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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."