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Eagles' Fletcher Cox an inspiration in his hometown of Yazoo

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Posted 04 November 2012 - 04:52 AM


Eagles' Fletcher Cox an inspiration in his hometown of Yazoo City, Miss.

Zach Berman, Inquirer Staff Writer

Posted: Sunday, November 4, 2012, 1:36 AM

YAZOO CITY, Miss. - A newspaper clipping hangs on a wall of Christy Cader's office at Yazoo City High School, the alma mater of Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. It's a story with the headline "COX SOARS TO PHILLY," from the NFL draft.

She wants her students to see it. She wants them to know it's possible to go to college and create a better life.

"A lot of these kids don't have a ticket out of here," Cader said. "We all saw [football] as [Cox's] ticket out of here."

Tony Woolfolk begins every football season as head coach of Yazoo City High School telling his players the same message: "You got to get out of here." Cader, a guidance counselor, has a common goal for her students: "Get them out of Yazoo City."

When teenagers have stopped showing for Woolfolk's practices, they've usually been swallowed by the temptations in Yazoo City: the alcohol, the drugs, the complacency of life in the Mississippi Delta.

Cox wasn't on the corner. He came to practice. He listened. He wanted to know how to get recruited, to become eligible, to go to college, to make the NFL, to do better than those before him.

"It motivated me to want to just get out, just get out of Yazoo City," Cox said. "That no matter how small your town is, people can go on and better themselves."

When Cox, 21, now returns to Yazoo City, there's a parade. Residents gush about him. Walk down Main Street into the furniture store or the social club and bring up Fletcher Cox - or "Bug Eye," as they know him here - and everyone has a story.

Cox played three years at Mississippi State, and the Eagles selected him 12th overall in the NFL draft after trading up from the 15th pick. He earned a starting role on the Eagles defensive line last week and could become a fixture in Philadelphia for the next decade. A contingent from Yazoo City will travel the nearly four hours to New Orleans for Monday's game against the Saints. To understand why Cox will be in the Superdome, it's first important to understand the small city of just more than 11,000 people and how Cox was able to leave.

"One-in-a-million," Woolfolk said, "to go from Yazoo City to the first round."

'A better shot at life'

Cox's mother, Malissa, works at a Nissan supplier. She was born in nearby Yazoo County before moving to Yazoo City in the early 1980s.

His brother Shaddrick fixes cars. His sister Nakeaia is a waitress at a restaurant called T-Reaux Cajun Mudbags and Shrimp, where Cox feasts on crawfish when they're in season.

Shaddrick told his younger brother to find a career, not a job. He needed to know life beyond Haley Barbour Parkway and Jerry Clower Boulevard to do it.

"I just wanted to make sure he had what I didn't have," said Shaddrick Cox, 32. "For him to come from a small town like this, a lot of kids don't get a chance."

Yazoo City is an hour from Jackson, Miss., the state capital, and is known as the gateway to the Mississippi Delta. Take a walk down Main Street and you'll see a place that engenders pride in its citizens. Storefronts are painted blue, yellow, orange, green, and pink to add character to the block. Two years ago, there were 17 vacant properties on the street. By the end of the year, there will be only three.

It's a town where everybody knows just about everybody else, and if they don't, they know someone who does. Check into the hotel, and the woman at the front desk went to school with Cox. Call up to the person painting a building on Main Street, and he was a few years ahead of Cox. Walk into the gym, and there's one of Cox's best friends.

But Cader said only 60 percent of the high school students attend college, and only 30 percent graduate. Cross the bridge into the Jonestown section of Yazoo City and, as Woolfolk warns you, it's about to get rough. It's 1:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, and he sees a teenager who should be in school, walking past boarded-up homes. Woolfolk points to two people who once tried to play football and now deal drugs. Both see Woolfolk's truck and avert their eyes, scurrying away.

"This is where Bug is from," said Woolfolk, who gets most of his players from this part of town. Cox said that when he comes home, he gets in his car, honks his horn, and drives by, avoiding the pitfalls that limit others.

