Showing Up: Inside Fletcher Cox’s Journey
Shaddrick Cox always told his brother to listen, and so Fletcher tries.
When friends and family explain to him that things will get better, that the good days will outnumber the bad, that he should focus on the happy times he had with Shaddrick, Cox pays attention.
But that doesn’t make it any easier.
“Losing my brother had to be one of the hardest things that I’ve faced as a young man,” Cox said. “Everybody says it’ll get better. There’s days where I don’t think it’ll get better. Some days I may believe that. But some days I’m like, ‘This’ll never get better.’ ”
On Jan.5 of this year, Shaddrick was in the process of purchasing a 1999 two-door Chevrolet Tahoe. A mechanic by trade and a car junkie, he’d had his eyes on that specific SUV for some time. But before he was able to drive away with it, he suffered a heart attack.
Shaddrick had been dealing with heart issues for years and was also working to keep his diabetes under control. But his big heart failed him that day, and he died at the age of 34.
“Shaddrick was my oldest child, and I’ve always considered him as being my man child, if you can understand what I mean when I say that,” said his Mom, Malissa. “And that to me means, ‘When my Momma is in need, or one of the kids needs help, I have to man up and help my Momma do what needs to be done regardless as to what it is.’ So I just always looked up to him.”
To describe Shaddrick simply as Cox’s older brother would be doing a disservice to their relationship. Malissa raised four children as a single mother in Yazoo City, Miss. Shaddrick was forced to grow up quickly and be the man of the house. When Cox needed a positive male influence in his life, his big brother was always there.
“At the point before he passed away, I think he was feeling the best he’d ever felt in the past couple years,” Cox said. “He was just expressing that to everybody. ‘I feel good, I feel great.’ My brother was always in a great mood no matter what.
“I know it’s hard for his wife and his [7-year-old son T.J.] especially. He knows what’s going on. I talk to him all the time. He misses his Dad, and I miss my brother. And I explain it to him all the time that he’s going to a better place, and he’s looking out for us.”
Cox has had to attend far too many funerals since he entered the NFL in 2012. As a rookie, he had to leave the team twice, once when his best friend Melvin Baker died in a car accident and again when his grandmother, Jimmie Lee Cox Hankins, passed away.
“With all three of those happening, it just really makes you open your eyes and look at life a whole different way,” Cox said. “You never know when you’re gonna be called home.”
Added Malissa: “I ask him if he’s alright. He’ll be like, ‘I’m good Momma.’ I know that it hurts. I do know that. But I think it gives him more to strive for to do the right thing, to be courteous to people, to be nice to people. He hasn’t changed one bit. I know that especially with his best friend, his grandma and his brother, he has his good days and he has his bad days. But even on his bad days, you don’t know that they’re bad days. You just don’t know.”
Tony Woolfolk had to keep trying. Yazoo City is a small town where everybody knows one another, and Woolfolk graduated high school with Malissa.
So when Cox was in eighth grade and needed help convincing his Mom to let him play football, Woolfolk and other coaches from the high school decided they had to take a trip to the house.
“My Mom would never, ever sign the papers for me to play football,” Cox recalled. “She wouldn’t sign it no matter what. The thing about it was, ‘I don’t want my baby to get hurt.’ That’s what my Mom would always say. ‘I don’t want my baby to get hurt.’ So we went on, I kept bugging her about it, kept bugging her about it. And she finally said, ‘Alright, I’m doing it.’ ”
Added Woolfolk: “She thought he was gonna be a basketball player. She was scared he was gonna get hurt and all that kind of stuff. Every day, I’d just be calling, calling, begging her. She’d be like, ‘Tony, he might get hurt.’ I said, ‘No, he might hurt somebody.’ ”
Cox started all four years on varsity and played both ways. As Woolfolk recalls, the only time he came off the field was on kickoff return.
When Cox first got noticed by college coaches, it wasn’t because he was causing chaos in the backfield or crushing opposing quarterbacks. It was when he was showing off his athleticism at right guard, pulling for the team’s standout running back Desmond Johnson, who would go on to play at Southern Mississippi.
Once Division I programs noticed Cox’s athleticism, they followed him more closely and saw him dominate on the defensive side of the ball. Woolfolk remembers one play in particular that made him think Cox might be able to play beyond college.
“His sophomore year, we were playing Canton High School. They had this so-called big-time running back,” Woolfolk said. “And they were on the 15 yard line coming out. They ran a toss, a sweep to the outside. He broke it. He was gone. He was gone man for 85 yards. Fletcher was playing defensive tackle on the other side. He came off the ball, saw him break it. He turned to go get him, ran by linebackers, defensive backs, everybody and caught that dude on the 5 yard line.
