The Broncos went 3-1 in when coach John Fox was out, beating the Chiefs twice and the Chargers. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images)
Jersey City, N.J. – Peyton Manning was one of the first to get the news. It was the Saturday of the Broncos’ bye week in early November. Head coach John Fox had collapsed while playing golf.
He was going to need open heart surgery.
“Our first concern was for his health,” Manning said. “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.”
Many of Manning’s fears were allayed later that night when Fox called him.
“I had a good conversation with him,” Manning said. “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.”
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, the former Jacksonville head coach, was going to take over the team, Fox told Manning. Other than that, everything would continue on the same and he would be back in four weeks.
“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.”
The Broncos went 3-1 in Fox’s absence, beating the Chiefs twice and the Chargers on the road. Del Rio began every meeting with an update on Fox’s recovery.
“Probably one of the highlights during that time was maybe a week later, we were in a team meeting, and we had a big screen, and we had a FaceTime chat with Coach Fox,” Manning said. “He didn’t really didn’t 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.”
It was even more special during the first week of December when Fox returned to practice facility, looking trim and healthy, bursting with energy.
“I wouldn’t say he was different at all,” receiver Wes Welker said. “He came back feeling healthier than he was before. So, obviously, he’s our guy and he brings that energy. At the time we were just worried about his health and making sure that he was all good. We just told him, ‘We’ll take care of everything on our end and you just get right and get back when you’re ready.’”
'I feel tremendous'
Fox, 58, has a new aortic valve in his chest and, he said, the vitality of a much younger man.
“It’s really remarkable about my health,” he said earlier this week. “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.
“What you do is that you learn to deal with stuff in life, and I attribute it to, of course, some of our hours we put in. I might have been a little tired, getting old. This is a cause of age. But it’s been a blessing. I’m way better physically than I’ve been the last 10 years of my life. So, it’s really been kind of an upgrade, and I feel tremendous.”
That the transition -- from Fox to Del Rio and back to Fox – was as seamless as it was is a testament to the structure Fox and vice president of football operations John Elway have established in Denver.
“John’s been remarkable in coming back with energy and not missing a beat,” Del Rio said. “We have a good staff and good players and we all had to step up. I was honored to be given the task of leading it.”
Fox said it was no different than losing a player to injury – next man up.
“You know, I was very blessed, had a great team of doctors; I was in a familiar surrounding with docs and hospitals that I knew and trusted,” Fox said. “I thought it was pretty much like any injury of a player. I was going to be four to five weeks; I made it back a little early, worked hard to get back.
“Really once that started, I never really gave it a second thought. I had a plan and we executed the plan, and just like I tell players, sometimes setbacks are setups for better things to come."
Thankful every day
This is the third Super Bowl for Fox. His Carolina team lost to the Patriots in 2003 and he was the defensive coordinator on the Giants team that lost to Baltimore in 2000. And what lessons did he take from those experiences?
“That you don’t want to lose,” he said.
Surviving a near-death experience is supposed to alter priorities and put things in a deeper perspective. For Fox, it seems, it only reinforced what he’s already known.
“When you go through something like that it probably changes your perspective on things and gives you an appreciation for every day, but Foxy lives every day in a great way as it is,” said running backs coach Eric Studesville. “He’s always got a smile on his face. The energy he brings into the building -- all those things. 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.”
Fox certainly hasn’t altered or cut back on his work load. In fact, he scoffed at the suggestion that being a head coach needn’t be as all consuming as most make it out to be.
“I think I would say the reverse; I think it’s definitely all consuming,” he said. “When you’re dealing with young people -- I have four children, so I get that pretty well -- just keeping them all on task, all headed in the right direction, all with the same common goal. You understand that you have to be selfless and not selfish, which is a hard concept for all of us.
“And I think if you’ve got a pretty good program and you’ve got a pretty good plan in place, that it can be executed, especially if you let your coaches coach and everybody understands their role. They know what to do, stay in their lane. You can deal with a minor adjustment, and the truck keeps moving forward.”
That’s as good a metaphor as any for the way the Broncos truck has rolled into the Super Bowl this season.
“Yeah, but I could have done without the open heart surgery,” Fox said.