UPDATED AT 8:45 P.M.
Flowery Branch – Twenty-four hours earlier, Mike Smith had been in a Charlotte hospital being examined after experiencing chest pains in the wake of a frazzling game. On Monday night he finished a walk-through practice and met the media and, being the self-effacing Mike Smith, said it was “kind of embarrassing to be talking about it.”
He shouldn’t be embarrassed. Far better to feel sheepish after not having a heart attack than to do the strong silent act and keel over. Smith and the Falcons’ doctors did the right thing, and if any organization has cause to know what the right course is, it’s this.
Earlier Monday, a man who once held Smith’s job recalled his warning signs that occurred almost 13 years ago to the day. “I just looked at my iPhone to make sure of the date,” Dan Reeves said. “The game [in New Orleans] was Dec. 13 . I had surgery on the 14th.”
As he spoke, Reeves was awaiting the final round of, believe it or not, a scheduled stress test. “I haven’t had one in four years,” he said, and it’s fair to say that a life outside the NFL — Reeves hasn’t coached since the Falcons fired him in December 2003 — is somewhat more sedate than the position he held, at three different stops, for 23 seasons.
“Every job has stress, especially in this economy,” Reeves said. “Football is more a seasonal thing.”
Then: “There are more stressful jobs, but there aren’t many.”
Joe Gibbs used to sleep in his office before retiring from the Redskins to the quiet existence of owning a NASCAR team. Dick Vermeil retired from the Eagles at age 46, citing burnout. (Much later, he would resurface with the Rams and the Chiefs.) An NFL coach works with some of the healthiest people in the world, but his health is an iffier proposition: It’s hard to exercise and eat right when you’re spending days — and nights — watching film.
Dec. 13, 1998: The Falcons were playing in the Superdome, and during the National Anthem Reeves felt a burning sensation in his throat. He mentioned it to doctors afterward. (The Falcons won 27-17, their seventh consecutive victory.) The next morning he was examined at Piedmont Hospital. An angiogram revealed blockages in three arteries. By 10:30 a.m., he was undergoing quadruple-bypass surgery.
Said Reeves: “I was very lucky. It was almost a miracle. If I hadn’t said something about the symptoms …”
Reeves was 54 when he had his bypass. Mike Smith is 52. Reeves hadn’t known until a reporter called seeking comment that Smith had been taken to the hospital, but the older man spoke from sobering experience. “They wouldn’t have let him leave [the Charlotte hospital] if there’d been something really wrong,” he said.
Sure enough, Smith was back at work Monday, business almost as usual. Reeves knew that feeling, too. “Back then, if they’d told me I couldn’t coach it would have been more stressful than coaching,” he said, and 26 days after surgery he was on the sideline as the Falcons beat San Francisco 20-18 in an overwrought playoff game.
The next weekend he worked the most famous game in team history — the epic overtime victory over mighty Minnesota for the NFC championship. Talk about the ultimate stress test: A man has a quadruple bypass and then, barely a month later, leads a long-suffering franchise to the Super Bowl.
Reeves became a spokesman for the anti-cholesterol drug Zocor. (He now takes Crestor, Zocor having gone generic.) But even he, who knew the risks as well as anyone, found it tough sticking to his regimen. “My HDL — that’s the good cholesterol — wasn’t getting above 40 after I got fired because I didn’t feel like exercising.”
After a heart episode, Reeves said, a person has to change “everything — you have to watch what you eat and you have to exercise.” But what about stress? Can it be controlled?
Reeves spent five more seasons as Falcons coach and made another playoff run in 2002 without another coronary incident. Still, Reeves conceded that “stress is a huge thing,” and Smith has another game to work on a short week. (The Falcons play Jacksonville on Thursday night.) “He’s had some real tough games lately, big games,” Reeves said.
Is there such a thing as a stress-free NFL game? “No,” Reeves said. “None of them are easy.”
Said Smith: “Any time you’re in a short week, there’s stress involved.”
Smith declined to offer diagnostic specifics, but he did allow that he would have to “evaluate some of the things you do when you’re not coaching the team.” As for the coaching part: That’s not changing.
“There are a lot of hours involved,” Smith said. “There are no 9-to-5 hours in this organization or this league.”
Like Dan Reeves said: There are more stressful jobs, but there aren’t many. And he would know.
By Mark Bradley