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Coach John Fox Recovering from Heart Surgery, Hoping for Super Bowl; Judge: Football Players Deserve More Compensation for Head Injuries; More Unraveling in A-Rod Drug Scandal; Gretzky Reflects on Hockey's Growth

Aired January 17, 2014 - 22:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: Tonight on UNGUARDED WITH RACHEL NICHOLS, unprecedented. How Coach John Fox led the Broncos to within a game of the Super Bowl just months after major heart surgery.

COACH JOHN FOX, BRONCOS: I really thought I was dying.


BOOMER ESIASON, FORMER NFL MVP: I'm former NFL MVP Boomer Esiason. Tonight, Rachel and I will discuss figure skating? Are you kidding me?

ANNOUNCER: Undercover. The great one, Wayne Gretzky, opens up about his life, his kids, and a very interesting recent outing.

WAYNE GRETZKY, FORMER NHL SUPERSTAR: I put a hat on, a pair of sunglasses and I told them "keep my head down" and not to call me by my name.


RACHEL NICHOLS, HOST: Welcome to UNGUARDED. This weekend, future Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will face off for the chance to go to the Super Bowl.

As much as that match-up has football fans salivating, the man directing Manning from the sideline is drawing nearly as much interest.

Broncos' head coach John Fox has done a masterful job leading Denver, especially since he forced to spend nearly a third of the season coaching from 1,400 miles away, recovering from a condition that nearly killed him.


NICHOLS (voice-over): John Fox is a football lifer, spending decades chasing a Super Bowl championship. He's taken jobs for it, moved cities for it, missed school plays and family dinners, spent hundreds of thousands of hours watching film.

FOX: He's playing pretty good. NICHOLS (on camera): You've probably seen the image of the Lombardi trophy more than the pictures of your children. You've come close to winning it a few times.

FOX: Yes.

NICHOLS: But you don't actually have a Super Bowl trophy yet.

FOX: I've been twice. One as a defensive coordinator, one as a head coach. I don't want that rug burn again, or that rope burn as you walk across the field and you're not the winning team. But some day, you know hopefully this year, we'll be able to be in New York and hoist that trophy.

NICHOLS (voice-over): There's not much that Fox wouldn't give to finally win. But this year, he nearly gave his life.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Broncos head coach John Fox hospitalized today after feeling light-headed on a North Carolina golf course.

FOX: I'd had this aortic valve problem since birth. It's something you're born with. And, you know, they monitor it the older you get.

NICHOLS (on camera): Right. 1997 was when this was diagnosed?

FOX: Yes.

NICHOLS: That's 17 years ago.

FOX: Yes.

NICHOLS (voice-over): Doctors fold Fox his aorta was calcifying over time, cutting off blood flow, and that only surgery would correct it. But Fox delayed, season after season. There was always another team to coach, that trophy to chase.

FOX: It's open-heart surgery. I mean, it's a major, major surgery to go and actually replace the valves. So it's not a minor surgery. It's not, you know, a little affair by any stretch. So I put it off. I thought I was going to make it to the end of the season.

NICHOLS: He didn't. Two and a half months ago, in the midst of the Broncos' bye week, Fox collapsed on the golf course near the house he keeps in Charlotte.

FOX: I was literally 200 yards from the backyard of my house, and probably 100 yards to the backyard of one of my better friend's house. I could have very easily been down in Marco Island fishing 60 miles out, and that wouldn't have been, you know, quite the same scenario.

NICHOLS (on camera): I imagine when you're an NFL coach, and you're moving these players around like chess pieces, there's that Masters of the Universe feeling, compared to lying on your back in a hospital gown.

FOX: Well, it was pretty humbling and it was -- you know, it was a little bit scary. I had an episode to where, you know, I really thought I was dying. Fortunately, I was with friends, and they called 911, got the paramedics there. They were able to get me stabilized. And then two days later I had open-heart surgery.

NICHOLS (voice-over): As Fox began the road to recovery, one of his assistants was named the Broncos' interim head coach. But that didn't mean Fox could step away from the game.

FOX: Well, with technology today, we have iPads that they can push video over the Internet. So I got all the cut-outs. I had practice tapes, and actually, I was able to set up a Skype and talk to the team in the team room. So, you know, with today's technology...

