A Wife's Nightmare: 'We Think It's John's Heart'

Those were the words Robin Fox heard over the phone, as the Denver coach was falling victim to a condition that would require invasive surgery and four weeks away from the Broncos sideline. Here, she reflects on the path her family traveled from that terrifying call to football's biggest stage
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By Robin Fox

On Nov. 2, the Saturday of the Broncos’ bye week, coach John Fox was hospitalized with a heart condition he’d known about for years. By Monday, he’d gone under the knife to correct his defective aortic valve, and he would go on to miss his team’s next four games, a stretch over which Denver went 3-1, losing only to the Patriots.

When Fox returned from what he called his "extended bye week," he was 10 pounds lighter and ready to go. Almost immediately upon sitting down with the media, he paused to thank his wife of nearly 29 years, Robin Fox, whom he credits with saving his life and bringing him back after the surgery. When the Broncos face the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday, it will also mark the three-month anniversary of Fox’s surgery.

The heart problem really was in the back of my mind this year. When he went for his physical, they said, "Hey, really, you need to get this done." He had a couple of engagements he had to go to—he’d already made these commitments—but he really thought he could put it off until after the season. We all think we’re going to be here forever, and I also think that mentally, it’s hard when you’re feeling good—or you think you’re feeling good—to put yourself under for surgery like that. You have to prepare yourself for something like that.

Once he had to have it, though, there was no choice. I pushed him to go see the doctor during the bye week. I had researched it, and there was a noninvasive surgery you can have. I just thought for him, because he’s such an active guy, it might be a good option. He was not a candidate for that.

John and Robin Fox share a laugh from John's time as head coach of the Panthers. (Chuck Burton/AP)

John and Robin Fox share a laugh from John's time as head coach of the Panthers. (Chuck Burton/AP)

That day, he went out golfing with his buddies. A bunch of the wives, we all met for lunch together with the guys after nine holes, and then they left to play the back nine. A friend and I were heading out to run some errands, and we might have been two miles from the house, and here comes a fire truck and an ambulance. We had no idea who it was for. We pulled over to the side, let them go by, and no sooner did we pull into the parking lot of where we were going that I got a phone call. It was a friend of his. "Hey, listen, we think it’s John’s heart. You better get back here. It’s not good."

I turned the car around. I flew back. When I got there, he was in the golf cart, and he had oxygen, with paramedics around him. He was feeling really good at that point, with the oxygen, but they went to take the oxygen off he started getting woozy again. He knew he had to go to the hospital.

It was such a blessing that it happened in Charlotte, because all the doctors that monitored him for nine years are there. After nine years, you have those relationships. They become your friends. It was just amazing how they just all showed up and were there for him. They put an A-team together, and the doctors in Colorado just seamlessly worked right along with that team. It's incredible how they took care of him. You know you’re liked and loved, but when that happens, it becomes a reality. It’s amazing to look back on it.

The afternoon after Fox collapsed on the golf course, the doctors had to devise a plan. Already aware of the heart defect, they had to gauge how bad things had gotten, and news that he was to undergo surgery didn’t break until late that night. It came much to Fox's dismay.

He thought he was going back [to Denver]. It was hard for him. If you know him, the person that he is, he’s amazing, and nothing holds him down.

His body told him that he couldn’t go right back, though. I knew that was going to happen. If you’ve ever had surgery, you think, Oh, I want to get back in two weeks. His will got him out of there in four days, but when he got home, they did tell us what to expect: This is going to be a bad day. This will be a good day. This day is going to be a day you get over the hump. This is going to be a day you turn the corner. I kind of knew it would take time. He was on a lot of medications with the pain and stuff. I’m sure a lot of it, he doesn’t even completely remember.

[pullquote]"The one thing I told him was don’t push it. Did he do that? Not really. Those guys are just wired differently. He’s John Fox. He dials in, and that’s it."[/pullquote]

It was just John and I for those weeks. I would not let anybody come in. We had signs on the doors saying not to bother him, because I really wanted him to get his rest so he could get back in the shortest amount of time his body could handle. I knew that if people kept coming and going, that was going to prolong it. It became like Groundhog’s Day after about two weeks, just very redundant. The kids were there, though. Matt lives there, and then Mark came from Elon. Cody came for a weekend from NYU, where he goes to school, and Halle was back in Denver because she had to go back to school.

After four weeks, Fox was given permission to rejoin the team. He and Robin flew back to Denver the day before Thanksgiving, and he briefly met with players that week before returning to his full duties the next Monday on the heels of the team’s win in Kansas City.

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After the surgery, the doctor told me: "Robin, I just want to let you know that after the surgery, you’re going to find that he’s going to have a lot more energy." I just looked at him like, Oh, no, this isn’t good. He’s already so energetic. But it was good for him to be able to come out of it and have this great energy, to watch him be back to who he is.

It was hard in the beginning coming back, because they really didn’t want him to put full days in, and when I’m talking full days, I’m talking 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. I was worried about him, because his body, it was still healing. I watched him. The one thing I told him was that when he got tired, he should listen to his body and come home, get some rest, and then go back. Don’t push it. Did he do that? Not really. Those guys are just wired differently. He’s John Fox. He knows one speed, and he’s very tunneled. He dials in, and that’s it.

He missed those guys. He missed that team. He loves those boys. They’re like his kids. I watched the games with him while he was home, and oh my goodness, it was like an out-of-body experience. I don’t think I’d ever watched one of our games with him. It was weird. When he started to get stressed a little bit, he’d grab his iPad and play solitaire. He talked to the TV the whole time. I would just sit there and listen to him.

It hasn’t even been two months since that last game the two watched on TV, and now Fox’s Broncos are riding a four-game winning streak into the Super Bowl, the AFC’s No. 1 seed pitted against Seattle, the top team in the NFC. Things are back to the best kind of normal.

Who would have thought? Sitting there two months ago, watching him in his reclining chair, I never would have thought we’d be here today. It just shows you his will, and the kind of person he is. He’s just an amazing man. We love being here with the Broncos. We have such a special team. It’s been 10 years since I was here [in the Super Bowl, where Fox's Panthers lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII]. I don’t think I’m quite as giddy about it. I know what it feels like to not win a Super Bowl, and that’s hard. I describe it as the most expensive funeral you’ll ever go to. It’s tough. It’s hard, and it lingers.

But maybe now, after this experience, a win will be sweeter if it does happen.