One of the biggest employers is the nearby federal prison, but a potential job candidate must pass a drug test and have a good credit score. That disqualifies a lot of residents.

"There's nothing here for him," Woolfolk said. "There's no industry. You just get caught up and get lost in the shuffle. He can come back, like he comes back now, and they love him."

'He just listened'

Those in Yazoo City are quick to point out that there are others who are big and fast, but they don't make it. So something needed to be different about Cox.

Cox benefited from a strong support system that includes his mother and his brother, Cader and Woolfolk, as well as other family members, teachers, and coaches. (His father lives in the area but is not a strong presence in his life.)

Cox needed to persuade his mother to sign a permission slip to allow him to play football, but he had natural skills once he started. During the first practice of freshman year, Woolfolk turned to his assistant coach and said, "Everybody in the country is going to want this kid!"

There were days when Woolfolk made him sit in a classroom in his football pads during practice because he needed the classwork more than the football practice. Cader said school wasn't easy for Cox, but whatever he needed to do to become eligible, he was willing to do and she was willing to help.

"Fletcher got himself where he is today," Cader said. "He had people behind him and supporting him and helping him, but I didn't do for him what I wouldn't have done for any of them. But he just listened."

And that's the part that everyone kept discussing. Cox is a listener. When he returned to speak at the high school football banquet in May, his message wasn't complicated: Just listen.

They told him to stay out of trouble, so he did. He's careful about the people he lets in his life, and Malissa said that when company is at their home, he'll sometimes get in his car and drive away.

When those who know Cox describe him, they all use the same description: "A big ol' country boy." He likes to fish and ride horses. He fixes cars at his brother's shop or goes to the racetrack. He doesn't worry about what he wears. He can sit in a chair at CMC Barber Shop on Grady Avenue and talk about four-wheelers.

He still calls Cader to check up on her. He still works on cars at his brother's shop when he visits. He's just a "big ol' country boy" who made it out of Yazoo City.

"He's a perfect example that you don't have to settle for less," Malissa Cox said. "All you have to do is apply yourself and you can become anything and anyone you want to be."

'Don't ever, ever forget'

Woolfolk drives past vacant sheds on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and points to a small bridge adorned by a sign that forbids loitering. That's where he said he often finds "Two-Two," a former player who is now in his mid-20s.

When Two-Two was in high school, Woolfolk said, he stood 6-foot-7, weighed 300 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds. He could have played Saturdays for Ole Miss or Mississippi State. He could have played Sundays in the NFL. Except Two-Two never finished high school football. He didn't even graduate high school, according to Woolfolk.

This is why those in Yazoo City want kids to emulate Cox. And Cox promises to help, which is not limited to sending the high school team new cleats. Malissa Cox always told her son, "Don't ever, ever forget where you came from." There is a difference between leaving and forgetting.

The one question Malissa Cox hears the most, "Why are you still working?" She still lives in the same home in Jonestown. "We're just average, everyday people," she said. Fletcher bought her a car and is willing to move her wherever she wants, but Yazoo City is part of her and part of her family.

Cox's success can be measured not only by what he does with the Eagles, but also by how many kids in Yazoo City follow his path: making it to college, getting a job, avoiding the temptations and complacency of Yazoo City.

There's a sophomore on this year's team named Tim Washington, and like Cox at that age, he's long and lean.

"I want to" be the next Cox, said Washington, who heard the same speech from Woolfolk that Cox heard eight years ago.

You need to get out of Yazoo City. There's nothing for you here. You can come back, but come back as a success.

Teenagers in Yazoo City have a choice. They can follow the path of Two-Two, or they can follow the path of Cox.

"He's a $10 million man," Woolfolk said. "And Two-Two is on the bridge."

Contact Zach Berman at zberman@phillynews.com or on Twitter @ZBerm.

Zach Berman Inquirer Staff Writer