John Fox was in trouble. He knew that much. The Denver Broncos coach was feeling lightheaded, and the back of his throat burned as if there were candles inside. His lips had turned purple. There, on the 14th hole of a golf course in Charlotte, N.C., he sank to his knees.
Fox gasped for each breath as if it were his last. Looking back, each might have been. He struggled to maintain consciousness because, as he said, if he passed out, who knew if he was coming back.
“When I was on my knees on the golf course, I remember praying to God, ‘You get me out of this, and I’ll get it fixed.’ That’s how scary it was,” Fox said of the Nov. 2 incident. “It was like being smothered. I couldn’t breathe.”
Fox, 58, said this week that he doesn’t dwell too much on the events of that afternoon 12 weeks ago, not with the Broncos preparing to play the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday in the Super Bowl.
“I really don’t think about it that much now,” Fox said. “The first four days, I thought about it a little bit, because it was like being hit by a truck.”
For Fox, it was a stern lesson about heeding medical advice. After all, he had put off having a procedure to fix the problem with his heart aorta for so long. He was born with a bicuspid aortic valve, a condition doctors had discovered in 1997, when Fox was an assistant with the New York Giants. This year, doctors told him he just had to get it fixed. Fox still put it off until after the Super Bowl.
“A dumb medical move,” he would later say.
Two days after his collapse, Fox had surgery to correct his condition. He said his heart valve at the time of his collapse was the size of a pinhead. Now it’s the size of a quarter.
“Basically, I wasn’t getting any oxygen,” Fox said. “It wasn’t a heart attack. That was misreported. It’s really called aortic stenosis, which means you’re kind of smothering. 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.”
When told his recovery would require four to five weeks, Fox handled the news with the mindset of a player returning from an injury. The Broncos, who were 8-1 and in first place in the AFC West at the time, felt differently.
“Our first concern was for his health,” quarterback Peyton 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 is he going to be back as our coach?’ ”
About a week after surgery, Fox held a video chat with the players 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,” cornerback Champ Bailey said.
Said Manning: “That was a special moment.”
Since his return, Fox has embraced his job with the passion of a man who almost lost it.
He recalls a pertinent message he often tells his players:
“Sometimes setbacks are setups for better things to come,” Fox said.