Uncommon Strength

The Tragic Loss that Motivates the Eagles' Fletcher Cox

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First-round pick Fletcher Cox will probably get a shot at starting sooner rather than later. (Rich Schultz/AP Photo)

There appears to be no limit to Fletcher Cox's strength.

At the NFL Scouting Combine in February, Cox bench-pressed nearly 3 1/2 tons. His workout drew comparisons to Warren Sapp, from the toughest of all critics - Warren Sapp. At Mississippi State last season, Cox bullied Southeastern Conference guards and tackles for five sacks and 56 tackles as a junior, which convinced him to forsake his senior season for the NFL. Convinced, the Eagles traded up three spots to take Cox with the 12th pick of the NFL draft in April.

They could not know how strong Cox really is.

 

Just past midnight on June 10, on the way back from Vicksburg, Miss., to Yazoo City, Melvin Baker was thrown from the back seat of a rolling car and was killed, horrifically.

He was 21.

He was Fletcher Cox's best friend.

Melvin, all smooth and handsome and cool, nicknamed Cox "Bug-Eye." Cox grew so close to Baker's family that he called Baker's mother, Bertha Moton, "Mamma."

"He was like my brother," said Cox.

When he feels his strength beginning to ebb, Cox grabs for a technological thread of a lifeline. When dawn breaks and his alarm clock rings at training camp, Cox ignores the soreness and reaches for his phone. When Cox weakens from dehydration after practice and is connected to his IVs, he reaches for his phone. When dusk falls and Cox is exhausted but he has one more meaningless meeting, he reaches for his phone.

He pushes "Play."

"I've got a video on my phone. It's me and Melvin, riding horses. That's my motivation," Cox said. "Every day, I go to my phone and look at the video."

Cox is huge, 6-4 and 300 country pounds, with arms like tree limbs and a soft, bass voice seldom heard by his teammates. As he stands outside the Eagles' locker room and betrays this most precious secret, he seems to shrink.

A curious tic surfaces: His arms dangling, he swings his big right fist into his open left hand. It makes a disquieting Pop.

"Nobody knows I look at this video," Cox said.

Pop.

"It might be a minute long. I go and look at the video. We're riding horses. Just having fun. Talking. That video means a lot to me."

Pop.

"I'm actually hearing his voice talk. Seeing him smile. We're talking back and forth to each other. I'm videoing him. He's videoing me. I got pictures. We're taking pictures and all. On some old back roads. We were just out riding."

Pop.

"If I would've been home I would've been in that car with them."

Pop.

"There's a lot of what-ifs. You can't do anything about the what-ifs."

The arms stop swinging. He looks away. Cox is thinking of Melvin, and of Melvin's mother, who he will call in a few hours. He will crack jokes for her and talk about football with her and he will be strong for her, even as his own heart bleeds.

Bertha Moton knows this, but she always answers anyway. She has to. She needs his strength. "Him keeping in touch with me," said Bertha Moton, "is the highlight of my life."

 

Early round disappointments along the defensive line have plagued the Eagles in recent years. Not failures; just disappointments, due to injury or ineptness or ordinariness: Brandon Graham, Trevor Laws, Victor Abiamiri, Brodrick Bunkley, Jerome McDougle, Jon Harris.

Early on, Cox's size, speed and, yes, his strength make even relative successes like Mike Patterson and Corey Simon seem pedestrian. He has drawn comparisons to no less than Jerome Brown.

Jerome Brown died young, in a car crash.

Ever since Cox quit basketball and baseball when he was a freshman, he seemed destined for something significant.

Terrified by football's violence, Cox's mother, Malissa, wouldn't let Cox play the sport. He was her baby - he and twin sister Fantansia.

Tony Woolfolk, Yazoo City's coach, went to school with Malissa. He saw Cox dominating other eighth-graders on the basketball court, saw him gliding around the baseball diamond. Woolfolk pestered Malissa Cox. "She said she didn't want him going out there and getting hurt," Woolfolk said with a chuckle. "I told her, 'Well, he might hurt somebody else, but he ain't going to get hurt.' "

Woolfolk was right. A former college assistant, he was convinced by the end of Cox's freshman football season that Cox was big-time college material . . . if he was college material at all. Woolfolk warned Cox that his poor grades could block that avenue out of Yazoo City, that he might be stuck among the 11,000 kids at Western Mississippi. "I tell all my kids, they gotta make it out of here. You know what? He ain't like so many hard-headed kids. He listened," Woolfolk said.

"All of a sudden, he was, like this whole other guy. Teachers would stop me in the hall and say, 'Coach, I don't know what's going on with this kid. He's the best kid I have in class now. He asks for extra work for extra credit. He asks for extra help.' "

There were no academic impediments. Cox remains a diligent student, 28 credit hours from a degree in industrial technology, which, he said, he will resume no more than 2 years from now.

