NEWARK, N.J. — For a guy who claims to feel better than he has in 10 years, Denver Broncos coach John Fox has been asked a lot about his health in the buildup to Super Bowl XLVIII.
Having emergency open-heart surgery in the middle of the season has that kind of effect.
Sure, even if pressed by the media, Fox would rather not relive that scary day on Nov. 2, when he collapsed on a Charlotte golf course during Denver’s bye week. But his remarkable four-week recovery — from what felt like being “hit by a truck” — has resonated with the Broncos and served as an ongoing source of inspiration in their pursuit of a championship.
“He battled back,” said cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, “and that shows he really loves us, wanted to be with this team and what kind of guy he is. As a player, you love that.”
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“When you have your leader go down like that,” added safety David Burton, “it just pulls the team together.”
Fox, 58, was born with a bicuspid aortic valve, a condition he has known about for more than a decade following an annual physical when he was an assistant coach with the New York Giants. Ideally, a corrective procedure would’ve been handled this offseason, perhaps even next week.
But life had other plans.
“Basically I wasn’t getting any oxygen,” Fox said of his Nov. 2 incident. “It wasn’t a heart attack; that was misreported. It’s really called aortic stenosis, which is basically you’re kind of smothering. It was more like suffocating than anything else.”
Fox said his heart valve at the time of his surgery was the size of a pinhead. Now it’s the size of a quarter. When told his recovery would require four to five weeks, Fox handled it with the mindset of a player returning from an injury.
The Broncos, with a first-place 8-1 record at the time, felt differently.
“Our first concern was for his health,” said quarterback Peyton Manning. “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 is he going to be back as our coach?’ ”
About a week after surgery, Fox held a video chat with the Broncos during a team meeting.
“He preached, even from his hospital bed, how much we needed to just hone in on what’s in front of us and make sure we take care of business,” said cornerback Champ Bailey.
“That was a special moment,” Manning added.
The Broncos went 3-1 while Fox recovered and stayed on track to earn the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, led by Jack Del Rio, the team’s defensive coordinator who coached the Jacksonville Jaguars for eight-plus seasons. The only loss in that span came in overtime to the New England Patriots, a game Denver led 24-0 to start the third quarter.
Fox praised Del Rio, the Broncos and his doctors for how they handled the month-long absence, and also called his wife, Robin, who nursed him, the “star” of those four weeks. Nearly three months later, Fox said he is “150 percent” better than he was.
So does the return from such an episode make him any more appreciative of how far the team has come?
“First and foremost, I am appreciative of this regardless of any health scares or any of the things I’ve been through,” Fox said. “This is a very hard place to get to. I’ve been blessed to do it three times, once as an assistant and twice as a head coach.
“Like any health scare, whether it’s your parents or somebody in your family … it was a setback. It was a little bit scary for a minute.”
Fox, though, recalled a pertinent message he often tells his players:
“Sometimes setbacks are setups for better things to come.”
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184
On Twitter @joshuamayers