Derek Cox is gassed. The College of William and Mary senior cornerback is sprinting across the hard-worn turf of an indoor soccer field on the industrial outskirts of Richmond, Va., legs straining against the unrelenting tug of a 25-lb. sled attached to his waist. Reaching the center of the field he slows his run, coming to a stop and bending over to catch his breath.
Derek and the seven other athletes training alongside him are in the middle of a grueling two-and-a-half hour workout. 150 minutes of stretching, sprinting and lifting.
“Put your hand in the air if you’re sore,” yells a crew-cut athletic trainer, seemingly taken straight from every workout video ever made.
Every hand goes up.
Yet, there’s none of the usual griping and complaining that typically accompanies the off-season workouts of collegiate and scholastic athletic teams everywhere. For this group of football players, the training has ceased to be part of a game — training is their life.
Each of the players is chasing a career that few ever obtain: the chance to suit up on Sundays for a team in the National Football League. For all assembled, it is a dream that requires the utmost discipline, performance and, in the end, luck. For each man, the pursuit of this dream is every bit as unremitting and remorseless as the 25-lb. sled at his back.
In a two-part series, The Flat Hat will chronicle the experience of Cox, as he undertakes his long and difficult journey to the NFL.
Part One follows today; Part Two will run in next Tuesday’s issue.
RICHMOND, Va. — Derek Cox stands toward the center of the indoor soccer field, breathing heavily as he unhooks the training sled harness from his waist. At 6’1” and a relatively slight 182 lbs., he is far from the most powerful or impressive-looking player present. Yet, with blazing speed — Cox has been clocked as quick as 4.34 seconds in the 40-yard dash — he is among the fastest and, overall, one of the few players in attendance with a legitimate shot at an NFL career.
Even more crucial to the senior’s professional aspirations is his place among the hardest working. For the entire spring semester, after the punishing grind of the fall football season came to a close, Cox has made the 45-minute drive to Richmond four times a week, arriving shortly before 1 p.m. at Elkin Sports Performance — a small complex in a gritty area overlooking Interstate 95. He goes to bed by midnight each night, rising at 7:30 a.m. — weekends included — to ready his body for peak physical performance. A blue packet from ESP outlines exactly what he eats and what he does not. Included among the latter are cheese and red meat. He rarely socializes on weekend nights, and if he does he arrives back at his apartment before midnight. It is a life dedicated solely to the goal of earning a spot on an NFL roster this fall, a goal which currently trumps all else.
“It’s my whole life. I’m on the same schedule every day,” Cox said. “I treat myself every now and then, but if I treat myself it’s getting in the hot tub. I’m in a phase right now where I’ve got to always be sharp and on point because my performance will make all the difference.”
For Cox, it is a journey that began 13 years ago, as a 10-year-old emerging onto a football field for the first time. Although baseball was his first love, Cox blossomed on the gridiron, finding a passion for the game that was solidified when his older brother earned a scholarship to play for East Carolina University. Cox was a freshman in high school at the time and from then on it was all football.
“I was a centerfielder and a lot of people tell me now I could have been drafted as a baseball player,” Cox said. “But when my brother got a football scholarship it motivated me.”
When it became time for the high schooler to think about his own collegiate future, he had his heart firmly set on following his older sibling to ECU.
But the big-time Football Bowl Series schools did not come calling with scholarship offers as they had for his brother. Instead, Cox ended up at the College, a football program with a vast and storied legacy of its own, but one devoid of the high-end exposure of the larger schools and conferences.
Perversely, it is that factor which could end up playing the largest role in Cox’s future professional chances.
“[Playing in the FBS] would have put me on a higher platform,” Cox said. “Coming out of I-AA is almost like a strike against you in the minds of NFL scouts because it’s a lower level of competition. They like to see you play against higher competition and do well in those games.”
Which, to a limited extent, is what the College has provided Cox for the past several years.
Each season, the Tribe goes on the road to play a major-conference FBS opponent, usually an ACC school. Cox has made the most of these opportunities. This past year, in the College’s season-opener against North Carolina State University, he intercepted a fourth-quarter pass and returned it for a touchdown in front of 56,000 people. His sophomore year, playing against the University of Maryland, he notched three tackles and recovered a fumble.
Despite these appearances, the exposure is still less than that of a major school.
“You always have to do a little more as a I-AA player,” Cox said. “You’ve got to have something that sets you apart.”
For the senior, that “something” is prodigious speed and a knack for making big-time plays. All professional cornerbacks must be fast, but Cox’s time in the 40-yard dash, ranging between 4.38 and 4.42 seconds, clocks in at the high end of that group.
“Generally what the league wants to see for a corner is to run a 4.5 or better,” Cox said. “If you do better than that, you’re in good shape.”
When that speed is coupled with his penchant for finding the end zone — Cox scored four touchdowns this past season as a cornerback and kick returner — he becomes an attractive and cheap option for NFL teams in next month’s draft.
But for Cox, the NFL draft is merely the beginning of his football journey, and his career hopes do not rest solely on it. While he has a shot at being selected in the late rounds, the cornerback is likely to be signed as an undrafted free agent if he is not. Consequently, while all his preparations are focused toward sufficiently impressing scouts in order to hear his name called on draft day, Cox will not be too distraught if it is not.
But Cox knows that he can afford to take no chances, which is why the senior has put his life on hold to prepare himself for the testings of NFL scouts and, he hopes, the rigors of an NFL training camp.
While his senior classmates relax and enjoy the final semesters of their collegiate lives, Cox adheres to a much different schedule.
Monday through Friday, he rises each morning and attends class for several hours before leaving campus at 11:30 a.m. to make the trip up Interstate 64 to train at ESP. Once there, Cox conducts his daily workout before arriving back in Williamsburg around 4:30 p.m. He downs an energy bar and a banana before heading to the Laycock Center to be stretched and iced down. Dinner at the Caf is followed by several hours of homework and T.V. with his roommates before his midnight curfew. Wednesday is his only day off.
“My social life has changed,” he said. “I’ve had to cut everything out. I hear from people, ‘you don’t come hang out anymore’, but that’s just not important to me right now, that’s not my major goal.”
Luckily, Cox benefits from a support system of friends and roommates who, as former Tribe football players themselves, understand his quest.
“They haven’t pulled me away, or taken me in a different direction or tried to persuade me to do things I shouldn’t be doing,” Cox said. “They know what schedule I’m on and what I need to be on and they’ve been helpful along the way.”
Like Cox, his roommates understand that all the hard work — the grueling workouts, the strict diet — is aimed at leaving the cornerback in the best possible physical shape for the series of NFL workouts that will make or break his chances of getting on a roster.
The strict discipline has made its mark. According to Shane Sykes, Cox’s trainer at ESP, the senior has shaved nearly three-tenths of a second off his 40-yard dash time since beginning his grueling workout schedule, and has seen major improvements in other areas.
However, like any other college kid, Cox occasionally allows himself a moment’s indulgence.
“When this part comes to an end,” he says with a grin, “I’m going to treat myself to a burger at Chili’s — a Big Mouth Bacon Burger.”
However, refocusing on the goal around which his entire life is currently centered, Cox quickly turns serious.
“But if I do something like that, it’s up to me to make up for it. It’s my responsibility.”
Next Tuesday, The Flat Hat will run Part Two of this feature, following Cox as he participates in his Pro Day and other events.