NICHOLS: It was like you weren't even gone.

FOX: It definitely was. It was like a virtual coach.

NICHOLS: You can watch film on your iPad; you can Skype into team meetings; but there's still someone else standing in for you on sidelines on game day coaching your team. What is that like to watch?

FOX: It was -- that was the hardest part. It had been probably about 200 games since I missed a game. So that was very hard.

NICHOLS: Were you like a kid on Christmas morning when you got to actually come back here to Denver and coach the team?

FOX: Yes, it was neat. I flew back on a Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. Came out and talked to the team. They couldn't have been better. I mean, everybody, you know, responding and going through an adverse situation, and I think all in all, it's made us better.

CHEVY CHASE, ACTOR/COMEDIAN: Oh, come on, guys! It's so simple. Maybe you need a refresher course. Hey, it's all ball bearings nowadays.

NICHOLS: I did read that the morning of your first game back, you weren't turning football since you woke up. You actually inaugurated that with -- by watching "Fletch," the movie.

FOX: Well, I usually do try to watch all the pregame shows and all that kind of stuff, just kind of tends to hype you up a little bit.

NICHOLS: So you can thank the doctor that helped you get back on the field and Chevy Chase?

FOX: Exactly.

That was great. Happy to be back.

NICHOLS: You heart had to work so hard before the surgery, it sounds like. Now that it's not working as hard, do you actually feel better than you did?

FOX: A hundred percent, yes. My surgeon told me, basically, my valve was the size of a pinhead. Now it's the size of a 50-cent piece. So I feel a lot better; I have a lot more energy; I feel stronger, healthier. But I feel 150 percent better than I did eight weeks ago.


NICHOLS: Amazing to think of the strain Fox's heart had been under all those years.

We're going to have much more from John Fox coming up, including some fun revelations about his quarterback, Peyton Manning.

And later, the great Wayne Gretzky joins us. Even he's a little shocked about what's happening in his adopted home of Los Angeles.


GRETZKY: I've got to be really honest: I didn't see this coming in 1988.



NICHOLS: I'm Rachel Nichols, and welcome back to UNGUARDED. We've been talking to Broncos Head Coach John Fox whose genetic heart defect nearly killed him earlier this season. In just a few months, Fox has made an amazing recovery, and now one of the NFL's most popular coaches reveals to UNGUARDED what it's like to work with one of the NFL's most accomplished quarterbacks.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fires to the end zone, touchdown!

(on camera): I once read you described him as a special cat.

FOX: The guy's remarkable. I mean, from rehab to strength and conditioning, the mental work, the game preparation, film work, the guy's probably the best time manager on the planet, let alone just in the NFL.

NICHOLS: He's so detailed-oriented on the field. Can you give us a peek into how detail-oriented he is off the field?

FOX: Yes. He sent me a picture. He was in the cold tub, actually soaking an ankle of his that was sore, looking at his iPad and had his football helmet on so he could listen to the coach-to- quarterback outside, on the field, at practice. While he was rehabbing, studying, he was getting mental reps on the field.

NICHOLS: Excellent. So he can multi task, no doubt?

FOX: Yes, yes, yes.

NICHOLS (voice-over): But Manning can't do everything on the field. Earlier this year, the owner of his former Colts team criticized Manning for having only won one Super Bowl while in Indianapolis. It was Fox who stepped in to defend Manning against those comments.

(on camera): You called them a cheap shot. You called Jim Irsay ungrateful. Why did you decide you had to speak out so strongly?

FOX: Well, I think No. 1, I think I knew Peyton wouldn't. And I think it was important that that was voiced. I just know how much work goes into those seasons. And sometimes they don't end up perfectly, but last time I looked, they did get one. And I know I'd be thankful.

NICHOLS: Peyton has also been scrutinized for his cold weather game performance. After he had a particularly good game in cold weather, he had an interesting comment after it.

PEYTON MANNING, QUARTERBACK, DENVER BRONCOS: Whoever wrote that narrative can shove that one where the sun don't shine, you know.

