Fletcher Cox finds sanctuary in auto shop
It's Sunday afternoon in NFL stadiums everywhere, and there's a buzz reverberating through the crowd of spectators who have come to be wowed. The fans pay to experience anticipation, exhilaration and disbelief before and after they see a human form accelerate with incomprehensible speed and force.
They pay to see athletes such as Fletcher Cox, a rookie defensive lineman for the Philadelphia Eagles, explode off the line of scrimmage, deftly put a swim move on a 300-pound interior offensive lineman, and throw the opposing quarterback to the ground like a rag doll.
Cox craves the same feelings these fans seek. But growing up in the small town of Yazoo, Miss., Cox spent his Sunday afternoons at the racetrack -- not the football field -- to get the primal rush.
"I would go down to the drag strip every Sunday," said Cox, the 12th pick in the 2012 NFL draft. "At first, I would just go to spectate, but then I started to get more interested in what made the cars go so fast."
Contributing to Cox's curiosity was his older brother, Shaddrick, a wrench-turner as a child who started his own mechanic shop, Cox Racing, in the family's hometown.
"He would always be hanging around the shop and watching me fix up some cars in our backyard," Shaddrick said of Fletcher. "And he picked it up real quick."
Big brother would always be quizzing little brother, putting a spare part in Fletcher's hand and forcing him to determine where it fit in the car. When Fletcher was a teenager at Yazoo City High School, his athletic ability had already started whispers that he could make a career out of football, but Shaddrick knew his little brother needed a backup plan, and he made certain his pupil became an expert mechanic.
When Fletcher had passed test after test, the two started rebuilding cars together outside of work hours at Cox Racing. First, they gutted and rebuilt a 1982 Chevy pickup -- replacing the suspension and pulling out the engine before swapping in a supercharged one.
Then, there's the car Shaddrick refers to as "Fletcher's baby." It's a 1998 sparkling white Pontiac Trans Am. Fletcher, then in college at Mississippi State, would take every opportunity he had to come back from Starkville and work on it.
They were ready to put the finishing touches on the car when Fletcher found out he had to be in New York City for the NFL draft. Few are invited to attend the draft in person, but Fletcher was expected to be a top pick and Radio City Music Hall beckoned.
By the time he left for New York, the engine was finished. It just needed to be put in the car. Shaddrick was responsible for this step. He videotaped the car's reincarnation so Fletcher would feel as if he were there.
"I was on the phone with him when he was watching the video for the first time, and he was going crazy," Shaddrick said. "When I saw his happiness, it made me feel like a proud father. As long as he was happy about what we had accomplished, I was going to be happy."
For now, football is Fletcher's job and building race cars his passion. He says if he could pick one automobile to represent his play on the field, it'd be a Ford F-250 because it's "big and it's got big tires on it." And it's that combination of strength, speed and toughness that assuredly will set him up to do whatever he wants with the rest of his life. If you ask his older brother, there's no doubt what that will be.
"Working on cars is in his blood, and when it's in your blood, you can never get away from it," Shaddrick said. "I know that, when he retires, he'll own a shop somewhere and be showing his son the same things that I showed him, and they'll be building a car together."