The new year was approaching, and Dana Reeves DeCamillis was saying her final goodbye to her father, Dan, on FaceTime.
“I want you to know that you’re the only man I’ve loved for every second of my life,” she told him.
Dan Reeves smiled so wide. “Don’t tell Joe,” he said.
That would be Joe DeCamillis, Dana’s husband and special teams coordinator of the Super Bowl-bound Los Angeles Rams. Joe already knew how his wife and her dad felt about each other. DeCamillis had joined Dan Reeves’ Broncos staff in 1988, and then followed him to the Giants and to the Falcons. “Joe was probably even closer to my dad than I was,” Dana said.
Joe had regularly called his father-in-law as the vile forces of dementia overtook him. DeCamillis wanted to keep Reeves’ brain sharp, keep him talking about the game, and nobody cared that the 77-year-old football lifer sometimes forgot that Joe and Dana were living in Los Angeles, and asked instead about how things were going in Denver or Jacksonville.
On New Year’s Eve, the final full day of his life, Dan Reeves was under hospice care in his Atlanta home. Dana’s mother Pam, daughter Caitlin, a nurse practitioner, and sister Laura were there when a call came in from Joe, who told the old coach how much he admired and loved him. DeCamillis didn’t want to work for his father-in-law in Denver because he feared that others would see him as nothing more than a family hire, and twice he turned down his job offer. But Reeves assured him, “If you mess up, I’ll fire you quicker than anyone else,” and brought him in as an assistant strength and conditioning coach who was sliding papers under the coaches’ hotel room doors in the dead of night.
DeCamillis earned his boss’s faith the hard way, and then, with Reeves long retired, won a Super Bowl with the Broncos six years ago that Reeves had failed to win as Denver’s head coach in three attempts. Joe posed for a picture with his father-in-law while he flashed his Super Bowl ring and Reeves held a replica of the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
“I’ve never seen anyone more genuinely happy for someone else than my dad was that day,” Dana said.
On that final call with Joe, Reeves opened his eyes for the first time in a while and struggled to mouth a message to his son-in-law. When the phone rang later that night in the DeCamillis home in LA, in the small hours of New Year’s morning in Atlanta, Dana told Joe, “No, please no.” She answered and Laura was crying on the other end and telling her, “Daddy’s gone.” Dana threw the phone and all but blacked out, wailing over the loss of her hero. She was supposed to board a plane on New Year’s Day to see him one last time.
“I thought he would live forever,” Dana said.
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So did most people who knew her old man, the undrafted South Carolina quarterback who was switched to halfback by the Dallas Cowboys and who played eight NFL seasons. Reeves was tough enough with frozen hands and with a dislodged tooth piercing his frozen upper lip to throw a 50-yard touchdown pass in subhuman conditions in the famous Ice Bowl at Lambeau Field.
Reeves saw the same toughness in Joe, a grinder who mowed lawns with his father, Tony, from dawn to dusk to earn money for school, and who made himself a star wrestler at the University of Wyoming. Joe met Dana Reeves at a place called the Buckhorn; she was a University of Colorado student in town to visit a friend. Joe asked her to dance, and it turned out he was hell of a great country swing dancer. Dana transferred to Wyoming, they got married in 1987, and they had two girls, Caitlin and Ashley. And then they lived the transient football life.
Dan Reeves had won a Super Bowl as a Dallas player and another as a Dallas assistant, but badly wanted that ring as the man in charge. He reached his fourth Super Bowl as a head coach, and ninth overall, with the Falcons, six weeks after shaking off quadruple bypass surgery as if it were a strained hamstring. “He was such a good person, and you just wanted him to win one Super Bowl as a head coach,” Dana said. “It was a Cinderella story after the heart surgery to go up against his old team that had fired him.”
But the Broncos prevailed, and Reeves was out of the league five years later. DeCamillis spent another few years with the Falcons before moving to Jacksonville and then to Dallas, where disaster struck before he coached a single game as special teams coordinator of his father-in-law’s team. Joe was working with the rookies in the practice bubble when fierce winds knocked down the structure, sending a metal beam crashing on top of Joe and leaving him face-first in a pool of water, before a trainer rolled him over and stopped him from drowning. Joe somehow gathered himself and called his wife.
“The building fell on me and I can’t feel my legs,” he told Dana.
“What, babe?” she responded.
“I can’t feel my arms, and I have to hang up,” he said.
Dana rushed to the hospital and found her husband immobilized in the ER with a broken neck. A doctor ordered Joe to avoid turning his head to look at his wife. Someone in the ER told Dana, “If you’re a praying person, you should probably start praying.”
Joe DeCamillis made it through surgery, and made it back to the Cowboys’ practice field a couple weeks later armed with a neck brace and a bullhorn. Joe would later joke that he’d soon get back to performing his trademark game-day move — manically sprinting down the field while tracking his coverage teams and kick returners — but he understood how lucky he was to be alive and mobile. A colleague had been paralyzed from the waist down, and doctors told Dana that her husband would’ve ended up a quadriplegic if he hadn’t developed such strong neck muscles from wrestling.
“They took a rib bone and made it a neck bone,” Dana said. “When Joe’s bone disintegrated, the spinal cord went around his spine and stayed intact. His carotid artery was also bleeding, and somehow it stopped and healed itself. He had his vocal cords cut, and four 14-inch rods and 28 screws were put in that still hold his neck together to this day. … Joe’s literally in daily pain and you never hear it from him.
“That’s the toughness my father saw in him 36 years ago. I tried to find somebody like my dad to marry and I got as close as you can get.”
Dana loves football with every ounce of her being, even though she believes the violent nature of the game and the primitive equipment in her father’s day ultimately contributed to his dementia. She was there as a kid when Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett stopped by the house to watch film. She was there, and pregnant, in the Louisiana Superdome 32 years ago when Joe Montana’s 49ers thrashed Reeves’ Broncos 55-10, and wondering why the scoreboard operators kept putting her dad’s anguished face on the screen.
She was there in Giants Stadium in 1993 when her father and husband helped clean up Ray Handley’s ungodly mess and returned the Giants to the playoffs. “Working for the Mara and Tisch families was a privilege to us,” Dana said. “I always rooted for the Giants even after they fired my dad.”
Dana and Joe were 1-15 in Jacksonville last year, and yet here they are on the game’s biggest stage, a short drive from their home, with Joe having a shot at his second Super Bowl title in his 34th straight year in the league. Dana said she felt her father’s presence during the Rams’ NFC Championship game victory over San Francisco. She believes he will have the best seat in the SoFi Stadium house Sunday night.
“It still doesn’t seem real,” Dana Reeves DeCamillis said. “I thought we’d see my dad after the Super Bowl, maybe push him in his wheelchair, but still have him. Part of me is relieved that his suffering has been taken away.
“I was a daddy’s girl, and I will miss him every day until I see him again.”