John Knebels
Sports Columnist

Imagine cutting away a meatball from a plate of spaghetti without touching or moving any of the noodles.

Now imagine the meatball is a tumor and the spaghetti is your carotid artery.

Before Mike Koenig underwent surgery at Jefferson Hospital this past March, that’s precisely the task that awaited surgeons. Needing to nip one half of a millimeter at a time from a 3 ½-centimeter growth while digging through neck muscle, it took the surgeons more than seven hours to complete their mission.

When Koenig awakened, the 31-year-old physics teacher and track coach at Malvern Preparatory School was appropriately groggy. But despite his unstable state, he was relieved to be alive.

“Anytime you have that kind of surgery, there are many risks involved,” said Koenig. “There are major nerves around there that affect some vital parts. One slip could mean a lot of trouble.”

After doctors had revealed that what Koenig saw in the mirror as “an odd looking lump on one side of my neck” was extremely serious, the likeable resident of Wilmington, Del., and 1996 Salesianum School graduate fully realized his predicament.

Looking back at what actually necessitated two surgeries (the first was in January and involved a procedure that ultimately was not successful), Koenig said he remained remarkably calm despite the grim circumstances that awaited him. In fact, he said the ordeal was more difficult for his wife of three years, Leslie.

“She is the one who had to sit there in the waiting room while the surgery was going on,” said Koenig. “I was the one who was conked out in bed with no idea of what was happening.”

Koenig now theorizes that in times of medical distress it is indeed more challenging for healthy loved ones because they have literally no control over what is occurring.

“I’m sure if the situation was reversed and I was the one waiting while Leslie was in surgery, I would have been pulling my hair out,” he said.

Within three weeks, Koenig had returned to coach track at Malvern. Staying completely away from his normal routine was almost impossible, so he asked doctors if he could at least reacquaint himself to the work day. Doctors said he could coach, but teaching would have to wait.

Less than two weeks from now, Koenig plans to be back in the classroom explaining concepts such as energy, matter and force.

All the while, he will continue offering prayers of appreciation for not only surviving a very serious surgery, but for thriving.

“I’m feeling better and stronger each day,” he said. “I will have to keep getting check-ups and tests for a while, but that’s to be expected.”

Koenig also recognized how fortunate he was to live near a hospital like Jefferson that employs surgeons who specialize in the specific kind of operation he needed.

“I could have had to go to somewhere like Cleveland,” he said. “I was really very lucky to live near Jefferson.”

Not surprisingly, Koenig has emerged philosophical.

“It’s weird,” he said. “When you go through life and you have your first medical bump in the road, you don’t expect it to be something like this. All of a sudden, you realize that you are no longer invincible.”

Jim Mack, who assists Koenig in coaching both track and cross country, was not surprised when Koenig returned to coaching, albeit without a voice that could boom out instructions.

“I had no doubt in my mind that Mike would be back right away after his surgery,” said Mack. “He could barely talk, but he called me the day after the operation and we talked about the team and the upcoming meet that weekend. He must have been pretty well doped up at that point because he called me the next day and we had almost the same exact conversation.

“Mike cares too much about the Malvern track team for anything to slow him down. He even scheduled the surgery so he could miss the least amount of time possible. Now, he is almost fully back to his salty self.”

For that, Mike Koenig – and the entire Malvern Prep community – is eternally grateful.

John Knebels can be reached at