It took 36 days. Just 36 days for Bryan Cox to go from unwanted, unsigned and out of football to being co-captain of the Patriots D. Just five weeks of training camp, a camp he wasn’t invited to until two days after it started, for a team full of pros to be convinced they wanted Cox in charge of their defense.
“Even when Bryan makes the wrong call,” says Pats coach Bill Belichick, “he makes it so decisively, and communicates it so well, that everybody plays it.”
In a buttoned-down league that fines players for wearing their socks too low, Cox could convince his teammates to violate more dress codes than Britney. How much do they believe in him? Dennis Rodman accumulated six figures in fines during his NBA career and was seen as a clown. During his 11 seasons in the NFL, Cox has accumulated more than $140,000 in fines -- for screaming at refs, fighting with opponents, even spitting on fans -- yet he’s been voted captain in stints with the Dolphins, Bears, Jets and Patriots, every team he’s played for. “You guys look at it as a game and you write, ‘How can he act like that in a game?’” Cox says. “But it’s not a game to me.”
His teammates don’t see him as petulant. They see him as proud. And for every subversive act that earns Cox another fine, his teammates pay him back triple in respect. He’s a pied piper in pads -- and that makes him one of the most feared men in NFL Nation. He’ll play the game Sunday, but not from Monday through Friday. “I think the league does things for the wrong reasons,” says Cox. “It makes decisions based on marketability and not on the player’s best interest.”
And he’s proved willing to develop a reputation as a malcontent in order to call league officials out on it. In 1993, Cox, then a Dolphin, walked off the field in Buffalo and flipped the bird to fans who were spewing racial epithets. The league fined him $10,000 but did nothing to punish the guilty fans. Cox was so incensed that he sued the NFL for not providing a safe and racially sensitive work environment. Only after the league agreed to add security around the players and to expel racially abusive fans from games did he drop the suit.
But the suit served more than its stated purpose: It made the league take Cox’s subsequent complaints seriously. This season, in a Week 7 game against the Broncos, Cox fractured his right leg when Broncos lineman Dan Neil cut-blocked him. Afterward, Cox challenged the league to live by its mandate and protect players from unnecessary injury in an exceedingly violent game. Neil was ultimately fined $15,000 for an illegal block, and over the rest of the season, the Broncos, long suspected of encouraging borderline blocking techniques, were fined more than $150,000 for endangering opponents.
Meanwhile, as the injured Cox walked off Invesco Field that day on his fractured limb -- refusing to limp, refusing a cart, refusing a hand from the trainer -- he vowed he would be back.
And he was. In just 36 days. Leaving him plenty of time to captain the Patriots to the AFC East title.
This article appears in the February 4 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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