John Fox’s collarbone caused his first step up in football to be a short one: 5 miles, to be exact.
The injury he suffered in the first game of his senior season at Castle Park High School in Chula Vista, California, chased college recruiters away from the safety, who doubled, on the weekends, as a skinny surfer.
With nowhere to play, Fox enrolled at Southwestern College down the street, where he shined for two seasons.
Anonymity ensured his next step would be only incrementally longer: 16 miles, to San Diego State, a favor his junior-college coach called in to Aztecs boss Claude Gilbert when recruiters again ignored Fox.
‘‘He showed up as a walk-on,’’ Gilbert said Friday. ‘‘And, thank goodness, he turned out to be a tremendous player. His great strengths were his toughness and his smarts. Sometimes those qualities get lost in the mix. Once in a while you get lucky and a guy happens to show up.’’
By spring practice, Fox was the starter. The Aztecs won their conference his junior season and went 10-1 in 1976, his senior year.
Somewhere along the way, Fox — who took his last name from his Navy SEAL stepfather but loved surfing almost as much as football — earned a nickname few call him anymore: ‘‘Crash.’’
‘‘He would hit ya,’’ Gilbert, who replaced the great Don Coryell, said. ‘‘He was a tough guy.’’
When the Bears went searching for a coach almost three weeks ago, they wanted someone who could help return toughness to a franchise that had seemingly forgotten it and return discipline to the locker room.
They didn’t know it yet, but they wanted Fox.
They wanted ‘‘Crash.’’
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Less than a year removed from the franchise’s only Super Bowl appearance, John Fox’s 2004 Carolina Panthers were 1-7, had 11 men on injured reserve and trailed the San Francisco 49ers by two touchdowns at halftime.
“Foxy was always a positive-type guy,’’ said Jake Delhomme, the former Panthers quarterback. ‘‘But he lit into us pretty good at halftime. You just saw that fire in his eyes.’’
The Panthers scored 34 points in the second half and won six of their final eight games, including that day in San Francisco.
‘‘That was the turning point,’’ Delhomme said. ‘‘But that John, just that fight in him, that never-give-up, never-say-die attitude. That was the true John.’’
Ten years later, Chris Harris Jr., saw the same man in Denver.
‘‘He’s going to talk to you with enthusiasm, to try to inspire you,’’ the Pro Bowl cornerback said. ‘‘That’s the type of relationship. The ultimate players’ coach. All the players loved him.’’
Harris said he wasn’t shocked by Fox’s departure from the Broncos despite their 46-18 record, four AFC West titles and a Super Bowl appearance in four years. But that didn’t make it any easier.
‘‘You get to the point where you love playing for him,’’ Harris said. ‘‘He treats you like a man. A lot of coaches don’t treat you like that.’’
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Marty Hurney doesn’t mention Fox’s accomplishments with the Panthers first — his Super Bowl appearance, three playoff berths and 73-71 record in nine years. Rather, he remembers that Fox knew the names of the employees in the Panthers’ business office and would pop by to say hello.
‘‘He commands respect,’’ said Hurney, the Panthers’ general manager from 2002 to 2012, who worked in the team’s personnel department for four years before that. ‘‘I think if you talk to anybody that was with us the 10 years we were together, they’d tell you it might be the most fun they’ve ever had working in the league.’’
Delhomme is amazed how Fox was able to manage the Panthers’ two superstars: the whisper-quiet Julius Peppers and the anything-but Steve Smith.
‘‘John always had a great pulse of the team,’’ he said. ‘‘He always knew where to squash it when there was any kind of fire looming in the team, so to speak. He’s address it. He’d confront it immediately.’’
If he were phony, the players would have noticed.
‘‘If there’s a word to describe him, John was real,’’ Delhomme said. ‘‘He was one of us. You’d hear people say, ‘He’s a players’ coach’ and things of that nature. Well, if a players’ coach is someone that I wanted to play for and that I respected and that I just didn’t want to let him down — if that’s a definition of players’ coach — then that would be John.’’
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Since 2002, Fox has been unemployed exactly 16 days — 12 after leaving Panthers and four this week after disagreeing with GM John Elway on how to improve the Broncos.
‘‘People ought to leave him alone and let him coach,’’ Gilbert said. ‘‘General managers and owners ought to be sticking to what they do best. John Elway was a great quarterback, but I think he made a terrible mistake.’’
Fox always could find a job. When he finished his one season as a San Diego State graduate assistant, he figured he’d be a teacher at his old high school. A statewide hiring freeze, though, sent him 12 miles away, to coach a now-defunct team at United States International University. That was the first of eight different jobs in eight years.
He broke into the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1989, then bounced from the San Diego Chargers to the Oakland Raiders, where he quit as defensive coordinator in training camp, so annoyed by Al Davis’ meddling, and then became a St. ouis Rams consultant.
As the New York Giants’ defensive coordinator from 1997 to 2001, he worked with Bears adviser Ernie Accorsi.
‘‘From the Panthers to the Broncos, he had a philosophy,’’ Hurney said. ‘‘He wanted to play good defense and run the football. The personality of the team is going to be a physical personality. You have to win games at the line of defense on offense and defense. He’s going to bring a physical tone.”
Call it a ‘‘Crash’’ course.
‘‘I think they got a great fit,’’ Hurney said. ‘‘I think he’s a guy that can turn a defense around very quickly, and a team around very quickly.’’
Contributing: Adam L. Jahns