FOX: I think, you know, when you do what he does or what any of us do here in the National Football League, you're going to be criticized. You're under attack. We're compensated very well for that. But it doesn't mean there's never any frustration. And so sometimes people voice it. I thought it was a classy way to voice it. But you do get frustrated at times.

NICHOLS: What do you think of Peyton's ability in the cold?

FOX: I think he's tremendous. And I think he's proved that with a lot of things he's accomplished, and a lot of those were on some very cold games.

NICHOLS: You know, they are playing the Super Bowl in cold weather this year.

FOX: Yes, they are. But we've had a lot of positive cold weather experiences. We've got to take care of business first.

NICHOLS (voice-over): John Fox is a football lifer. And he still wants that trophy. But this year, this life-threatening, life- affirming, scary, wonderful year, he's happy just to be in the chase.


NICHOLS: You know Fox and Manning would like to do nothing more than try to back up those words about cold weather by playing here in New York just a few weekends from now.

All right. Let's keep the conversation going with my panel. Joining me is a man who also quarterbacked his team to a Super Bowl, Boomer Esiason, broadcaster, and also the co-chair of the Boomer Esiason Foundation, which is searching for a cure for cystic fibrosis. We're also going to welcome CNN's legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin. And Jeff, since you're here, we know it has been one of those weeks in sports. And sure enough, we are going to start with this woman, federal Judge Anita Brody. She shocked the sports world by rejecting the $765 million settlement that the NFL reached with its former players over concussions.

Guys, this has really become the defining issue facing America's favorite sport. And this judge is saying $765 million is not enough to cover the problem.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: CTE, which is the illness that, you know, is at the heart of this problem, can't be diagnosed at the moment until people are already dead.

NICHOLS: Degenerative brain disease.

TOOBIN: So no one knows how many people are affected, and it's -- so you can understand why the judge said this much isn't enough, but how much is?

ESIASON: You know, one of the reasons I did not get involved originally in this whole thing is because I've taken care of myself. And I never felt any team that I played for -- the Jets, the Bengals or the Cardinals, otherwise known as the Bermuda Triangle of the NFL -- ever put me in harm's way. I always was taken care of. I always felt that doctors really watched out for me.

I think I had four diagnosed concussions in the NFL. I never took any illicit drugs to put myself back out on the field or anything like that. So there's a lot of other things that are going on behind the scenes.

But I will say this: that when I think about some of the players, the John Mackeys of the world, that basically fell into dementia and had nowhere to turn, that's a disgrace.

TOOBIN: One of the reasons they wanted a settlement now is that you could start to get money to people right away. To the extent this extends with no settlement, people in need, players in need, ex- players are not getting help.

ESIASON: Why can't we just put a quarter of a billion dollars in a fund? We know we're going to have to spend at least that much money right now to help the players that need it the most.

Not all of the players require payments. But a lot of players are going to go after it, because they're going to feel like they're entitled to it, because they've made bad decisions in their own life.

You know, I'm 52 years old. And do I search for a word every now and again, or am I a little bit forgetful? Yes.

NICHOLS: Jeff does that, too. Come on.

TOOBIN: That's my excuse. ESIASON: Exactly.

TOOBIN: High school baseball. Can I have compensatory damages?

NICHOLS: All right, guys. We are going to have to take a break right now. But we will be back. And afterward, you will hear more from this panel.

You're also going to hear from Wayne Gretzky. He's going to tell us how he's preparing his son to follow in his footsteps as a pro athlete.


GRETZKY: The name is going to open up some doors here and there. But ultimately, it's going to come down to his work ethic.


NICHOLS: Welcome back to UNGUARDED. We're going to pick up with our panel.

Guys, it's been a crazy week in the Alex Rodriguez case. First, an arbitrator rules that A-Rod will be suspended all next season and postseason.

Then, Biogenesis founder Tony Bosh goes on "60 Minutes" and he details just how brazenly that he says Alex was cheating.


TONY BOSH, BIOGENESIS FOUNDER: He would put one of these in his mouth, 10, 15 minutes before game time. And by the time they get back into a locker room, after the game, and there was any possibility of testing, they would test negative.


