NEW YORK -- John Fox never wanted to see himself on the Denver Broncos’ Week 9 injury report. But ignoring the symptoms of a serious health condition he had known about since 1997 -- the fatigue, gasping for air, dizziness, chest pain -- finally caught up with him, and his personal call-to-action was terrifying.
As he stood near the 14th hole at a Charlotte, N.C., golf course during the Broncos’ 2013 bye week, Fox’s heart began strangling him.
His throat was searing. His lips turned purple. He couldn’t breathe. Horrified, he sank to the turf and focused on staying conscious. Don’t faint, he told himself. What if he didn’t wake up?
Fox’s mind raced as his aortic valve was shutting down, and the blood flow was slowing to his brain.
Why didn’t he take care of this a long time ago?
“When I was on my knees on the golf course, I remember praying to God, ‘You can get me out of this, and I’ll get it fixed.’ That’s how scary it was,” Fox recalled. “It was like being smothered. I couldn’t breathe.”
Seeing a healthy Fox in the midst of a chaotic Super Bowl week and comparing him to the pre-surgery head coach, with his red, puffy face and bouts of breathlessness, has been a relief. He’s one of the NFL’s most admired and well-liked coaches.
He’s also a workaholic, like all of them, and when he learned back in 1997 -- while on the New York Giants staff -- that he was born with bicuspid aortic valve disease – his aortic valve had only two chambers instead of the normal three – Fox figured it was a repair he could put off when the time was right.
Well, that time was Nov. 4, 2013. After nearly dying on the golf course, Fox was rushed into surgery in North Carolina to replace his faulty aortic valve.
“Our first concern was for his health,” said Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who had questions like everyone else as soon as he learned his coach -– his friend –- had collapsed. “How serious was this? What was going to happen in the immediate future as far as potential surgery? So really, the last thing you were thinking about was, when is he going to be back as our coach? We were more concerned with how with, ‘How is his health going to be, going forward with his life?’”
The Broncos, 8-1 at the time and in command of the AFC West, were in good hands. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, the former Jacksonville Jaguars head coach, would take over. Fox was told to get well.
That wasn’t easy.
“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,” Fox admitted. “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.”
Del Rio’s outstanding work as interim coach during Fox’s four-week recovery underscores the wealth of leadership and talent on this Super Bowl XLVIII Broncos team, which went 3-1 with the head coach on IR. All three victories were against AFC West opponents.
“Coach Fox basically took four weeks to go and heal, and I don’t think he wanted to take all four,” Del Rio said. “I was able to step in and I did the best I could to make sure our organization continued to run smoothly. He had installed the blueprint. We just took the blueprint and continued on.”
Shortly out of surgery, Del Rio arranged to have Fox address the team electronically.
“Probably one of the highlights during that time was, maybe a week later, we were in a team meeting, and we used a big screen and had a FaceTime chat with coach Fox,” Manning recalled, grinning widely. “He didn’t really know how to use it real well. He was very up-close, right into that camera.
“I think it was his first FaceTime chat he had ever done. It was good for the team to see him, and that was a special moment.”
This week, as the Broncos prepare for Sunday’s NFL championship game against the Seattle Seahawks at MetLife Stadium, there have been plenty of other special moments. Fox is in his third Super Bowl -- he was head coach of the 2003 Panthers team that lost to the Patriots, and defensive coordinator of the Giants team that lost to the Ravens in 2000. He’s relishing this opportunity to finally prevail in one.
Most important, Fox is robust again.
He reflects back on how a tiny defect in his heart left him so vulnerable, and how his high-intensity job and his driven personality weren’t helping.
“You know, it’s really remarkable about my health, and I just have to say this, I am 180 percent better than I was eight months ago. I had a valve that was the size of a pinhead, now it is the size of a 50-cent piece,” Fox said. “What you do is that you learn to deal with stuff in life, and I attribute it to, of course, some of our hours some of the time. I might have been a little tired, getting old. This is a cause of age. “
Or stubbornness. Fox finally paid attention to that heart valve screaming at him for attention, and he’s grateful his wake-up call on the golf course forced him to listen.
“Really, it’s been a blessing. I’m way better than I was physically the last 10 years of my life,” said Fox, beaming at the realty of his good health. “So, it’s really been kind of an upgrade, and I feel tremendous.”
Nancy Gay is the Senior Managing Editor of CSNBayArea.com and CSNCalifornia. Follow her on Twitter at @NancyGay.