When his lungs tightened, his head clouded and his knees buckled, Denver Broncos head coach John Fox slowly crumbled to the ground on a North Carolina golf course. Gasping for air, he closed his eyes and prayed in ways he'd never had to before in his 58 years of life. God, you get me out of this, and I'll get it fixed right now, Fox thought as fearful friends called for medical help. It was the kind of moment that can make any man rethink every single way he approaches his life.
It's been nearly six weeks since Fox underwent aortic heart valve replacement surgery to repair the condition that threatened him that afternoon, a genetic defect that has been with him since birth. Fox will be the first to say that coaching football had little to do with this medical problem, that it could've occurred if he taught Pilates for a living. What he can't deny is that it has forced him to be even more grateful for the blessings in his life. His situation also reminded coaches across the NFL how important it is to appropriately handle the intense pressure that comes with their jobs.
Those men took notice when Fox's heart issue sidelined him for more than a month. They paid equal attention when former Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak – who was fired last Friday – sustained a mini-stroke during a 27-24 loss to Indianapolis on Nov. 3 and had to be rushed to the hospital that night. "I'm sitting there watching that Sunday night game, and I'm thinking [I'm about to have] heart surgery and now Gary is going down with a stroke," Fox said. "That was a scary sight."
Every head coach in the NFL had to be thinking similar thoughts. Being one of the 32 men who hold such jobs means having a unique and sometimes unhealthy set of talents. They have to be sufficiently driven to work excessively long hours, insanely focused to tune out relentless scrutiny, supremely confident to handle the reality that some might only last two or three years on the job and diligent enough to keep grinding when the average person would surrender to fatigue. For some head coaches, sleeping at the office is a badge of honor.
The culture of football has glorified such men for round-the-clock commitment to their craft for decades, with George Allen, Marty Schottenheimer and more recently Jon Gruden setting the standard for workaholic coaches. But we've also seen the price that comes with that uncompromising approach. Thirty years ago, Dick Vermeil resigned from his job as the Philadelphia Eagles' head coach because he felt physically and emotionally fried. Jimmy Johnson also cited burnout when he quit the Miami Dolphins after the 1999 season, as did Bobby Ross when he left the Detroit Lions midway through the 2000 campaign.
Other coaches have suffered tragic personal losses during their NFL tenures. Former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, one of the most grounded and spiritual coaches anywhere, lost his 18-year-old son James to suicide late in the 2005 season. While coaching in Philadelphia, current Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid watched his two oldest sons – Garrett and Britt – struggle with drug use and arrests in 2007. Garrett eventually died of a heroin overdose in Aug. 2012.