Hale And Hearty Dan Reeves, the Falcons' coach, needs one more win to cap a remarkable career turnaround, but even that won't match the comeback he made from a brush with death

February 01, 1999

Surgeons sawed through his sternum and stopped his heart. Once
his ticker was still, they repaired it with veins harvested from
his right leg and the front of his chest. That done, they
removed the clamp from his aorta and waited for the heart to
start beating again. The operation lasted three hours.

As Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Reeves regained consciousness on
Dec. 14, he knew that he had survived a quadruple-bypass
operation. That was the good news. The bad news was that the
tube inserted in his windpipe didn't seem to be carrying any
oxygen to his lungs. Having come who-knows-how-close to
suffering a massive heart attack and then making it through
open-heart surgery, it was apparently Reeves's fate to suffocate
in his hospital bed.

The crisis passed as Reeves's nurse assured him that even though
he felt as if he wasn't getting enough air, the tube was, in
fact, doing its job. Later that evening, having cast off the
despised endotracheal device, Reeves was walking around his room
when his son, Lee, came calling.

"What time is it?" asked Dan.

"Eight-thirty," said Lee.

"A.M. or P.M.?"

"P.M."

"Hey," said Dan, with his Georgia twang, "Monday Night Football's
on, idn't it?"

"I had a pretty good idea right then that he was going to be all
right," says Lee, a 31-year-old Atlanta lawyer. He's the second
of three children of Dan and Pam Reeves, who began dating as
students at Americus (Ga.) High and have been married 33 years.
"High school sweethearts--it is awfully ooey-gooey," says Pam,
"but sometimes, those marriages work."

Were this a movie script--native son returns to his home state,
where, two years later, undaunted by a brush with death, he
leads the local team to its first Super Bowl, where, in the
Denver Broncos, it will face a team that fired him--it would
rightfully be dismissed as, well, too ooey-gooey.

But Reeves had no way of knowing that his absence--and
subsequent, tough-as-nails return to active duty less than a
month later--would galvanize the already close-knit Falcons.
"He's back on the sideline a month after open-heart surgery,"
says kick returner-wideout Tim Dwight. "That's old school.
There's not much we wouldn't do for this guy."

Atlanta has already exceeded the most optimistic expectations.
This was a team that lost seven of its first eight games last
season, a team whose so-so offensive line, it was said, would
never be able to protect its injury-prone starting quarterback,
a team whose backup quarterback was born a scant nine years
after World War II ended.

That crummy start in 1997 concealed reasons for hope. The
Falcons had lured Reeves back to his home state with promises of
omnipotence over football operations. During his four-year
tenure with the New York Giants, which ended with his being
fired after the '96 season, Reeves shared drafting authority
with a personnel director, a general manager and a psychologist
who subjected potential draftees to a 400-question test. Now
that he finally had carte blanche, Reeves used it. He instilled
discipline. Players were no longer allowed to sit on their
helmets during practice. Ten-year veterans and Pro Bowl players
no longer got their own rooms at training camp. Reeves ran off
the unmotivated, the malcontents, "the a-------," as several
Falcons put it, and brought in his type of guy. Of the 53
players on Atlanta's active roster, 39 have come on board since
Reeves arrived.

The news that Reeves had undergone surgery stunned his players.
Some cried, some prayed. "People don't realize what Dan means to
us," says wideout Terance Mathis. "Only we do." Like many of his
teammates, fullback Bob Christian wondered how Reeves, who kept
his symptoms a secret for a month for fear of distracting the
players, could have ignored the burning sensation in his chest
for so long. "He says he didn't want to be a distraction," says
Christian, "but he would've been a bigger distraction if he'd
keeled over on the sideline."

When linebacker Cornelius Bennett noticed a group of reporters
staking out the players' parking lot on the morning of Dec.
14--the media were seeking reaction to the bad news about
Reeves--he stormed over and scolded them. "They were ambushing
guys as they got out of their cars, going for shock value," says
Bennett, who spent 35 days in jail last spring after pleading
guilty to a misdemeanor sexual-abuse charge. Bennett maintains
his innocence, saying he pleaded guilty to "speed up the
process" and move on with his life. "Dan was there for me before
I was incarcerated, and he was there when I came back," he says.
"He put his trust in me. I love the guy."

Upon returning to the Falcons five days after his surgery,
Reeves walked into the meeting room where the players had
assembled and received a standing ovation. "You're the best
bunch of guys I've been around," he said.

"He got a little choked up," recalls Mathis, "along with about 50
other guys in the room, including myself."

Having surrounded himself with trustworthy, loyal assistants,
Reeves has had no qualms about throttling back. He'll put in 12-
to 14-hour days, but any more time at the office, he says, is
"too much, mentally and physically." A scare six days after his
bypass convinced him not to push his limits. Reeves awoke that
morning with a splitting headache. When it persisted, he
returned to the hospital, where doctors detected a fibrillation
in his heart--the atrial chambers were not beating in sync with
the heart's other chambers, says James Kauten, the cardiac
surgeon who had performed the surgery. The problem was solved
with medication, and Reeves was released four days later, on
Christmas Eve.

Over the following fortnight Reeves simultaneously recuperated
and haunted the Falcons' Suwanee, Ga., complex. "He'd tell his
wife he was going to take out the garbage and then drive over
here," says free safety Eugene Robinson. "You'd see him peeking
into the dressing room, poking his head into meetings."

Returning to the sideline for Atlanta's divisional playoff
against the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 9, Reeves followed his
doctors' orders and dutifully positioned himself behind a wall
of reserve linemen. At least he did at first. "I noticed that
fell by the wayside rather quickly," says Kauten.

That's not the only precaution to bite the dust. Reeves vowed to
take it easier on his repaired ticker. "I tell myself I'm going
to be calm, I'm going to be cool," he says. "It lasts until I
see a call I don't agree with."

Pam professes to be displeased that her kind and gentle
spouse--a man who ends each day with a short Bible study--is
perceived by many as a scowling and tantrum-prone ogre. "It
seems like the only time the camera goes to him is after
something bad happens," she says. "So people think, Wow, he's a
real bear." But after a pause, she adds, "And Dan is."

She once asked him, Do you ever think about me during the game?
"It was stupid," she says. "I knew he didn't, but I asked
anyway." His honest answer was no.

Later he admitted he had thought of her during a particular game.
It happened at Super Bowl XXII, as the Washington Redskins
demolished Reeves's Broncos 42-10. "I knew that as hard as that
was for me," he told her, "it was harder for you."

One of the reasons Reeves is a former Denver coach, of course, is
that although he guided the Broncos to three Super Bowls, he lost
all three, by an average of 32 points. This time Denver is
favored by a touchdown. Lee Reeves is not impressed.

"They don't base point spreads on heart," he says, "and this team
has an abundance of heart."

No pun intended.

COLOR PHOTO: CRAIG JONES/ALLSPORT [Dan Reeves wearing headset]

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