By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Tony Woolfolk was putting together a flag football team a few years ago when a particular sixth-grader caught his eye.
“Man, what’s your name?” the coach asked.
The kid replied, “Bugeye.”
“Bugeye?” Woolfolk asked.
“Well, that’s what they call me, coach.”
It wasn’t until three years later that Woolfolk, the head coach at Yazoo City High School, knew Bugeye’s real name. He figured it out when a school counselor said that Fletcher Cox needed to be enrolled in a certain class.
“That’s who he is around here, is Bugeye,” Woolfolk said on Thursday.
Bugeye, who was given the nickname by his great-grandmother, is all grown up now and getting ready to begin his NFL career. The former Mississippi State defensive tackle was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles with the 12th overall pick in April, and he recently signed a four-year deal worth approximately $10.2 million including a reported $5.88 million bonus.
The 21-year-old Cox (6-foot-4, 295 pounds) is a big shot now, but he doesn’t yet act the part. Woolfolk, who coached him in high school, doesn’t expect that to change.
It’s your typical story of a small-town kid making good, only that story often ends in heartbreak. Many a Mississippi athlete with a promising future has seen his career derailed for a variety of reasons, and even those who make it to the big time have to then tackle a new world flush with fame and money.
It’s easy to fall into a lifestyle that’s not found in places like Yazoo City, a town of about 11,400 people in the lower Delta. Cox is splitting his time between home and Starkville before preseason camp begins in about four weeks, and Woolfolk hasn’t seen any change in him.
“He’s just a country boy. It’s going to be slow for him. Everything’s going to be slow and easy for him,” Woolfolk said. “He’s not going to go out and do a whole lot of things.
“I don’t think it takes much for him to be happy. Football is what makes him happy, and making his mom happy makes him happy. I don’t think he’s going to go out and do a whole lot of crazy stuff. He’s just going to stay the same Fletcher Cox.”
Cox, who spent some time in Starkville last week, said he hasn’t thought too much about his sudden riches.
“It’s sunk in a little bit. I wouldn’t say that it’s set in all the way,” Cox said. “I just try not to think about all of it, get caught up in all those numbers and that money. Because just as fast as you can get it, you can lose it. My main thing is going in and working hard.”
Heart’s in Yazoo
Staying in touch with his roots will be important for Cox as he begins his NFL journey in front of some of sport’s most passionate and notorious fans. Just last week, he sent a shipment of new Nike cleats to Woolfolk’s team, then showed up and had his picture taken with them for the local paper.
This was something that had been on his mind for a long time, according to his mother, Malissa Cox Bright.
“He asked me years ago, ‘Mom, if I make it to the NFL, what do you think I should do? Do you think I should give back to the community?’ And I told him, ‘Yes, I do.’
“Because in the community in which you were born and raised and you grew up in, there are kids that look up to him. As long as he stays focused and does the right thing, his blessings will come.”
Just prior to the NFL Combine in February, Cox was running at his old high school. He can often be found there lifting weights.
Yazoo City is where Cox can escape some of the attention and hype that comes with being a star athlete. Before heading to New York City for the draft, some of the older women around town were “fussing” at him about getting his hands lotioned up before going on TV. They wanted to make sure he looked good for the cameras, Woolfolk said.
“He can come here and just be Fletcher,” said Bright. “He just comes here and he’s like, OK, I’m carefree … and I’m going to enjoy my time home with my family and friends.”
Cox said everyone in Philadelphia has been friendly, and he likes what he’s seen of the city so far.
“I’m comfortable wherever I’m at,” he said. “I’m in Philadelphia, that’s where I have to be. That’s where I’m playing ball at, so I have to be there.”
Focused on football
His surroundings are not what matter to Cox. He’s obsessed with the game and with getting better, and that should also help him walk the line.
Woolfolk said that at Yazoo City’s athletic banquet a few weeks ago, Cox sat with him at the head table and talked the whole time about not making mistakes in practices and games.
One area of his game he’s really honed in on right now is moving quickly after the ball is snapped. Cox did that very well at MSU, which is why he recorded 14.5 tackles-for-loss and five sacks en route to earning first-team All-American honors last season.
It’s obviously a different speed of game in the NFL, as Cox has learned during organized team activities (OTAs).
“Getting off the ball, you’ve got to get off the ball a whole lot quicker,” he said. “And just going in there learning how the older guys practice, and you learn how to practice at their speed.”
This singular focus on football is one reason Cox is expected to do well, and it’s why his mom thinks he’ll handle his business the right way.
“It seems to me like he’s focused and also has the feeling like, I’ve worked extremely hard to get to where I am,” Bright said. “It’s a blessing to be a 21-year-old millionaire, and me knowing Fletcher like I know Fletcher, it’s going to be hard to part with (the money).”
Cox will have a good shot at breaking into the Eagles’ rotation as a rookie, but just how well can he do? Woolfolk has his thoughts on that.
“What’s going to happen, I think it’s going to take him a few weeks to get just in the groove, but he’s got so much athletic ability, and he’s not but 21. … He’s got the mental capacity to play. He’s a tough guy, he’s not going to wimp out. He wants to do so well.”
Yazoo City wants him to do well. They’ll be cheering on Bugeye from afar, but they’ll treat him just the same when he comes home.
“He grew up with the people that stayed on him when he was just little old Bugeye, and they’re still on him,” Woofolk said. “They’re going to keep him grounded.”