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Former Panthers coach John Fox: Surgery to Super Bowl in 90 days

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/01/19/57/LSWo5.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Jeff Zelevansky - Getty
    John Fox: ... “It was a great nine years” in Charlotte as the Carolina Panthers coach.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/01/19/57/1oXETF.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Mark Humphrey - AP
    Denver Broncos head coach John Fox talks with players as they stretch during a Super Bowl practice in Florham Park, N.J.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/01/19/57/1tUeqk.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Matt Slocum - AP
    Denver Broncos head coach John Fox laughs as he speaks at Friday’s news conference in New York.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/01/19/57/IP1P6.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Thomas A. Ferrara - MCT
    Denver Broncos coach John Fox speaks during Tuesday’s NFL Media Day at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
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    - AP
    Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) talks with head coach John Fox during a Super Bowl practice in Florham Park, N.J.

NEW YORK On the three-month anniversary of the day he collapsed on the 14th green of Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club, gasping for breath while an ambulance wailed toward him, John Fox will try to win his first Super Bowl.

Fox prides himself on “being the same guy,” as he likes to call it, no matter what noise swirls around him. But it is undeniable that the Denver Broncos head coach has had a season unlike any other.

The Carolina Panthers’ head coach from 2002 through 2010, Fox in the past 90 days has survived a serious health scare, had open-heart surgery and returned to finish a season in which Denver has blazed to a Super Bowl berth against Seattle. Although he made his name as a defensive coach, Fox has directed a team quarterbacked by Peyton Manning that set the all-time NFL record for points this season.

At 58, Fox is on the verge of both a personal comeback and what would be his greatest triumph as a coach.

This is the coach’s third Super Bowl. He lost the first two – as a defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in the 2000 postseason and, 10 years ago, as the Panthers’ head coach in a 32-29 loss to New England. Asked this week what lesson he learned from his experience with the Panthers in that Super Bowl, Fox said: “Don’t lose.”

Fox still keeps a home in Charlotte and told me he has fond memories of the area.

“I’ve got a lot of close friends and a lot of close relationships there,” he said. “The children (Fox and his wife, Robin, have four) made it through high school there and they have close ties. So who knows? I’m still marching along with my career, but we may end up there some day.”

While Fox sounds the same today as he did during his time in Charlotte – his raspy voice can still bellow – there are differences. He has lost 15 pounds since his surgery, down to his high school weight of 185.

He also no longer uses the cliche “It is what it is” as conversational filler. I listened to him in three hours of group interviews this week at the Super Bowl, and he just doesn’t say it anymore. It was what it was, I guess. He still does use another of his favorite Carolina cliches, however: “This game is only fun when you win.”

Fox has won a lot in Denver, beautifully adapting to his personnel. Fox coached conservatively at Carolina, emphasizing defense, the running game and low-risk passes. In 2002, during the first real interview I had with him in Charlotte, he uttered a phrase he lived out for nine years: “A punt is not a bad play.”

Fox was given a gift, though, in his second year in Denver in 2012 when Manning joined the Broncos as a free agent. The coach allows Manning to act as a coach on the field and decimate one defense after another. The Broncos throw the ball constantly and score at an unprecedented pace.

The Panthers went 12-4 this past regular season but did not have a player score 10 or more touchdowns. Denver had five players who scored 10 or more. The Broncos averaged 37.8 points per game. In 2010, Fox’s last season at Carolina, the Panthers averaged 12.2.

‘It was more like suffocating’

It was questionable on the afternoon of Nov. 2 whether Fox would live to see the rest of this season. While playing golf at Quail Hollow with some buddies during the Broncos’ bye week, he started to feel like he couldn’t breathe.

“I wasn’t getting any oxygen,” he said. “It wasn’t a heart attack; that was mis-reported. It’s really called aortic stenosis, which is basically you’re kind of smothering. It was more like suffocating than anything else.”

On the 14th green, Fox first sat down, then lay down (although he did manage to putt out first). He knew he was in trouble. He had known about the congenital problem since 1997 and had monitored it, but it had not been a problem. He put off surgery until after the 2013 season, which he later admitted was a “poor medical decision.”

While on the ground, Fox said he prayed: “God, get me through this, and I’ll get this fixed immediately.” Someone called 911.

His wife, Robin, was 2 miles away running errands. She saw the ambulance and fire truck destined for her husband speed by, but had no idea where they were headed, she wrote in a column posted Friday on mmqb.si.com. A friend called her shortly afterward and said, “Hey listen, we think it’s John’s heart. You better get back here.” Paramedics gave Fox oxygen and then took him to the hospital.

