As a youngster growing up in tiny Yazoo City, Miss., Fletcher Cox loved fast cars. Still does, in fact.
Cox’s older brother, Shaddrick, got him hooked at a young age, frequently taking him to Junkyard No. 1 Speedway to enjoy the car races.
Shaddrick later became an expert auto mechanic. Fletcher became an All-Pro defensive lineman with the Eagles.
But while football is at the forefront and has made him one of the highest-paid players in NFL history, Fletcher Cox never forgot the bond he and his brother formed over race cars, never lost the “rush” he received at the track.
“On Sundays, I’d go down to the drag strip,” Cox, 25, said recently, referring to his teenage years, “and I’d get more and more interested in what made the cars go so fast. My brother got me into it, and once you’re in it, you never come out.”
As time went on, Fletcher and his brother rebuilt race cars together. The Cox Racing fleet was formed, and their now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t cars—including a twin turbocharged Ford Mustang that became the fastest stock suspension car in the world, reaching 212 mph—have been successful in numerous events.
“That’s kind of my fun time,” Cox said. “We race in some of the biggest events around. I love it.”
Sadly, the person who triggered Cox’s interest, Shaddrick, died Jan. 5, 2015 of a heart attack at age 34. He had also been battling diabetes.
“It was shock when it happened,” Cox said, “but he’s in a better place right now and he’s watching over us.”
“He gives me a lot of inspiration because he was always there for me,” Cox said. “When I was a kid, he was supportive and always supported any type of decision I made. Good or bad. If it was bad, he’d say, ‘You have to learn from it and move on from it.’ So, basically, he was a guy who was always there.”
Shaddrick was the oldest of Fletcher’s three siblings—he also has a twin sister, Fantansa, and an older sister, Nakeaia, 32—and they were raised by a single mom.
Shaddrick “was like a father figure to me,” Cox said. “He dropped out of school to help take care of [us].”
“The two of them had a relationship that any brothers would love to have,” said Fletcher’s mom, Malissa.
Malissa Cox says Shaddrick was her “man-child. He was my oldest child and if any of my kids had a need for something, he was there. It was a terrible loss for me and for all of us. He can never be replaced. Ever. He was just one of those type of kids who helped make things better for everybody.”
Nearly four years ago, Shaddrick told ESPN that working on cars was also in his brother’s blood, and “I know when he retires, he’ll own a shop somewhere and be showing his son the same things I showed him, and they’ll be building a car together.”
For the next several months, car racing will take a back seat. Fletcher Cox’s attention will be on the sport that has him in the spotlight.
After recording a career-high 9.5 sacks for the Eagles last season, Cox signed a six-year contract extension worth (gulp) $103 million in June, with $63 million guaranteed. It was the highest guaranteed contract for a non-quarterback in NFL history.
Not bad for a self-described “country boy from Mississippi” who last season made his first Pro Bowl appearance of his four-year career.
It seemed fitting that Cox was at his shop, “tinkering with one of my race cars,” when his agent called and told him about the lucrative extension.
“Mind-blowing,” Cox said about the deal.
With the contract out of the way, the 6-foot-4, 300-pound Cox said he can concentrate on helping the Eagles improve on last year’s disappointing 7-9 season.
“All that stuff is behind me and I can really focus on football,” he said. “That’s the most important thing—being able to go out and play ball now.”
Malissa Cox says her son’s gargantuan contract won’t alter her son’s personality.
“His first contract was not a bad one for a rookie being drafted No. 12,” she said. “And Fletcher has still been the same Fletcher from Day One, so I truly don’t believe a larger contract over the next [six] years is going to change who he is. He firmly believes in being humble and to remember he didn’t always have it like this.”
Cox, who led the Eagles with 24 tackles for a loss or no gain last season, is looking forward to playing for new coach Doug Pederson.
“The goal for this team is to just stick together and be great teammates for each other,” he said. “My goal is to be one of the leaders on this team, to step up and do it.”
Cox, who is from the same Mississippi town that produced Hall-of-Fame defensive back Willie Brown, said he wants to be “more vocal on and off the field.”
When he starred at Mississippi State, Cox excelled in a 4-3 defense. He played defensive tackle in that alignment during his rookie season with the Eagles, but the team switched to a 3-4 the last three years, moving Cox to end.
This year, under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, the Eagles plan to go back to a 4-3, and Cox will return to tackle.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said, mindful the new system will allow him to better showcase his explosiveness and power.
“He was probably around 110 pounds, and I was just afraid he was going to get hurt,” she said.
Cox brought a permission slip home.
“He kept saying, ‘When you gonna sign it? When you gonna sign it, Mom?’” she recalled.
In time, she relented to the pressure applied by her son and his coach.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“The more he played, the better he got,” said Malissa Cox, who works at a Nissan dealership in Mississippi. “He became more focused on being the best he could be, so quite naturally, I’m very proud of him.”
Cox grew rapidly and starred at Yazoo City High and then at Mississippi State, where he was an all-Southeastern Conference selection. In 2012, the Eagles made a deal with Seattle and moved up three draft spots to select Cox with the 12th overall pick. He promptly bought his mom a new car and new house and donated cleats to the football team at his old high school.
The trade with the Seahawks—the Eagles swapped their first-rounder (15th overall) and dealt fourth- and sixth-round picks—worked. Today, Cox is viewed as the Birds’ top player.
“I feel Fletcher’s head is in the right place and he’s going to do all the right things,” Malissa Cox said. “He does a phenomenal job on the field and off the field. He’s just a good kid.”
Cox, like baseball star Mike Trout and Millville, NJ, has never forgotten his roots. And Yazoo City has never forgotten him. The defensive star returns to Mississippi every off-season, and he was grand marshal of this year’s Fourth of July parade in Yazoo.
Maybe he will someday join another parade—one for a Super Bowl win—before his Eagles career ends. Wherever his career takes him, Cox said, his journey will always have the memory of his brother in his mind.