NICHOLS: After that interview, Alex files a federal lawsuit, a lawsuit nobody thinks he can win, but which he says, baseball bade bosh off to say those things and he, Alex, was railroaded by the league and the union.

ESIASON: I work here on WFAN in New York. We had Joe Tacopina on, who is his defense attorney, who by the way, if I needed a defense attorney, that's who I would hire. You know why? Because he spoons everything up. He confuses everybody. We're all over the place. You don't know what's going on. And he's does a fabulous job in doing that.

NICHOLS: Alex and his lawyer, who you've spoken with, say this is a power grab by Bud Selig. Is this a kangaroo court?

TOOBIN: You know, it is not a regular court. In fairness to A- Rod, there were procedures used here that seemed to have been invented for Alex Rodriguez. However, the way the legal system tends to work is that, if you agree to an arbitration clause, the federal courts are just not going to get involved. So this lawsuit has very little chance of success.

ESIASON: The thought process, though, that really makes me angry is that somehow, some way, this is all about A-Rod because of Bud Selig's legacy.

NICHOLS: Vendetta.

ESIASON: And it's a vendetta and all this stuff. It's such a mindless way of thinking. You know, Bud Selig is the commissioner of a major sport in this country He is trying to clean the sport up.

NICHOLS Before you canonize Bud Selig, I mean, where was he in 1998, when you've got, you know...

ESIASON: But if there's no agreement with the union, you can't drug test. He was trying to get them to agree to it.

TOOBIN: Yes. I'm a little more cynical about what went on. I mean, in the late '90s, you had everybody loving Sosa and Maguire battling it out, and the ballparks were full. And I think a lot of people, including the owners, knew that some fishy business was going on.

NICHOLS: Is steroids in sports worse than people think in the public or is it not as bad?

ESIASON: I think it's changed now. I think the steroid whole thing has changed now. I think it's more HGH. It's designer stuff. It's things like A-Rod was taking. Hopefully, this will deter other players from going down this road.

NICHOLS: All right, guys. I want to move on to another topic. And Boomer, I know this is right in your wheelhouse.

ESIASON: OK, good. Let's talk about the NFC championships.

NICHOLS: Or the selection of the U.S. women's figure skating team. ESIASON: Really? NICHOLS: Yes. America gets three spots in the Sochi Olympics. But instead of taking the top three finishers at this week's U.S. nationals, the skating federation is giving one spot to the fourth- place finisher, Ashley Wagner. Now, that bumps the third place finisher, Mirai Nagasu, out of the Olympics.

Now, the rules are set up to allow them to do this, and the idea is that Wagner, who's a former two-time U.S. Boomer Esiason Foundation champion, just had a bad night. They're judging her more on her body of work. But guys, is this fair?

TOOBIN: A lot of teams are picked by coaches. And the basketball team is picked by Coach K. And the Dream Team is...

NICHOLS: Why have the U.S. Nationals at all? Why not just have the committee that made these selections just pick?

ESIASON: The way that -- Mirai is her name? The way she responded to it, she knew that this was a potential possibility. She knew it.

And then you combine that with the fact that Wagner fell twice in the nationals. Now all of a sudden, you're fueling the fire for the fans and the people that support this particular sport to claim that somehow Mirai is being shortchanged here.

TOOBIN: Life is tough and coaches make difficult decisions all the time.

NICHOLS: You are hard.

TOOBIN: You know, this is figure skating, where they call that are the kiss and cry area. There's always crying, and it's very dramatic.

ESIASON: It's also one of the most popular events in the Winter Olympics.


ESIASON: I feel bad because I feel like somebody's heart is broken, and she thought after she left the ice, especially watching Wagner fall twice, that this was going to be her entree to the Olympics. And then it was pulled away.

NICHOLS: If the Patriots beat the Broncos this weekend, should we look at Peyton Manning's body of work and let him into the Super Bowl?

ESIASON: Now you're talking about something that I -- I can really get into here.

All I can tell you is that you have experts that are making a choice on who they think has the best chance of winning, which I think is probably the hardest thing to accept for Mirai in this case. And that's what I feel most emotional about.

TOOBIN: Take it easy, Boomer. There's no kiss and cry in here.

NICHOLS: Kiss and cry right here.

