Jeff Legwold | ESPN.com
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Thankful to be back on the job and happy with how his team performed while he was gone, Denver Broncos coach John Fox returned to work Monday saying, “I’m actually in better shape now than I was a month ago.”
Fox, who had open-heart surgery on Nov. 4 to replace his aortic valve, said he intends to keep to his usual pre-surgery schedule, but he will add some flexibility to leave for the day if he feels fatigued.
“I feel tremendous. As my surgeon said, I had a valve that was about as big as a pinhead, and now it’s about the size of a 50-cent piece,” Fox said. “I feel tremendous, obviously the doctors feel good about me getting back to work. I actually would have preferred to have been back sooner, but there was a pretty hard deadline after the surgery of four weeks, and I honored that.
“I feel as healthy as I’ve ever felt in the last 20 years. I’m going to be smart. If all of a sudden I can’t hold my eyes open, I’m going to go home. But, like I said, the last three weeks I’ve been operating pretty much as I did the first eight weeks of the season. It’s not like I’m moving furniture or doing roofs. I mean, I sit somewhere and watch football. … [But] the procedure I had; I’m well.”
Fox experienced dizziness and lightheadedness during a round of golf Nov. 2 in Charlotte, N.C., during the Broncos’ bye week. He was taken to a hospital and underwent surgery two days later. After he spent much of his recovery time in Charlotte, Fox returned to Denver on Wednesday and visited with the Broncos players following the Thanksgiving Day practice for the first time since his surgery.
“He might be even more fiery, just being out so long,” cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “Having the bye week as he calls it, he might be even more fiery with the refs. We expect even a more intense coach.
“It’s definitely great, having our leader back. He expects a lot out of us, and we want to go out there and play hard for him.”
Interim coach Jack Del Rio went 3-1 in Fox’s absence, including two wins over the Kansas City Chiefs as well as an overtime loss to the New England Patriots. The Broncos were 7-1 when Fox underwent surgery, and he returns to a 10-2 team that is in first place in the AFC West and in the lead for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
“It was definitely good to see him,” running back Knowshon Moreno said. “He didn’t miss a beat, he was right back in there running the meetings. … We just miss his presence.”
Doctors said at the time of Fox’s surgery that recovery times vary from patient to patient. But Fox maintained just five days after the surgery that his hope was to return before the season was over.
“Great job by Jack and the staff and everybody in this building, to be honest with you,” Fox said. “A lot of people’s roles had to adjust some to pick up for my absence.”
Fox said he had known aortic valve surgery was a possibility since having the issue first diagnosed in 1997, when he was the New York Giants‘ defensive coordinator. The valve, Fox said, normally has three flaps that control blood flow to the body, but Fox’s old aortic valve had just two.
Fox had visited a surgeon in Raleigh, N.C., about having the aortic valve replaced after the season. But two days after that visit, he slumped to the ground on the 14th green of a golf course that was “200 yards from my backyard.”
“I could have been 60 miles out fishing on my boat in Marco [Island in Florida], and that wouldn’t have been good,” Fox said. “I think when I was laying on the 14th green, I said a short prayer that ‘God, you get me out of this, and I’ll get it fixed now.'”
While Fox was recovering, the Broncos’ video staff made each day’s practice video available to him, as well as the coaches’ copy of game tapes. Fox also spoke to Del Rio daily and participated in the planning along the way.
“Really the hardest part was watching the team play,” Fox said. “I talked to a lot of people, actually I talked to [Indianapolis Colts coach] Chuck Pagano and his wife and they said even when he was going through it, battling his disease, that was the hardest part, and I could concur.”
Fox also thanked Broncos coaches, players and staff as well as his peers around the league and fans who had contacted him over the past month — he called it “uplifting.”
He saved the biggest thanks, however, for his wife, Robin.
“I think she was the most happy person today as I drove off to work,” Fox said with a smile. “Robin Fox, my lovely and great wife.”
- Covered Broncos for nine years for Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News
- Previously covered Steelers, Bills and Titans
- Member of Pro Football Hall of Fame Board
of Selectors since 1999