charge of Andy Reid’s defense during the head coach’s 10 seasons with the Eagles, has begun radiation treatments at Bryn Mawr Hospital after initially being diagnosed by doctors at Pennsylvania Hospital.
The cancer is a recurrence.
“The original site was a skin cancer in 2001,” team trainer Rick Burkholder said.
“Who knows where it tracked to from there, but his symptoms came from the spine. Now there are some other areas in his body (that have cancer), but I’m not going to get into where else some other stuff is. They will all be treated together. The main deal is his back right now. He’s got a bone tumor down in his low back and that’s what we have to attack right now.”
Burkholder said no surgery is scheduled for Johnson. Burkholder also believes that Johnson intends to continue coaching.
“They’re going to go with radiation right now,” the trainer said. “One of the problems is he’s in a lot of pain from the tumor on his spine and the radiation will calm some of that pain down and let him get back to a little bit more normal walking and stuff like that and then they’ll broach what the next treatment is.”
Burkholder said doctors did not think the cancer had spread to Johnson’s brain or spinal fluid, but that there is concern about where the cancer has spread.
“I think the whole situation with the melanoma spreading through his back is a concern for the doctors -- so they’re going to continue to study him and treat the back right now,” Burkholder said.
Burkholder said Johnson initially complained of back pain earlier this month and was sent for an MRI examination after the Eagles’ Jan. 11 playoff game against the New York Giants.
“The MRI looked funny,” Burkholder said. “We thought he was going to have a disc problem, because he had those symptoms, but it actually looked like there was a tumor besides the stress fracture in his spine. The MRI alerted our doctors that something else might be going on. They did further testing; they did a bunch of scans and had him see some other doctors and it looked like the melanoma was back.”
Johnson, for the first time during his Eagles career, coached from the press box in the Eagles’ playoff win against the New York Giants, then again in the NFC championship loss to the Arizona Cardinals. The Eagles reported that Johnson had back pain and the 67-year-old coach needed the assistance of a cane.
Burkholder, who was on his way to Hawaii to take part in the Pro Bowl, said the Eagles weren’t positive about Johnson’s diagnosis until Monday. Johnson is the only Eagles coach who did not make the trip to Hawaii to coach the NFC squad.
Coach Andy Reid declined to comment, but did tell his assistant coaches about Johnson’s cancer this week.
“We didn’t know definitely until after the Arizona game,” Burkholder said. “We just got all the final stuff this week. We had some ideas and suspicions going into the Arizona game.”
Reid told quarterback Donovan McNabb about Johnson’s illness earlier today.
“It’s tough to hear something about a guy like that,” McNabb said before going on ESPN SportsCenter early this evening. “He’s a great guy and he cares about people. He’s willing to do whatever for anyone. To see him go through this is tough, but we’re all behind him and we’ll provide support for him and continue to pray for him. He’ll go through his treatments and do what he has to do. He’s a fighter.”
Burkholder said he has not spoken to Johnson, but he said Reid indicated that the veteran NFL coach and Eagles team internist Dr. Gary Dorshimer and team physician Peter DeLuca had an optimistic outlook.
“Dr. Dorsheimer and that whole team of doctors over at Pennsylvania Hospital are very optimistic,” Burkholder said. “Jim’s very upbeat about it and Vicky, his wife, is upbeat about it. Nobody has given me a number -- you’ve got this much time -- or anything like that. It has all been positive in terms of treating this cancer.”
Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at 215-854-2577 or