Denver Broncos head coach John Fox celebrates with the trophy...

Denver Broncos head coach John Fox celebrates with the trophy after the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots in Denver. (Jan. 22, 2014) Credit: AP

It started with a burning sensation in the back of his throat.

Falcons coach Dan Reeves was on the sideline at the Superdome preparing to face the Saints in December 1998, his heart racing, as it always did when he put his right hand over his heart while listening to the national anthem.

But this time was different. This time he knew something was wrong. Terribly wrong.

"My doctors told me previously that if I exercised and got my heart rate up and I felt that burning sensation, that it was a sign something's wrong with my heart," Reeves said to Newsday from his Atlanta home. "Listening to the national anthem right before the game always raises my heartbeat, so I did realize there was a problem."

The next day, Reeves underwent quadruple-bypass surgery. Doctors said he could have been "within hours of a catastrophic heart attack."

Less than a month later, Reeves was back on the sideline for the Falcons' first playoff game against the 49ers. Three weeks later, he was coaching in the Super Bowl.

If that sounds like a familiar scenario, it should. Broncos coach John Fox had open heart surgery in early November for aortic heart valve replacement after feeling ill while playing golf.

There's only one man on Earth who knows exactly what Fox is going through. That man is Reeves, who was one of the first to call Fox to offer his support after his heart procedure.

"John was [coach] at Carolina when I was coaching the Falcons, and I just called to talk to him to see if he had any questions, having been through that," Reeves said. "He's lucky like I was. He got a warning and was able to fix something before it became a heart attack. So I know he's excited about being back."

Fox said he now believes he was close to dying when he experienced symptoms on the golf course. But the plan all along was to get back to what he loved most: coaching the Broncos.

"I really never considered not being back," said Fox, 58, who was the Giants' defensive coordinator under Jim Fassel from 1997-2001. "I know there was a lot of speculation, but I had a great medical team that painted the picture for me. I pretty much had a game plan and it went as planned. I had a lot of good support people around, including my wife, Robin. So it's worked out pretty well."

It couldn't have worked out better. Fox got back on the sideline and is now in the same position Reeves was 15 years ago. Defensive coordinator Rich Brooks stepped in as the Falcons' interim coach in 1998 and went 2-0 to end the regular season at 14-2. Jack Del Rio, also a defensive coordinator, was the interim coach in Fox's absence and Denver went 3-1.

Like Reeves, Fox had some anxious moments near the end of the game that got the Broncos to the Super Bowl. Denver held off a late comeback by the Patriots in a 26-16 win in Sunday's AFC Championship Game.

For Reeves, the drama was quite a bit more intense and tested the outer limits of his recent heart surgery. The Falcons took Minnesota to overtime in the NFC title game and won, 30-27, on Morten Andersen's 38-yard field goal.

"If I can handle this with my heart, I can handle anything," Reeves said afterward. "It was a great football game. I'm glad I saw it."

Reeves said his heart was beating a mile a minute as Andersen lined up for the kick. But he had an even bigger concern.

"I wanted to watch it, I wanted to be excited if he made it, but the biggest concern was that if he did make it, people would start jumping on top of people," Reeves said. "I was on blood thinners, so I had to be careful. If I got hit and suffered internal bleeding, it would have been a big problem. So I was kind of making sure who was around me and making sure nobody jumped on top of me."

Two weeks later, though, Reeves was crestfallen. Making his Super Bowl defeat even more intense was being beaten by his old team and his old quarterback. John Elway's Broncos won, 34-19.

Reeves will be rooting for the Broncos this time, though -- because "you got that orange blood still going through your veins after the 12 years when I was there," because of Peyton Manning and because of his friend Fox.

"I hope [Fox's] ending is better than mine," Reeves said. "I'm hoping he doesn't lose the Super Bowl. "

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