This is Part Two of a two-part Flat Hat series. Part One ran in last Tuesday’s issue and can be read at flathatnews.com.
Derek Cox eyes the starting line etched onto the green turf of Zable Stadium, his head turned slightly toward the ground, body tensed, ready to explode at a moment’s notice. Forty yards in front of him lies an identical white mark. To his left stands a small group of men, all watching intently.
Cox notices none of this. His entire body waits, expecting one whistle, ready to explode off his mark with short, choppy steps quickly transforming into long, powerful strides. He is picturing a perfect start, a perfect 40-yard dash — one that will conclude in just less than 4.4 seconds flat.
The pressure is immense. Anything over 4.45 seconds will result in failure. Any slip, a nanosecond’s hesitation, could result in the end of a dream.
But Cox doesn’t think of the pressure. His entire being is transfixed on that far white mark. A whistle blows. Cox explodes.
An instant later, he bursts through the end line. He is clocked at 4.39 seconds, a standout mark. The four scouts in attendance look on stonefaced, their expressions revealing nothing.
A short while later, Cox is back on the same white line.
His body is tensed, head focused. The pressure is once again immense.
College of William and Mary senior cornerback Derek Cox is one of hundreds of collegiate football players trying to transform NCAA success into a shot at a professional career in the NFL.
It is a goal that ranks among the most difficult in sports. Out of a pool of over 8,000 graduating players in the NCAA’s Division I alone, a mere 200 or so will earn a place on an NFL roster in the fall.
After years of hard work, determination, sacrifice and focus, Cox has put himself in position to achieve that goal heading this month’s NFL draft. With a mere two and half weeks until draft day, Cox is winding down the stressful transition from the College to the pros.
Cox’s journey is centered primarily around a small complex in an industrial area north of Richmond. You might have seen it before. Thousands drive past it each day on Interstate 95, a white practice dome next to a small brick building and a fenced in soccer field.
The complex is home to Elkin Sports Performance, a newly built training center that has been the hub of Cox’s preparations for the NFL draft.
He works out there four times a week with his trainer Shane Sykes, a former college strength coach.
But the influence of Sykes and ESP extends further than the afternoon workouts. The tenets of the performance company permeate Cox’s daily life, creating the intense structure around which he has lived for the past three months.
Eight hours of sleep a night, no partying, no alcohol, no cheese, red meat or whole milk. Wake up at 7:30 a.m., go to class in the morning, work out at ESP, ice down back in Williamsburg, dinner, schoolwork and in bed by midnight. This has been Cox’s final semester of college life.
It is a schedule that has paid off.
“He’s seen better results than the typical guy,” Sykes said. “He’s seen some really good improvements, but he’s just real diligent about what he’s doing. He thinks things through and works hard, and that’s what the next level is all about. It’s about putting in the study time and preparation and maintaining focus.”
Sykes would know. Over a 12-year career, the Richmond-based trainer has guided NFL stars such as Aaron Brooks, Travis Henry and Darren Sharper ‘97.
Now he is guiding Cox’s journey toward an NFL career.
Sykes’s regimen involves not so much as a glance at a football. Instead, it is designed to improve Cox’s physical attributes as much as possible to prepare him for the series of workouts and Pro Days that will make or break his career. Despite all the training and discipline, Cox’s chances could have ground to a halt with a poor showing at the College’s Pro Day, last month.
With his NFL career on the line, Cox stepped onto the Zable Stadium turf to audition in front of scouts from the New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Cox’s preparation paid off. The senior clocked in with times of 4.39 and 4.42 in the 40-yard dash — elite marks for any player — while displaying a 36.5-inch vertical jump and an outstanding mark of 11’8” in the broad jump.
Within several days of the session, representatives from the Indianapolis Colts called, seeking to set up an individual workout with Cox in Williamsburg. The Patriots did the same – they wanted a second look. So did the Philadelphia Eagles.
Despite his rising popularity, Cox characteristically maintained an even keel.
“You hear a lot of things, but I don’t want to get caught up into that,” he said. “Whatever happens on draft day happens, that’s my approach. It keeps me on a level emotional roller coaster where I don’t have to experience those highs and lows, because that doesn’t help me at all. For me, I just want to be on a team.”
It’s a smart approach for a process this complicated and convoluted. Cox knows that as a prospect from a school without a history of sending players to the NFL, his draft stock could depend on preconceived notions of the level of play in the Division I Football Championship Subdivison, of which the College is a part. However, he hopes his varied skill set and explosive playmaking ability — the cornerback scored four touchdowns this past season — will attract teams.
“They’re asking, ‘As a single person, what can he bring to the team?” he said. “Any other things you can add to your repertoire make you more valuable.”
For advice, Cox has turned to the string of Tribe players before him who have embarked on similar paths. The senior has maintained contact with graduated stars such as Drew Atchison ’07, Stephen Cason ‘06 and Sharper.
“All the guys have given me a lot of advice,” Cox said. “They’ve helped a lot in terms of preparation.”
Preparation that could be Cox’s ticket toward the promise of a pro career.
Individual workouts go a long way toward fulfilling that promise. Less pressure-filled than a Pro Day, only one team is present, so any slip-ups are not quite as disastrous. However, the more in-depth analysis of the prospect gives players on the margins a valuable chance to demonstrate their skills.
In front of a large crowd of teammates and coaches at Zable Stadium last Tuesday, Cox underwent three separate, hour-long sessions. Each began with aptitude and intelligence tests, before moving on to an evaluation of Cox’s football skills.
As with his Pro Day, Cox was pleased with the results.
“I felt fine, but that’s the fun stuff,” he said. “Doing position drills, running and catching the ball.”
However, with the process as secretive as ever, he has been kept largely in the dark about his draft potential by interested teams.
“You kind of have to judge things from people’s reactions, because they can’t tell you anything,” he said. “For the most part they gave me a bunch of positive feedback. My coaches and teammates all thought I looked good.”
Now, with his workouts complete, Cox awaits the NFL draft April 25 and 26 in New York City. There, he will find out if he has done enough to convince a team to use a valuable pick on a cornerback from outside the traditional pantheon of collegiate football programs.
Characteristically, his plans for the draft are emblematic of his disciplined approach to the entire process.
“I’m going to treat it like a normal Saturday,” he said. “I’ll probably try to remain away from people just because I don’t want people asking about it. If I watch it, I’ll watch it alone. I don’t want to put that pressure on myself, that anxiety.”
If drafted, the senior will still have a difficult road ahead of him — a selection guarantees nothing in the fall when roster cuts claim many rookies. Similarly, Cox’s career will be far from over if he is not chosen — the list of football stars unclaimed in the draft is lengthy and distinguished.
But Cox understands the big picture of the NFL — that it’s not about the glamour of being a draft choice or signing a large contract, but about the end result. After a career spent away from the spotlight, built on hard work and an intense drive to succeed, Cox is finally ready to emerge onto the main stage. Allowing him no shortcuts, his football life has prepared him perfectly for this moment.
“I’ve always held myself to the highest standard and that’s how I have directed my life,” Cox said. “Playing in the NFL was never really a pointed realization, than my belief all along. Now it’s almost here.”