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Super Bowl XLVIII Broncos’ coach John Fox feels super after heart scare

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, at 7:10 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, at 12:16 a.m.

— Denver Broncos coach John Fox realizes he’s lucky to be alive. Reaching Super Bowl XLVIII is just an added bonus.

Fewer than three months ago, during the Broncos’ bye week, Fox felt dizzy and faint while playing a round of golf near his home on the Quail Hollow Club course in Charlotte, N.C.

Fox, 58, understood exactly what was happening. He had a congenital heart condition and knew before the 2013 season that it would require attention.

But who has time in the nonstop world of the NFL to schedule a simple surgery? However, time stopped for Fox, who had surgery to replace his aortic heart valve on Nov. 4 in Charlotte, two days after he was stricken.

“A lot of great people are the reason I’m standing here,” said Fox, who had shed about 20 pounds before the season started and another 10 since the surgery, dropping him to his high-school playing weight of about 190 pounds.

Fox missed four games in the heart of the Broncos’ schedule — two against the Chiefs, one at New England and one at San Diego — but Denver, under interim head coach Jack Del Rio, won three of those games, losing only to the Patriots in overtime.

Fox returned for the final four games and led the Broncos to wins over San Diego and New England in the AFC playoffs. He’s back in the Super Bowl for the second time as a head coach, having taken the Carolina Panthers to Super Bowl XXXVIII after the 2003 season, where they lost 32-29 to New England.

“Basically I wasn’t getting any oxygen,” Fox said of the incident on the golf course. “It wasn’t a heart attack … it’s really called aortic stenosis … you’re kind of smothering. It was more like suffocating than anything else. Luckily, I was able to get the blood flow perked up a little bit, so I did get oxygen, and I was blessed to be around a couple of good friends and some good docs.”

Fox said he has been monitoring the condition for years. It was discovered during an annual physical when he was an assistant coach with the New York Giants during 1997-2001.

“It was something I was born with, a bicuspid aortic valve,” he said. “It was one of those things where it was going to have to get fixed at some point. If it hadn’t happened kind of an emergency-type of way about nine weeks ago, I’d be looking at having that like next week. So I’m glad it’s over with. I was very blessed … I was in a familiar surrounding with docs and hospitals that I knew and trusted.

“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.”

The news of Fox’s collapse and surgery shook the Broncos.

“The team was very concerned,” quarterback Peyton Manning said. “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 (that) 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. We were relieved once we knew he was going to be OK.”

About a week into Fox’s absence, he was healthy enough to have a FaceTime chat on a big screen with his players. It boosted everyone’s spirits.

“He didn’t really didn’t know how to use it real well,” Manning said, laughing. “He was very up close right into that camera, and I think it was his first FaceTime chat he had ever done. I’ve become an expert on it with the kids now. It was good for the team to see him, and that was a special moment.”

Even from afar, Fox had an effect on his players.

“Coach Fox is a great leader,” cornerback Champ Bailey said. “I think it really showed more when he wasn’t there. Guys understood that we’ve still got a job to do. 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.”

Now, Fox is trying to better able to manage the demands of the job with his health and keep a balance in his life.

“It’s really remarkable about my health,” he said. “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 some of the time.

“I might have been a little tired, getting old. This is a cause of age. Really, it’s been a blessing. I’m way better than I was physically the last 10 years of my life. So, it’s really been kind of an upgrade, and I feel tremendous.”

To reach Randy Covitz, send email to rcovitz@kcstar.com

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