A little past seven last Friday morning, the NFL's most
misunderstood player sat in the cafeteria of the Chicago Bears'
training-camp complex in Platteville, Wis., looking nothing like
the quarterback terrorist his new coach, Dave Wannstedt, hopes
he will be. He looked placid, actually, a man happy with his job
and his stature and what he considers his ridiculous wealth.
Well, there was one thing bothering him.
"You know," said this complex man, his brow wrinkling on his
round face, "I went to Coach Wannstedt the other day, and I
asked him, 'Nothing against this camp, but can we get the f---
out of here early?' I've been a month without seeing my wife,
six weeks without seeing my kids. Man, I miss seeing my kids
when I go home at night. Do you know what that's like?"
Cuddly and forthright and rebellious, all at the same time. That
sums up what the Bears got for their $13.2 million when they
signed free-agent defender Bryan Cox to a four-year deal in
February. Cox made his Soldier Field debut on Sunday in
Chicago's 24-21 preseason victory over the Miami Dolphins, his
former team, and Bears fans had to be happy with what they saw.
The ebullient Wannstedt certainly was. "He's everything we
thought he'd be," Wannstedt said. "And more."
Cox made but two tackles in two quarters, but twice he snuffed
out drives with impact plays. On fourth-and-one from the Miami
44 late in the first quarter, Cox the middle linebacker stood up
lead blocker and fullback Stanley Pritchett, allowing five
teammates to stop running back Irving Spikes for no gain. In the
second quarter Cox the defensive end--that's where he'll play on
most passing downs--was scrumming with Dolphins left tackle
Richmond Webb when quarterback Dan Marino fired a bullet toward
the left sideline. Cox extended his right arm and deflected the
pass into the arms of defensive end Al Fontenot.
"Sure was funny seeing him in that black uniform," Webb said
afterward. "We didn't see that competitive rage today, but it'll
To be sure. Cox plays with a fire few players have, and the
preseason is no time to ignite it. Come October he'll blow a
gasket at a referee's call or a misplay by a teammate, and every
football fan in every bar and den will think he's seeing a
replay of one of the five or six memorable occasions during
Cox's five years in Miami, when defensive line coach Joe Greene
or even coach Don Shula had to hold Cox back from doing
something stupid, like attacking a teammate or an official.
Unfortunately, when that happens, Cox's talent as a football
player will be overshadowed.
Cox brings it on himself, this out-of-control tag. Three seasons
ago in Buffalo he was fined $10,000 by the NFL for making
obscene gestures to the crowd at Rich Stadium. That incident is
vivid in the minds of many fans, but the two death threats Cox
says he received on the eve of the game were never widely
reported. He says that the league failed to provide adequate
security for him that day, which put him on edge, and that his
outburst was a response to vulgar taunting by Bills fans. Ten
months later Cox sued the NFL for undisclosed damages for
forcing him to play in a racially hostile environment; the sides
eventually settled out of court, with the league paying Cox's
Leashing his fury, Cox contends, isn't an option, because it
would hinder him as a player. Whatever his excesses, he's an
important player in a league all too concerned with conformity.
Cox isn't afraid to speak his mind. Ask him how he gets mentally
prepared for a game, and he says, "I make up things, like the
guy I'm playing against has just done something evil to my wife
or my kids or my mom. If somebody has just kidnapped your kids,
what are you going to do? You're going to try to kill his ass."
Ask him if he's crazy, and he says, "That's what people don't
understand. You know you're crazy for playing this game anyway.
If I lose that edge, I can't compete. This is a violent game."
Ask him about the responsibility of black players outside
football, and he says, "Black players in this league are
suckers. They don't know how to be accountable and stand up and
be a man about nothing. The one thing that this league can use
to keep black athletes, especially, in check is to talk about
fining them. 'Oh, I ain't losing no money,' they say. If I
believe in something, you can take my whole paycheck, because
I'm going to fight you tooth and nail."
He says he is embarrassed when he sees his outbursts on TV. He
says there is "no damn way" he's worth the $3.3 million a year
he's earning, which ranks him among the highest-paid defensive
players in the league.
If salaries were measured solely on statistics, he wouldn't be.
He doesn't figure to be among the league leaders in sacks; the
Bears would be happy if he finished with 10 or 11, which would
be a healthy increase over the 7.5 he had with the Dolphins last
year. And he will get pushed around occasionally because, at 250
pounds, he's no match for Nate Newton-sized offensive linemen.
But in comparative terms he's a bargain. When guys without
pedigrees, guys like Marco Coleman of the San Diego Chargers and
Alonzo Spellman of the Bears, are making $3 million or more a
year, then what is Cox, a three-time Pro Bowl player at 28, worth?
Wannstedt saw Cox as a leader, and that was a big reason he was
on the phone to him at 7 a.m. on Feb. 16, the first day of the
free-agent signing period. Wannstedt phoned Cox three times that
day and placed another 15 calls to Cox's agent, Clifford Brady.
