ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Of all the decisions coach John Fox made that kept the Denver Broncos rolling through a drama-filled season, one was an absolute life-saver.
Instead of going out on his fishing boat for some solitude during his team's bye week, Fox decided to play 18 holes with some buddies some 200 yards from his offseason home in Charlotte, N.C.
“I'd have been 60 miles out in the woods,” Fox said. “They might never have found me.”
Fox had just seen his cardiologist in Raleigh, who told him he'd still be able to delay his heart operation until after the Super Bowl so long as he didn't feel faint or short of breath in the meantime.
Fox was born with a genetic defect in his aortic valve, which regulates blood flow from the heart into the aorta, the major blood vessel that brings blood into the body. He said it was discovered in 1997 when a murmur showed up in a physical while he was the Giants defensive coordinator.
Feeling dizzy, he chipped within 2 feet for par, then lay down on the 14th green and, hardly able to breathe, said a short prayer: “God you get me out of this and I'll get it fixed now.”
Less than 48 hours later, on Nov. 4, he underwent open-heart surgery.
Four days after that, he was released from the hospital and his wife helped him set up a command center at his home in Charlotte to keep tabs on his team back in Denver.
Not only was he in daily contact with defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who guided the Broncos to three wins in four games during in his absence, but Fox was also in constant communication with his captains, including quarterback Peyton Manning.
Fox watched cut-ups of practices on his iPad playbook to help formulate game plans and he watched games on his big-screen TV.
The lone loss during his hiatus was a 34-31 overtime heartbreaker at New England on Nov. 24 when the Broncos blew a 24-0 halftime lead after cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie separated a shoulder trying to pick off Tom Brady's desperation pass that died in the wind at the end of the first half.
Brady took advantage of D.R.C.'s absence to stage the biggest comeback of his career, just as he's going to try to capitalize on the loss of cornerback Chris Harris Jr. (knee) when the Patriots (13-4) visit the Broncos (14-3) on Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
“Probably the hardest thing for the team was that we didn't know when Foxie was going to be back,” Broncos executive vice president John Elway said. “And in Foxie's mind, he would have been back three days after the surgery.”
Fox and his wife, Robin, flew home on team owner Pat Bowlen's jet in late November and at Del Rio's suggestion he visited with the team on Thanksgiving morning, then watched from his home in Denver as the Broncos beat the Chiefs 35-28 in Kansas City that weekend to take charge of the AFC West.
He returned to work the following day, his newfound energy matching his renewed enthusiasm, saying his surgeon told him the aortic valve was now the size of a 50-cent piece instead of a pinhead.
What a difference.
He exuded vitality while capturing his third division title in his three seasons since replacing Josh McDaniels in Denver, then dispatched the demons of last year's playoff loss with an exhaling win over San Diego last weekend.
“He's got more energy than anybody I've ever seen,” Elway said. “That, to me, is the definition of John Fox: the energy level that he brings. He brings it to the practice field, and it's contagious. I think that's why he was a perfect fit for us after what happened with Josh. That positive attitude that he brings turned the culture around because of the type of guy that he is.
“We missed his energy.”
Since his return on Dec. 2, Fox has more pep in his step, more boom in his voice — and even more gumption in his calls.
Like sending in Matt Prater for a 64-yard field goal attempt on an icy afternoon in Denver or ordering his high-powered offense not to milk the clock with a big lead at Houston, where Manning broke Brady's single-season touchdown record with a late score.
Could this be the same man who had Manning take a knee with three timeouts and 31 seconds remaining in regulation in the playoff game last year after Baltimore's Jacoby Jones' 70-yard game-tying TD catch?
Has Fox turned in his conservative credentials?
While Fox said his health scare did cause him to re-evaluate some things, he insists it didn't have a profound effect on his approach to the job.
“It's like an injury to a player,” Fox said. “When you come back, you hope you're the same player again.”