College coaches don't need a robot builder; they just want someone who can pass sociology. Cox got his grades in order and, after a 21 sacks as a high-school junior and senior, Cox had his pick of powerhouses in national-championship races.

He instead chose Mississippi State, a four-win team in 2008 . . . but less than 2 hours from home. "It's not about where you go. It's about what you do wherever you go. I could've gone to Jackson State, or somewhere," Cox said. "If you're doing your job, no matter where you go, they'll find you."

MSU was close enough so Malissa and Fantansia and 31-year-old brother Shaddrick and 27-year-old sister Nakeia could come see him. "I was a little surprised," said Eagles teammate Jamar Chaney, who happened to host Cox on his recruiting visit. "But, you know, he's from Mississippi. Certain guys just want to stay home. In Mississippi you either grow up rooting for Ole Miss or Mississippi State. He grew up Mississippi State."

Melvin grew up Mississippi State, too.

Melvin, of course, made every home game.

 

Melvin rejoiced when Cox returned to Yazoo City this summer.

Cox could have returned to MSU and prepared for the NFL in its state-of-the-art facilities, overseen by its professional trainers. He opted for the Indians' rudimentary weight room.

He opted for home.

Hall of Fame cornerback and Raiders assistant coach Willie Brown regularly sent home care packages filled with used NFL cleats collected from players. "Bug remembered that," Woolfolk said.

Willie Brown never signed a $10.2 million guaranteed contract, and he never had a deal with Nike. This season, Yazoo City's 60 football players will sport the freshest Nike Lunars, courtesy of their latest NFL connection. "He blew these kids' minds," Woolfolk said. "They have the ones that just came out!"

Cox donated the shoes 2 weeks after Melvin died.

Melvin would have been proud.

Certainly, Melvin's mother is. For Cox, it's never about himself.

Bertha Moton's brother died Dec. 13, 2009, less than a month after Cox helped MSU upset No. 25 Ole Miss in his freshman season finale. Moton was disconsolate, pacing back and forth in her living room as Melvin and Bug sat, silent.

Bug had just returned from MSU especially for that day.

His 19th birthday.

"I forgot all about it, and he never said a word," Moton said. "He just sat there, sat there for me. On his birthday."

Somehow, Moton talks with candor and control about her popular son; how they were friends, and talked about girls and life and fights and everything.

Hundreds of comments grace Melvin's memorial page on facebook, comments of memory and mourning and pain and love.

There are no comments from Cox.

 

Bertha Moton understands.

"I don't know if what happened with Melvin has dampened his NFL experience. I hope not," she said. "I don't think it's the same for him now."

How could it be?

Cox knows the driver, Herman Ketchson, and Saquaneria Collum, Herman's girlfriend and, of course, Krystal Davis, 22, Melvin's girl. He knows the red 2006 Chevy Impala that got totaled when it rolled, when Herman swerved, and Melvin, wearing no seatbelt, was thrown into a ditch 25 feet from the car, where he died.

In his giant Cadillac Escalade, Cox would have smeared that deer all over Highway 61, and Melvin would be here now.

Instead, 2 months ago Cox carried the casket that contained the demolished body of his best friend; the witty, good-looking guy who didn't care if Cox was awkward or bug-eyed or just too big.

 

When Andy Reid's son Garrett died at training camp earlier this month, several Eagles dedicated their season to the Reids.

Cox did not.

His dedication was already taken.

Nothing is the same for Cox now, and Bertha Moton knows that. "A few months ago, Bug and Melvin were talking about all the things they wanted. Now, I don't know if Bug knows what he wants."

That's simple.

"I want to get better. Every day, every game," Cox said.

Chaney let Cox know he was there for him. Cox has not needed him. Chaney sees a focus in Cox that is almost unsettling. "I'm pretty sure it was hard on him, but he knows he's got a job to do," Chaney said. "He doesn't show any signs of it affecting him. He knows he's got a lot to prove."

And so the days go for Fletcher Cox. He wakes up, and then he reaches for his phone, and he remembers the June morning, when his phone buzzed on the nightstand of his hotel room in Atlantic City with a text message from his sister, who told him of Melvin's awful death.

He practices hard, and then he reaches for his phone, and he sees horses he might never ride again. He remembers riding up to a wedding reception with Melvin, where a woman remarked that the horse burdened with Cox's mass "Looks like it's having a miscarriage!"

He struggles through meetings and, when his work is done, he calls Bertha Moton, because he knows the nights are worst for her, too.

"Oh, I'm OK most of the day," Moton said. "But at the end of the day, I break down."

She is not alone.

"It's just hard. I still miss Melvin to this day. Still miss him," Cox said, arms in action again.

Pop.

"That video is just . . . it does something to me."

That video gives him strength.

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Contact Marcus Hayes at hayesm@phillynews.com