DENVER (AP) -- Well, how's that heart feel now, John Fox?
''It feels great,'' the indefatigable coach said after Denver's 26-16 thumping of New England on Sunday sent the Broncos to their first Super Bowl in 15 years.
''It's felt great for about eight weeks,'' Fox said. ''Not so much before that.''
Seventy-nine days before Peyton Manning punched the Broncos' ticket to the Super Bowl with an emphatic win over nemesis Tom Brady in the 15th matchup between the quarterback greats - Fox lay on a golf course near his offseason home in North Carolina and feared he was dying.
''God, you get me out of this and I'll get it fixed now,'' he remembered praying.
Fox had been born with a defect in his aortic valve, which regulates blood flow from the heart into the aorta, the major blood vessel that brings blood into the body. He'd known he needed to get it fixed ever since it was discovered in a routine physical in 1997 while he was working for the New York Giants.
It progressively got worse and he realized last summer he'd have to have it fixed soon, and he hoped to have the operation after this year's Super Bowl.
Those plans changed that day on the links, and 48 hours later, he was in the operating room.
Four days later, he was out of the hospital, but in no time he was watching cut-ups of practices on his iPad playbook to help formulate game plans with his defensive coordinator and interim coach, Jack Del Rio, and was in constant communication with his captains.
Fox returned to work a month later, his famous enthusiasm and energy greater than ever thanks to his new valve, which is the size of a 50-cent piece instead of a pinhead.
''Just standing here feels pretty good because I almost wasn't,'' Fox said.
He was all smiles after outfoxing Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whom Manning just last week had called ''the greatest NFL coach of all time.''
Fox guided the Broncos (15-3) through a minefield of traps this season, from the fax fiasco that cost him locker room leader Elvis Dumervil, to Von Miller's drama-filled season that began with a drug suspension and ended with a torn ACL, the headliner of an injury epidemic that claimed five defensive starters.
Then, there were the drunken driving arrests by the top two lieutenants of executive vice president John Elway on the eve of training camp.
Fox's dogged determination kept the Broncos' rolling on the Super Bowl Express despite their many detours and potholes along the way.
''He's a humble guy who knows how to connect with his players,'' team president Joe Ellis. ''I think that's one of his greatest strengths. And they all came prepared today. They all followed their instruction, did their job and it was because of his direction this week.
''He did a great job with the team all season long, but especially this week. Hopefully he'll lead us to victory in New York.''
Wes Welker suspects he will.
''He's our leader,'' Welker said. ''Having him back with his fire, passion and encouragement, it's huge. He's a big lift for our football team and we all look up to him.''
While the other head coaches in the NFL's final four - Belichick, Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll - received plenty of pub for the great work they did in getting their teams this far, the national narrative when it came to the Broncos always seemed to be that this was all Manning's doing.
Manning would have none of it.
''Coach Fox has been through a lot this season,'' Manning said. ''And nobody can really understand what his health scare really was and just how he felt during that time and so our team supported him while he was away and we were glad to get him back. Hey, you're a head coach and you're leading a team to the Super Bowl, you deserve a ton of credit.
''He's been our leader and the players rally around him and he's kept us working hard during these past couple of weeks in the postseason. I know he prepared to do that again for us this week. And so, we're glad he's our head coach. We're glad he's our leader.''
Last week, Elway said Fox was the perfect antidote for the losing culture that existed after the Josh McDaniels disaster in Denver.
And now, for the first time since Elway was leading the team from the huddle instead of the front office, the Broncos are heading back to the Super Bowl, warts and all, and Fox is driving that bus.
''During the season, you're going to have you ups and downs,'' said cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, one of many Broncos whose career has been revived under Fox. ''Main thing is the guys came together and believed, especially when coach Fox left.
''To have him back was a blessing.''
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