Two days later, Fox had aortic valve replacement surgery in Charlotte. Doctors wouldn’t allow him to fly afterward. So after getting out of the hospital on Nov. 8, he spent nearly three more weeks at his home in Charlotte, under the care of his wife.

“She was my nursemaid for four straight weeks,” Fox said. “She did a tremendous job managing my family, managing my profession and above and beyond, managing me. She was a star in this one for sure.”

Fox missed four games. Robin sometimes strapped a blood-pressure cuff to his arm while he watched his team play – talking to the television constantly. Other times, Fox would walk away from the TV when he was getting too stressed out and play solitaire on his iPad, his wife would later write.

Denver went 3-1 under interim coach Jack Del Rio.

One of the highlights of that month away, Manning said, was a video chat Fox had with the team.

Said Manning: “We had a FaceTime chat with Coach Fox. He didn’t really 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.”

Fox returned to Denver just before Thanksgiving and claims to have hardly given the surgery a second thought. Said Fox: “I’m 150 percent better than I was prior to my surgery. ... My valve had collapsed. So I had a valve the size of a pinhead and now it’s the size of a 50-cent piece. I feel way healthier than I did nine or 10 weeks ago.”

In New York, Fox has several times likened his surgery to recovering from a “sprained ankle” and said it was not much different from a player taking a few weeks off because of a minor injury.

That analogy tickled Seattle head coach Pete Carroll, a longtime Fox acquaintance and his rival in this Super Bowl. Carroll wisecracked at a joint news conference with Fox Friday: “What a stud! He’s comparing open-heart surgery to an ankle sprain. That’s awesome.”

Success and failure

Fox has said only good things about his time with the Panthers in the run-up to this Super Bowl. But it is a fact that the relationship ended badly.

There was an obvious disconnect between the coach and team owner Jerry Richardson in Fox’s final season, in 2010, in which Fox had to start overmatched and undersized rookie Jimmy Clausen for much of the year at quarterback. Carolina finished 2-14 – the only time in 25 NFL seasons a Fox-coached team finished worse than 6-10.

Fox made a few snippy comments that season after the team sliced close to a dozen key veterans from the roster and several times implied the players he had been given simply weren’t good enough to win.

Richardson said in a rare press conference in early 2011 that one reason for dumping the veterans was to force Fox to play young players. The owner also was preparing for a soon-to-come lockout. And Richardson also said that he had decided to let Fox’s contract expire because: “The facts are in nine years we had three winning seasons and we failed to have two winning seasons back-to-back.”

All that was true, but the Panthers also had their greatest success under Fox. He joined the team in 2002, after a 1-15 season. In Fox’s first team meeting he questioned the players’ manhood and said they weren’t tough enough.

The players didn’t like it, but it worked. Fox, a strong safety at San Diego State whose nickname was “Crash,” has always preached a physical style. He still does.

Said defensive end Shaun Phillips: “Coach Fox is old-school, hit-them-in-the-mouth football. Our practices are physical. The starters go against the starters all the time.”

In their 19-year history, the Panthers have won six playoff games – five with Fox as head coach. Most notably, Carolina won three straight playoff games after the 2003 season to get to the Super Bowl against New England.

In that thriller, the Panthers and Patriots each scored four touchdowns and a field goal. The point differential occurred because of three two-point conversions attempted in the fourth quarter. The Panthers missed on both of theirs and New England made its only try.

If Fox had it to do over again, he said he wouldn’t have gone for a two-point conversion early in the fourth quarter with Carolina trailing 21-16.

“I think I learned at that time not to chase two-point plays too early,” Fox said. “Like everything, you live and learn.”

‘Only one happy camper’

Fox’s players at Denver describe him much the same way those at Carolina always did. “Coach Fox has always been a high-energy, happy guy,” said Mike Rucker, who played on Carolina’s Super Bowl team. “You wanted to play for him.”

Said Phillips: “He’s the coach who wants to know your family, wants to meet your kids, wants to speak to everyone in the building.”

Fox said this Denver team is much different than Carolina’s Super Bowl team. Though he is careful not to disparage that Panthers squad, Denver is far better offensively. Manning is in the conversation for the best quarterback ever. Carolina had Jake Delhomme. And although Delhomme had a superb Super Bowl, he will never be in the hall of fame, as Manning will one day be.

“Show me a good coach and I’m going to show you some good players,” Fox said. “There’s no doubt I became a better coach with Peyton.”

Fox knows having Manning is no guarantee of winning a Super Bowl and the accompanying Lombardi Trophy. He also knows that – three months after his open-heart surgery – this may be his best chance.

“There’s only one happy camper at the end of this,” Fox said. “It’s not like college football, where there are multiple bowl winners. I feel really blessed to be here at the Super Bowl three times. But I’d like to find out what it’s like to hoist that Lombardi Trophy.”

Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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