My mom always had a little crush on Dan Reeves. She liked his looks, loved his accent and admired how he always wore a coat and tie on the sideline during Denver Broncos games. "Doesn't he look so nice?" she'd gush. So when they both had quadruple-bypass heart surgery the same day five weeks ago, on Dec. 14, she felt as if they were in it together.
At first my mom took the recovery lead, even though she was spotting him 20 years. She spent eight days in a Boulder, Colo., hospital and was released. Reeves, in his typical double-parked way, was out of there in four and eager to get back to his job as coach of the Atlanta Falcons, only to be readmitted two days later with an accelerated heart rate.
My mom stewed about him. Then we watched together the day he stepped out of that hospital the second time, weeping. It was a Reeves I'd never seen. Unlike my mom, who would cry if you gave her a Glad bag full of dirt, the Reeves I knew was about as sentimental as a right cross. He used to growl in triplicate, play golf as if he were attacking the German flank and was about as popular with his players as a lanced boil. He made them winners, true, but you never saw shorter postgame hugs. His quarterback with the Broncos, John Elway, grew to hate him, especially after Reeves accused assistant coach Mike Shanahan of drawing up plays with Elway behind his back and Reeves fired Shanahan but good.
But the Reeves on TV in December was overwhelmed by the mulligan he'd been given on life and the flood of support he'd received. "I just had no idea that many people cared," he says. He took a deep breath, cut his decibels in half and broke out a wonderful smile that had some very low mileage on it. He answered every card with his own that said, I THANK YOU FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY NEW AND BETTER HEART. By New Year's night, he was a new and better man.
By New Year's night, my mom was dead of a heart attack.
I wish I could say I took it bravely. I was en route to the Fiesta Bowl, got the news on the plane, wept worse than any baby on board and took the first flight home. I couldn't write a grocery list, much less a column. They found one in the vault from three years ago and ran it. I think. I never even looked.
Some guys are tougher. Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson, for instance. Two Sundays before, his mom died, but Johnson didn't crumble. He didn't book the first jet home to Texas. Instead, he prepared for and then coached a Monday night win over Denver. He worked Tuesday, too. Then, finally, he flew to the funeral on Wednesday morning and was back in Miami that afternoon. He wasn't around for the viewing. His sons were. But he wasn't. He wasn't there to comfort his sick father, either.
But Johnson paid for it. He figured out too late that you can lose a lot of games but only one mother. Outside, his hair was still perfect, but inside he was a mess. He decided to quit his job. Then he decided to unquit his job. He hired an assistant head coach. Somewhere in there, I hope, he's not the same Johnson. Definitely this isn't the same Reeves. And, come to think of it, this isn't the same Elway.
In the off-season John's wife, Janet, had complicated colon surgery at the Mayo Clinic. She came home but went back into the hospital a week later for emergency surgery when an infection put her life in jeopardy. John was beside himself with worry, and it didn't help when, praying on his knees with his four kids one night, one of them asked, "Dad, does Mom have cancer?"
She didn't, and when she finally recovered, third-and-12 didn't seem quite so big anymore. On Sunday night, after John won a fifth trip to the Super Bowl, he hugged Janet and cried. "I learned there's a lot more important things than a dang football game," John said.