The Chargers, the Denver Broncos, the Green Bay Packers and the
St. Louis Rams were also interested, but Chicago moved quickly
to sign its man. The deal was done within five days, before any
other team had a chance to make a serious offer. "We've never
really had a leader here," offensive coordinator Ron Turner
said. "Until now."
The Chicago players liked what they saw of Cox in off-season
workouts, but they didn't know much about him. Early in camp
even Cox was worried his teammates might think he was overrated.
"I had the lowest vertical leap among the linebackers and the
slowest time in the 40," he says. "I think guys were starting to
look at me funny."
Then two things happened. First Cox ran a series of 110-yard
conditioning sprints in nothing but spikes and a jockstrap.
"Gave the secretaries a thrill," says quarterback Erik Kramer.
It also told his teammates, We can have fun out here while we're
killing ourselves. Next Cox showed his teammates he could play.
Wannstedt puts his players through what he calls the middle
drill, in which the offensive line faces the defensive front
seven and a back tries to run up the gut. Helmets crack, grown
men brawl, coaches measure toughness. On Cox's first middle
drill as a Bear he burst through a gap and leveled former
Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam. Cox got up screaming and
helmet-banging. On the third play of the drill third-year
fullback Raymont Harris met Cox. The collision sent Harris
flying backward and the defense into a celebratory frenzy. "Who?
What? Who hit me?" a dazed Harris said later. Says linebacker
Vinson Smith, "That did it. If anybody doubted Bryan before
that, nobody did anymore."
The Bears need that kind of physical presence; last year only
seven teams allowed more points than the 22.5 per game that
Chicago gave up. Against Miami on Sunday the Bears jetted to a
19-0 lead and thoroughly frustrated the Dolphins' attempts to
establish a running game before Marino rallied his team to
within five points at halftime. Miami coach Jimmy Johnson came
to Soldier Field determined to run the ball with Spikes, rookies
Karim Abdul-Jabbar and Jerris McPhail and Terry Kirby, who was
being showcased for a potential late-August trade. In the first
half the Dolphins' first-team offense ran the ball 12 times
against the Bears' first-team defense and gained but 35 yards.
"If we're going to be a good football team--and we are--it's not
going to come by us throwing the ball 50 times a game," Johnson
said afterward. "We've got to build a running game."
Johnson is tearing down the House That Shula Built. Aside from
Marino, who are these guys? Johnson's opening-game lineup will
include as many as 15 starters who are different from the
players in the 1995 opening-day lineup. This is how wild and
crazy the situation in Miami is: Johnson brought in 33-year-old
Jack Del Rio to play middle linebacker. He viewed Del Rio as a
trusted veteran around whom a bunch of rookies could grow and
learn. Del Rio, however, was released after one preseason game
and replaced by 5'11", 231-pound Zach Thomas, a fifth-round pick
from Texas Tech. Thomas is one of four or five rookies ticketed
to start. "I love Jack Del Rio," Johnson said last Saturday,
"but Zach's making more plays. Period. And young legs make more
plays than old legs in December and January. I keep telling the
players I'm going to put the best players out there. Pedigree
means nothing to me. What can they do for me now?"
Johnson remains his old wheeling-and-dealing self. Offer him a
third- or fourth-rounder in the 1997 draft, and you can have
either Kirby--Vinny Cerrato, director of player personnel for
the running back-needy 49ers (page 54), was at the game scouting
the fourth-year back--or Pete Stoyanovich, the fourth-most
accurate kicker in NFL history. Johnson scoffs at the notion
that he is making a rash judgment on Stoyanovich, who's on the
block because unknown Joe Nedney has shown a strong leg. "In
Dallas [placekicker] Lin Elliott won for us one year," Johnson
says. "When he wasn't going good the next year, we fired him and
got a guy off the street [Eddie Murray] and won the Super Bowl.
After Sunday's game, while not quite blowing a gasket, Cox was
going off again. This time his target was 72-year-old Soldier
Field. "This is the raggiest, lousiest stadium in the league,"
he said. "This must be the last stadium left in the league
without a damn Jumbotron to see highlights. I wish the
politicians in this city would get off their asses and get us a
Cox screwed in his $2,000 diamond-stud earrings. As he walked
from the locker room in the stadium he hates, he listened to
another question: What's the most misunderstood thing about you?
He stopped. "Nothing," he replied.
"Nothing," Cox said. "Because I don't care what people think,
and people outside of my world don't know me. My wife loves me.
My kids love me. I do my job the best I can, and I do what I
think is right. Isn't that enough?"
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JONATHAN DANIEL Cox has always stood out in a crowd--but more for his angry outbursts than for his All-Pro play. [Dan Marino, Bryan Cox and others in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JONATHAN DANIEL Cox is worth his $3.3 million, even if he doesn't match up well against big linemen like Miami's Chris Gray. [Chris Gray blocking Bryan Cox]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JONATHAN DANIEL The Bears are banking that Cox can turn their fortunes around in his unique way. [Bryan Cox wearing helmet backwards]