JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- There's been a lot of talk already about the unusual journey Denver Broncos head coach John Fox had to take to the Super Bowl, and for good reason. Fox had known since 1997 that he had a defective bicuspid aortic valve in his heart, but had managed it through his time as the New York Giants' defensive coordinator from1997 through 2001, as the Carolina Panthers' head coach from 2002 through 2010, and as the Broncos' head coach from 2011 to November of last year. During the Broncos' bye week, Fox was on a Charlotte, N.C. golf course when he started to feel short of breath. And at that point, the doctors who told him that he would have to get a procedure done let him know that now, it was not an option he could weigh.
Fox returned to work in early December, four weeks after he underwent an aortic valve replacement. Interim head coach Jack Del Rio kept things humming, and the Broncos finished with a 13-3 record and the top seed in the AFC. Two playoff wins later, Fox finds himself in his first Super Bowl since he took Carolina to the NFL's biggest game a decade ago, where his Panthers lost to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Now, everything has a greater meaning to Fox -- not just the fact that his team is here, but that he's here with them, and stronger than he's been in quite a while.
“First and foremost, I am appreciative of this, regardless of any health scares or any of the things I’ve been through -- this is a very hard place to get to," he said from the podium during Denver's Monday media scrum. "I’ve been blessed to do it three times, once as an assistant [with the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV in Jan., 2001] and twice as a head coach. Going back, like any health scare, whether it was your parents or somebody in your family, in this case it was myself, it was a setback. It was a little bit scary for a minute. I really don’t think about it much now.
"The first four days, I thought about it a little bit because it was like getting hit by a truck. I got better every day just like any player who has been through an injury. I never thought I wouldn’t be back once I was going through the process. Fortunately, I had my family and good medical people, and here I am. I really haven’t thought about it much, to be honest with you, here recently.”
Moreover, Fox's health has actually improved since the procedure was done.
“You know, it’s really remarkable, and I just have to say this. I am 180 percent better than I was eight months ago. I had a valve that was the size of a pinhead, and now it's the size of a 50-cent piece. What you do is that you learn to deal with stuff in life. 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.”
There's a slightly lesser-known story of another individual who thought he might not return to football, much less the Super Bowl, who is here nonetheless, and whose emotions overcame him in the moment. Seattle Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson's tears following his team's 23-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers came from a deeper place than you might expect. Robinson wasn't just reflecting on an NFL path that took him through the 49ers' organization as an underutilized role player from 2006 through 2009 before Pete Carroll made him a Pro Bowl fullback -- he was also thinking about the struggles he had with potential liver and kidney failure that started on Aug. 17 -- the morning of Seattle's preseason game against the Broncos.
“That morning, I woke up and knew it was different,” Robinson said in October. “Kind of felt chills, like I was getting the flu. I had mentioned it to the doctors early in the day that I may be coming in this week getting fluids. it just went south from there.”
Robinson spent the next two weeks at the University of Washington Medical Center, and his weight plummeted from 240 pounds to 215. Doctors needed time to figure out what was wrong, but as things went from bad to worse, they were able to manage Robinson's symptoms and start to turn things around.
“I was dehydrated before the game and you can’t take those [medication] and be dehydrated, and I think I probably got sick at the same time," Robinson said then. "[The doctors] just said it was the perfect storm. I thought I was just getting the flu, and I come to find out that my liver, my kidneys almost failed. It was pretty bad.”
It was really bad when the Seahawks released Robinson on Aug. 30, with the knowledge that he would most likely be asked back when he was healthy. That happened on Oct. 23, after Robinson recovered and made trips to the Tennessee Titans and New York Giants in which he realized that Seattle was now his home. Thus, to go through all that and be able to make a real impact on the way to his first Super Bowl -- Robinson's emotion was as understandable as it was palatable.
“Yeah, I wondered," Robinson said Monday afternoon, when asked if he doubted at times whether he would ever recover from this. "I went to the hospital three separate times. Two times they sent me home and just told me to keep getting fluids. I went two weeks without eating, so I lost a lot of weight. They hadn’t seen anything like this. Then, once we brought the liver specialist in and the kidney specialist in, they’ve seen these types of reactions before and they were all over it.”
One might wonder whether Robinson harbored ill feelings for the team that cut him when he was sick, but as he said in October, he's a realist -- he had no illuisions about the NFL after the way the 49ers treated him, and it was just about getting back home.
“I wrestle with it, but it was easy when I looked at my relationship with the guys on the team. That’s why you play this game, and I feel like a big reason why we’re here is that every man in that locker room thinks the same way. We all play because of the guy next to you. You all perform because the guy next to you is counting on you. Peer accountability, the biggest thing is accountability, so that’s what we try to do.”
So, there were tears of joy and relief and just a wave of emotion when he was able to completely turn things around.
"I’ve gotten a lot of questions about me crying and all that type of stuff, but it was just I had a long year being cut, being sick, not really realizing the extent of the sickness. I didn’t know that my kidneys were failing and my liver was failing. I had no idea. I just thought I was getting a bug. But again, hindsight is 20/20 and I’m glad I’m here now. I’ve got my weight back, got my strength back, and it was an opportunity to come back here and I’m glad it opened up.”
Carroll, who visited Robinson at the hospital at the same time he was mulling over the decision to release one of the team's most respected veterans, was happy to talk about this particular happy ending.
“Mike is a very emotional player and he gives everything he’s got, so this instance in particular... when Mike was really sick at the start of the year and was unable to perform, he lost his opportunity. Probably there were moments when Michael thought he might not ever get another chance. So when we did come back to him and we were able to get it together, it was very meaningful for Michael. He is a big factor on our team, because we don’t have that many older guys and he really stands for the old guard. He’s been a big factor on special teams as well. You can see the emotion come out of Michael.
"He’s the guy that never thought, ‘maybe I’ll never get this chance again.’ Then he comes back to play and he gets to play in the Super Bowl. I totally get it and respect it.” The Super Bowl is massively important for everybody involved every year. But for one coach and one player, there are extra spikes in that emotion this time.