To survive the streets of east St. Louis, Ill., you have to be either very tough or very lucky. Miami Dolphin outside linebacker Bryan Cox is both. Cox figures that he has been in more than 100 messy brawls and has lost only a handful of them. That's tough. He says that he has been shot at but never hit. That's lucky. "In the ghetto," says Cox, "if you want my respect, you have to respect me. If you've got a problem, you light your way out. If I hit you, you're going to sleep."
Four years ago Cox got very lucky when he found himself staring down the barrel of a .45-caliber pistol. At the time he was visiting his wife's family near a gang-controlled project on the South Side of Chicago. He happened to be wearing red, which was the identifying color worn by members of one gang, and had the misfortune to encounter a fellow whose allegiance was to a rival gang, which favors the color blue. "I looked him in the eye and said, 'If you're going to shoot me, shoot me,' " Cox recalls. "Then I calmly walked to my car, got in and drove off. I didn't panic. If I'd run, he would have plugged me."
His street-lighter's attitude is now employed in the service of the Dolphins, for whom he has become, appropriately, a ferocious blitzer. That in spite of his having been a mere fifth-round draft pick in '91, out of Western Illinois. Cox is 6'4" and 241 pounds, but his 4.93 clocking in the 40 makes him the second-slowest starting linebacker in the league. Nevertheless, he led the Dolphins in total tackles (127), sacks (14) and forced fumbles (5) in '92 and was named to start in the Pro Bowl.
As luck would have it, Cox plays for Don Shula, who has been known to gamble on prospects who are less than perfect on paper. "I love his aggressiveness," says Shula. "But he's got to be careful not to go too far and get thrown out of games." It's that tough-guy business again. Last season Los Angeles Raider tight end Andrew Glover grabbed Cox by the jersey and held him. Then, after the whistle. Glover pushed Cox. Feeling thoroughly disrespected, Cox charged Glover, yanked off his helmet and proceeded to rain punches on the Raider's exposed face.
Cox also sees himself as the protector of his teammates. In a game against the Cincinnati Bengals in his rookie season, he observed a Bengal linebacker mowing down Dolphin kicker Pete Stoyanovich on a kickoff. Cox became so enraged that he rushed over to the Bengal bench and picked a fight with everybody who was on the sideline, including the coaches.
"I noticed that the linebacker who hit Pete was laughing," says Cox. "So I suggested if he wanted to hit somebody bigger, he ought to go ahead and hit me. Well, he stopped laughing." Wasn't it foolhardy to challenge the entire Bengal bench? "They all could've gotten me," says Cox. "But I would've gotten somebody. And he would have remembered me."
Bryan is the youngest of the three sons and daughter of Nancy and Ronald Cox, who divorced in 1968, soon after Bryan was born. In '74 Nancy married Otis Williams, who has a degree in social work and another in instrumentation from a technical school, and worked with computers at a pharmaceutical firm. Nancy, who quit high school after her junior year, worked in a meat-packing plant and made a good wage.
Although the Coxes were one of the few families in East St. Louis that was not receiving government assistance, the ills of the ghetto were just outside the front door. One neighbor was a drug dealer. Across the street was a local gang's meeting place, which was set afire during an assault by a rival gang. Neighboring yards and curbsides became dumping grounds during the years in which the city had no regular garbage collection. "People would break into every house on the block but ours, knowing that my brother Tony would fight them," Cox says. "Tony wasn't in a gang. He didn't need to be."
Tony, now 29, still has a bullet lodged in his hip, a souvenir of his days in the drug trade. Tony and the middle Cox brother, Chris, now 27, made sure that Bryan did not stray into the world of drugs and guns, putting the word out on the streets that their little brother was not to be messed with.
From an early age Bryan was fortunate to have two mentors who taught him well. Bob Shannon, the coach at East St. Louis Senior High, demanded excellence from his players on the field and in the classroom. Louise Bauer, his home economics teacher, expanded Cox's horizons beyond East St. Louis. A white woman whom Cox called Grandma, Bauer, now 63, impressed upon Cox that it was unlikely he would ever again be in such a predominantly black environment, and he would have to learn to adjust to a different sort of world.
Bauer drove Cox to the surrounding affluent white suburbs and persuaded him to apply for jobs. "Bryan once had the bus stop on the way back from a high school baseball game so that he could phone and tell Taco Bell that he'd be late to work," Bauer says proudly.
Cox was also lucky to have had the guidance of stepfather Williams, especially after the imprisonment of Ronald Cox in 1990 for dealing drugs. Ronald had remarried, but he and Bryan had stayed in touch. "I felt betrayed," Cox says. "He was the one who taught me right from wrong. I was deeply hurt."
Bryan visited his father only once during his 11 months in prison, but he was standing at the front gate to pick Ronald up the day he was paroled. Bryan, by this time a starter with the Dolphins, gave Ronald some money from his rookie salary of $95,000 and promised to help him buy a small restaurant. But by Christmas 1991, Bryan learned that his father was selling drugs again. After a bitter argument the two stopped speaking. Four months later Ronald died of a heart attack.
"I can't imagine preying on someone else's dependency to make money," says Bryan, "but if it meant keeping my family from starving, I'd do it in a heartbeat."
These days Cox is making sure that his family never has to confront that choice. He has set up his stepfather, brothers and brother-in-law in an East St. Louis tow truck business called All-Star Towing. Cox is also planning to buy a beauty salon for his 24-year-old sister, Pamela. Cox and his wife, LaTonia, live in Fort Lauderdale with their daughter, Brittani, 1, and LaTonia's daughter, LaVonda, 9, and Cox would like to add 7-year-old Chiquita, his daughter by a high school girlfriend, to the home. Chiquita now lives with her mother in Last St. Louis.
Prominently displayed in the rec room of the Coxes' house is a card his father made for him in prison. On the card's front is a drawing of a smiling Dolphin. Inside, Ronald wrote this:
You paid your dues and made it to the top
Now that you made it you can't he stopped.
You suffered and ached and kept on knowing
That one day to the NFL you'd be going.
You met a nice girl and made her your wife
Now the three of you go on and have a good life.
You've made me very proud.