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John Fox out of hospital, still connected to Broncos

Published November 10, 2013 3:41 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's been four days, and the questions are already coming, questions of phone calls, of contact, of advice.

It's been four days since Broncos coach John Fox had aortic valve-replacement surgery, and within seconds of the team announcing he'd been released from a hospital Friday, interim coach Jack Del Rio was asked how the head coach's role might increase.

It's fast. It's crazy. But in 2013, a medical leave of absence means something less than an actual disconnect from your work.

Just ask Winston Justice. It was a year ago now that the text messages starting coming.

Even from his hospital bed, Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano noticed enough to send a quick text message to Justice any time he could. Justice, now an offensive tackle for the Broncos, remembers seeing those texts last fall and feeling a connection with his coach, who was undergoing chemotherapy to treat leukemia and missed 12 games.

After the early rounds of Pagano's treatment, players could no longer visit him, and so the texts started coming — and coming, and coming — to Justice, to the star players such as Reggie Wayne and Andrew Luck, to the players few notice. Pagano was already a big texter, Justice said, but for those three months, his cellphone and its keyboard were the only ways Pagano could reach the team that was improbably winning without him, winning for him.

The Broncos can only hope Fox's absence will be the same galvanizing force. The coach will remain in North Carolina until he's able to travel, and though his contact with his staff will increase, the team is still uncertain of the influence Fox can have as he recovers.

"I'm sure he's happy to be at home resting and recovering," Del Rio said Friday. "He'll join us as soon he can.

"We'll talk, I would think, almost on a daily basis from here on out."

The Broncos, obviously, would prefer to have as much contact with their coach as possible without straining him, and with everything from cellphones to iPads to remote access to film, coaching can easily infiltrate a hospital room, or a coach's home while he recovers. Pagano stayed in the mix, and what he and Fox have faced is a far cry from what a medical leave of absence was even 15 years ago.

Dan Reeves, who coached the Broncos from 1981-92, took a three-week leave from his role as the Atlanta Falcons head coach at the end of 1998 to undergo quadruple-bypass surgery. By the time he appointed Rich Brooks his interim and underwent the surgery, the Falcons were 12-2, already guaranteed a playoff berth. Reeves said that in his time away, he was truly away — few phone calls, no video and certainly no text messages.

Reeves had his surgery on a Monday, and for much of that week, it was radio silence. On Saturday, he was out of the hospital and able to make a quick trip to the team's facility to wish the players luck before they traveled to Detroit. He was able to make a few phone calls the following week, and then his team had a first-round playoff bye. After three weeks away, Reeves returned before the team's first playoff game, and that was that. Things returned to normal — not that they'd ever deviated.

"Nobody works closer together than a coaching staff," Reeves said. "You're working long hours. … The night before the game is probably the first time you get a night to relax all week. I'd take them out to dinner. That's probably the only time they missed me."

Reeves knows that had his surgery taken place today, it might have been a different story afterward. He could have texted from the hospital or had easier access to film. Still, he said, it wouldn't have been the same.

"Your involvement (should be) kind of on a personal basis, and you can't do that," Reeves said. "The one thing about the electronic media is it's kind of cold. You don't have that personal touch."

His advice for coaches in that position is to relax and trust their staffs. An interim is appointed for a reason: He's good at his job. Very good. Too good, even, Reeves said with a laugh. What drove him to hurry back, he said, was that after his team went 2-0 without him, he began to wonder if he was replaceable.

The Broncos won't replace Fox in the coming weeks. They'll miss his enthusiasm and his advice, and any interjections he's allowed will only help with morale. Still, Reeves said, a coach is only as good as the people he surrounds himself with, and that's a thought that should give Fox some solace as he itches to return.