“And when he caught him, the next play he caused a fumble, and we got the fumble. If he gave up, we don’t even do anything.”
As his star rose, Cox leaned on Shaddrick and his Mom. Malissa had started a new job at a local Nissan supplier. Her shift ran from 2 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. That meant she missed after-school activities and barely saw her kids.
So Malissa had a chat with her bosses and switched to an a.m. shift that began before Fletcher and his siblings were out of bed. But it allowed her to get home early in the afternoon to make sure the kids had everything they needed.
“I tried to make as many games as I possibly could, but here’s the funny part,” Malissa said. “At first, when he started to play football, I just thought it was something to do, because he was playing basketball, football and running track. The first couple games, they would start at 7. I would get there five, 10 minutes after 7. One night, and I’ll never forget it, we had come home from the game, and he asked me, he said, ‘Mom, why can’t you ever be on time for the games?’ I didn’t know at that moment that it meant that much to him for me to be there before the game started.
“So from that day, until this day, when Fletcher’s playing ball, I’m going to a game, I’m gonna sit right there. And during his high school years, when he was on the field warming up, getting ready, all he had to do at about a quarter to 7 was look up to the 50 yard line and recognize me because I’m gonna wave back and let him know I’m here. But at first I didn’t know it meant that much to him. Once he told me about it and brought it to my attention, every game he had at home in high school, I made it my business to be there.”
At times, Cox grew overwhelmed by the recruiting process. He didn’t like all the attention and badgering. He wanted to play ball, work on cars with his brother and go fishing with his friends. But he’s always kept a close circle of people he trusts. Shaddrick, Woolfolk and others explained that the attention was a good thing and helped him make his decision to attend Mississippi State.
“My brother, he took that father figure role,” Cox said. “He was always there to support me no matter what. When it came down to decision-making, he was the one helping me make the right decision, right or wrong, whatever he felt good [about], whatever I felt good [about].”
Added Malissa: “He would always try to keep Fletcher on the straight and narrow path. Not having a father figure, that was the next thing. The oldest brother knew really what was out there, how easy it is to get into trouble and how hard it is to get out of trouble. So it was just a wonderful relationship. And I’m just so proud my boys had that understanding and the relationship that they had with each other.”
Cox takes his place in line. It’s a sunny June afternoon, and the orange blocking sled awaits. He lines up directly across from it, explodes out of his stance, controls the gaps to either side and waits for defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro to instruct him to shed and attack.
When the Eagles traded up to draft Cox in 2012, then defensive line coach Jim Washburn said that God created Cox to play in the Wide-9. In college, he was known to burst into the backfield and create chaos. And after Cox’s rookie year, it was tough to argue with Washburn’s assessment. The coaches credited him with seven tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and 24 QB hurries.
At the time, the Eagles’ philosophy was to focus on stopping opposing passing attacks. That meant lining up wide, firing off the ball, penetrating gaps and getting to the quarterback. Here’s an example of Cox’s quickness during his rookie season, when he showed flashes of becoming a special player.
But when Chip Kelly, Billy Davis and Azzinaro took over, they brought a different defensive philosophy, one that focused on stopping the run first. They implemented a two-gap 3-4, a front that couldn’t be any more different than the Wide-9. Instead of firing off the ball, Cox was asked to line up at the four-technique, directly across from an offensive tackle, engage him, read the play, control two gaps and eventually get to the football.
Cox played well in 2013, but it was natural to wonder whether his talents were being misused. Versatility has become a buzz word around the league. Certainly Cox showed he could play in a two-gap 3-4, but would he ever reach his potential playing in the new scheme?
That question was answered in 2014 when Cox began to wreck games on a weekly basis.
“You really saw it come on midseason last year when he was just manhandling guards in the run game and doing what he wanted with them,” said Connor Barwin. “And he did it consistently. It wasn’t like he ran into a backup guard and had his way with him. It was three weeks in a row. I was like, ‘OK, he has this ability.’ I talk to the guys on our team, and I was just talking to Jason Kelce, and he said, ‘There’s few guys in the league that when they put their hands on you, you can feel the power. And Fletch is one of those guys that has that.’
“The best athletes can find a way to be great in whatever system it is. And that’s him. He would have been great in a Wide-9 system. And he’s great in this two-gap system because he’s just a good football player and has the ability to adjust. He’s coachable, he works out, all those things.”
Here’s an example of Cox in the new scheme from last year’s loss to the Seahawks.
