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
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.
"I think we both feel we got a second chance," Janet said.
Funny, there's a lot of that going around. Last spring Elway ran
into Reeves at Augusta National, and they fixed the divots in
their relationship. Reeves congratulated Elway on finally winning
the Super Bowl that they never could together. Later, after the
bypass, Elway sent a warm note and a donation to a Falcons
So here we are at the biggest game of the year, and to two of the
principal players it means everything and nothing at the same
time. Sounds about right, doesn't it?
Me, I don't care who wins. All I ask is that Reeves wear a nice
coat and tie.
You never know who's watching.
COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA [Rick Reilly]
When my mom and Reeves had bypass surgery the same day five weeks
ago, she felt as if they were in it together.