NEW YORK — For four weeks this season, the Denver Broncos were without their head coach.
For four weeks, John Fox, the charismatic, raspy-voiced leader of the AFC champions convalesced while recovering from heart surgery. During the team’s November bye week, Fox was on a Charlotte-area golf course and felt dizzy; he was concerned enough he went to a hospital, and learned that the procedure he knew he’d have to have some day needed to be done now.
So he underwent aortic valve replacement surgery. He has said in recent days that since the procedure, an opening once the size of a pinhead is now the size of a 50-cent piece — much easier for blood to flow through.
Fox minimizes the severity of his situation now; during Friday’s joint press conference with Seattle’s Pete Carroll, he compared his heart surgery to a sprained ankle one of his players might suffer.
Carroll, echoing the thoughts of many in the Rose Theater, jumped in after Fox’s statement and said, “What a stud. He’s comparing an open-heart surgery and being on his back to an ankle sprain. Congratulations on that. That’s really amazing. Come on, John. That’s awesome.”
The news that Fox had fallen ill was understandably met with concern from Broncos players and staff.
“It was a bye week, and we were coming off a win. It’s always a good time to get away and kind of get recharged going into the second half of the season,” quarterback Peyton Manning recalled. “I believe it was Saturday late afternoon when I found out. Our first concern was for his health. How serious was this? What was going to happen in the immediate future as far as potential surgery? So really, the last thing we were thinking about was, when was he going to be back as our coach?
“We were more concerned with how is his health going to be going forward with his life. I had a chance to talk to him late Saturday night, and I had a good conversation with him. He was assuring that he was going to be OK, and that he may miss some time. He was immediately going into the plan for who was going to take his place. Jack Del Rio was going to be the interim. Coach Fox has a great relationship with all of his players, including me. So, we were all just concerned for his natural well-being, and we were relieved once we knew he was going to be OK.”
Denver’s defensive coordinator, Del Rio had head coaching experience with Jacksonville, which he fell back on during his weeks as interim head coach. Del Rio did his best to follow Fox’s blueprint, but of course his own style came into play when addressing the team.
The Broncos, 7-1 before Fox underwent his surgery, went 3-1 under Del Rio, the loss coming in overtime to the Patriots. They’ve gone 5-1 since, including the two postseason wins that got them to the Super Bowl.
Everyone at the Broncos’ Dove Valley facility was happy to have Fox, his energy, and his voice, back on the job Dec. 2.
“Foxy lives every day in a great way. He’s always got a smile on his face, the energy he brings into the building and all those things,” running backs coach Eric Studesville said. “I think it just enhanced that and made all of us really appreciate how thankful we are for every day and the opportunity that’s in front of us. He’s done a great job. The leadership that he provides every day for not just the players, but the coaches and how he represents the organization, it’s fun to be around. I’m glad that I’m a part of it. I appreciate him including me in the ride.”
Fox said he never really had any doubts he’d return to the sideline, and really didn’t take much time away from work: he was in the hospital for four days post-op, but as soon as he returned to his Charlotte home (he was head coach of the Panthers for nine years), he was on his iPad and computer, drawing up plays and watching film.
He was on the phone with Del Rio and John Elway, now a Broncos executive, on a regular basis.
“I never really gave it a second thought about coming back not being an option, or returning to coaching not being an option. It’s worked out pretty well,” Fox said.
Making his second trip to the Super Bowl as head coach — Carolina lost to New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII — is something Fox deeply appreciates, health problem or not.
“This is a very hard place to get to,” he said. “Going back, like any health scare, whether it was your parents or somebody in your family, in this case it was myself, it was a setback. It was a little bit scary for a minute. I really don’t think about it much now.
“The first four days, I thought about it a little bit because it was like getting hit by a truck. I got better every day just like any player who has been through an injury. I never thought I wouldn’t be back once I was going through the process. Fortunately, I had my family and good medical people, and here I am. I really haven’t thought about it much, to be honest with you, here recently.”
Fox, who will turn 59 next week, has been a head coach for 12 straight years, and in the NFL since 1989. He admits, even now, that coaching is all-consuming, but he feels it must be in order to craft a successful team.
And despite his heart surgery, he sounds as if he has no plans on stepping away again any time soon.
“I feel 150 percent better than I did two months ago,” Fox said when asked how much longer he thinks he can coach. “I was trying to get through this one last game, and then we’ve got a very quick, daunting offseason, as usual. I just evaluate that, like after the game, we’ll grade the tape and see how we do.”