Coaches will often talk about how sack numbers are overrated. There’s no better support for that argument than Cox. His stats page shows four sacks last year, yet he was one of the major reasons why the Eagles had an improved pass rush.
“Just a disruptive force,” Kelly said. “He can really push the pocket from the inside, and I think sometimes the sack numbers aren’t the whole indication in terms of what you can do. I think if you can make the pocket collapse the way Fletcher makes the pocket collapse, and you can ask Connor [Barwin], Connor will be the first one to tell you, some of his sacks were beneficial because Fletch moved the pocket so much inside that the quarterback had to flush out to where Connor was.
“I think sack totals sometimes are a little misleading in terms of it’s not an individual thing, sometimes it’s a group thing. And I think in terms of what he can do on the inside, there’s not many guys in the league that have that type of explosion and pass rush moves that can really disrupt things on the inside.”
The Eagles defensive line has nicknamed itself The Nobodies. Cox, Bennie Logan and Cedric Thornton show up every week and control the run game. Because of the scheme, they don’t get the same recognition as other linemen around the league. But without them, the operation would completely fall apart.
“I think he’s the unsung hero of our defense,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins. “When you watch him play snap in and snap out, he’s dominating. It’s that simple, whether it’s a run, whether it’s a pass. He’s taking on two guys and freeing up everybody else. …He’s obviously one of the guys who doesn’t get all the attention because it’s not a glorious job being down in the trenches, but he’s definitely one of the centerpieces of our defense.”
During the first round of this year’s draft, Cox was back home getting some crawfish with the boys. He happened to leave his phone in the car, and when he went back to get it, he noticed several people had tried to get in touch with him.
“I had a few missed calls from my agent and a few text messages, saying ‘Call me,’ ” Cox said. “So I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ A lot of crap going on about the trade rumors. I was like, ‘Hey [agent] Todd [France], I’m out eating crawfish. If it happens, it happens. I’m not worried about it. But I want to be in Philadelphia.’ ”
Cox’s name had come up in trade rumors for Marcus Mariota, but obviously nothing materialized. The Eagles exercised a team option, locking Cox in through the 2016 season. And considering he doesn’t turn 25 until December, at some point, it will make sense to lock Cox in to an even longer-term deal.
Malissa is not one for excuses. She could’ve spent her days lamenting the fact that Fletcher’s Dad still lives in Yazoo City but has chosen not to be a part of his life. It would be natural for her to question why Shaddrick was taken from her before he could see his kids grow up. She could easily quit her job and count on Fletcher to help her financially. But that’s not how she’s wired.
So instead, she shows up to work at the Nissan supplier at 5:30 a.m. Her shift starts at 6, but she believes that if you’re early, you’re on time. And if you’re on time, you’re late. She’s poured her life into her family and couldn’t be prouder of the man that Cox has become. Now Malissa wants to make sure he never forgets where he came from and remembers what it took to get to where he is.
“There’s never been a time when he needed something that I didn’t do the best that I could with what I had,” Malissa said. “But I had Fletcher, and I also had three other kids. And being a single Mom is not a really, really good feeling. But I had help because his oldest brother and my Momma, if there was something that any of those kids needed, they helped.
“He’s tried several times to build a relationship with his Dad, but like he said, it hasn’t happened. If it happens, it happens. And if it doesn’t happen, then it’s his Dad’s fault. Me myself, I don’t think it really mattered to Fletcher because he knew that whatever he needed, we were gonna get. If it meant me working from 10 to 12 hours a day and Saturday or Sunday, he was gonna get it.”
Cox has always been about showing up. That means attending his teammates’ charity events, practicing when he doesn’t feel right, giving maximum effort on Sundays and flying back home when his family needs him.
It’s tough to be nearly 1,200 miles away from his Mom, his sisters and his nieces and nephews. He texts back and forth with Malissa before and after every game. T.J. wishes his uncle were around all the time, but Cox explains that he has a job in Philadelphia, and T.J. says he understands. Cox is proud of him for that and promises to FaceTime. With his brother no longer around, Cox knows it’s on him to be there for T.J. and his 2-year-old niece.
“We all miss Shaddrick,” Malissa said. “For me, what happened was devastating, but life goes on. And I feel it’s as though he’s gone but he’s not forgotten. He’s still here in so many ways because he was a lovable person. He was a joyful person. And so once you grow older and realize you have to live life on life’s terms, and that nothing in God’s world happens by mistake, once I grasped that concept, then I deal with whatever happens.
“We’re gonna be alright.”