I want to thank you guys for coming. We've got to send Boomer off. He's getting roasted by the Friars Club coming up. So I don't know if this is good preparation for you, but we're glad you were here.

And you guys, do not go anywhere. We have Wayne Gretzky coming up. Stay tuned.


GRETZKY: Welcome back. I'm Rachel Nichols. Next week, the NHL will stage an outdoor hockey game in Los Angeles. Yes, this is the city where temperatures have been in the '80s the past few days, and sometimes it's hard to keep ice cold in a cocktail.

So to find out just how they're going to pull this off, I spoke earlier to Wayne Gretzky, who helped launch L.A.'s hockey craze when he was traded from the Edmonton Oilers 25 years ago.


NICHOLS: Wayne, welcome. I've got to ask, when you first came to L.A. in that trade to the Kings in 1988, would you ever have thought in a million years they'd be able to fill Dodger Stadium for an outdoor hockey game?

GRETZKY: Yes, I've got to be really honest, I didn't see this coming in 1988. As a matter of fact, we were more of a sense of survival in '88. We wanted to build a good hockey club. Over the years, the organizations between the kings and the ducks and the sharks have really done a tremendous job of promoting and expanding the sport of hockey.

In the state of California, here we are on this day, January 25, they're going to play an outdoor game at Dodgers Stadium with two of the best teams in the National Hockey League, and two Stanley Cup champions over the last five or six years. So this is going to be an exciting night for every sports fan in California.

NICHOLS: I mean, they're setting up a rink in the middle of the stadium right now, but right next to it, they're building a beach volleyball court. I'm assuming that was not exactly the setup of going outside to play when you were a kid in Canada?

GRETSKY: No, that really wasn't part of our makeup. I will say you just caught me off-guard. I didn't know we were building a volleyball court here.

But this is going to be really fun. You're going to turn the TV on. You're going to see people in shorts and T-shirts and the weather is going to be 60 degrees and sunny. And you'll see a wonderful hockey game in the middle of California at Dodgers Stadium.

NICHOLS: And you now have three boys of your own. How high is their interest in hockey?

GRETZKY: They watch it with me. You know, I watch a lot of hockey. I don't go to a lot of games. I probably go to, you know, nine or ten games a year. But I watch the games every day and every night. And so we talk a lot about it.

NICHOLS: Yes. And you have a son who's playing minor league baseball with the Cubs organization.

I'm always interested when I talk to the kids of pro athletes what it is like to be in the shadow of their dad, who reached the highest level, and nobody reached a higher level than you. What do you think it is like for your son and what do you tell him?

GRETZKY: I tell him a couple of things. One, that he's going to be looked at a little bit differently because of the name. The name is going to open some doors here and there, but ultimately, it's going to come down to his work ethic and his commitment and his passion for what he's doing. If you're committed and have a passion for your sport, the end result is limitless.

NICHOLS: Well, lastly, I just have to ask you about a recent visit you took to the Hockey Hall of Fame with your kids. Now I would expect Wayne Gretzky shows up at the Hockey Hall of Fame, there's trumpets. People are laying roses at your feet. Can you tell me what happened?

GRETZKY: Yes. You know, one of the things that I got to do as a child was visit the Hockey Hall of Fame. And I could stand in there for hours. My dad would take me, and I would walk through. And I just would stare at every sort of trophy that was in there. The memorabilia that was in there.

So I was in Toronto this off-season, and I had a chance, and my 12-year-old son was with me. And I said, "Let's sneak into the Hockey Hall of Fame." I put a hat on and a pair of sunglasses. And I told him to keep your head -- keep my head down and not to call me by my name.

And we walked through for about two and a half hours. And we really had an enjoyable time. We got to see all the different rooms and all the trophies. And it was one of the great days I had in my life, and I truly enjoyed it.

(END VIDEOTAPE) NICHOLS: You know that everybody who visited the Hall of Fame recently is now seriously trying to remember if they saw a guy in a hat and sunglasses wandering around.

All right. That is it for us this week. But you can follow me on Twitter, like us on Facebook or visit us on the web at We'll see you right back here next Friday night for UNGUARDED, where the end of the game is just the start of the story.

Good night.