Toughness is a Choice

4/15/2009 - Auburn Tigers

Don't cringe for Brandon Cox. He has chosen this fate. He knows the cost of one more tick of the clock, but you don't waste opportunities like this, nine yards from paydirt. So he slides out of the pocket, eyes focused downfield, and sidesteps an onslaught. At the last second, he lets the ball fly, then is promptly crumpled under a 600-pound train. Two LSU defensive tackles hammer him, one high, one low. Cox can't get to his feet. Pressing his head against the ground, he pushes himself to his knees, Still wincing, he peels off his helmet, then pounds it over and over into the turf before rolling onto his back. His boyish face is twisted in rage. With 4:28 left in the half, in the most important game of his collegiate career, Cox lies prone at the left hashmark of a hushed Jordan-Hare Stadium. This is it for me. The thought is heartbreaking, after all he has overcome to get here. On the Auburn sideline, his teammates join hands. Come on, Brandon, get up. They pray because they need him more than ever, locked in a scoreless war that could kill a chance at the national title just three weeks into the season. And they pray because they know what he has been through. Huddled on the field, the starting line echoes the plea. Please, God, let him be okay. Ten rows behind the bench, Cox's weeping mother fights the urge to run onto the field. It's not worth it. I wish he didn't even play football.

ALONE IN HIS darkened bedroom, a 15-year-old boy fights fears far greater than an all-out blitz. The local family doctor in Trussville, Ala., can't make sense of Brandon's symptoms, so how can the teenager be expected to? His left eye droops, causing double vision and wicked headaches that only worsen in daylight. He is always tired, old-man tired, his body like deadweight. At summer workouts, he could hardly finish a sprint. So, while his friends at Hewitt-Trussville High sweat through practice in preparation for the upcoming 1999 season, he sits on his bed, curtains drawn, door closed, and wonders what a CAT scan feels like. Or a brain tumor.

The next day, Cox walks into the Callahan Eye Foundation Hospital, a boxy white building at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The visit sets in motion a weeklong blur of blood tests and MRIs that culminates in a sterile office, where a man in a lab coat confirms the diagnosis: myasthenia gravis. The blank stare of Terry Cox, Brandon's dad, is eloquent: We don't have a clue of what you're talking about.

They quickly find out that MG is a rare disease that turns the immune system against its body, attacking the muscles' ability to receive signals from the brain. Over time, muscles grow weaker and less responsive. Sometimes, MG affects only the eyes, and the symptoms can be managed with the steroid prednisone. But in severe cases, victims are bedridden, virtually helpless. Brandon's case is mild, but MG doesn't normally affect men under 60, so a long-term prognosis is impossible. He could improve, he could stabilize, he could deteriorate with age. In any case, it's not going away.

Brandon's mom, Debbie, cries as panic flashes in his dark eyes. Terry asks the first question that enters his mind. Can Brandon still play football? Maybe. Prednisone has its own serious side effects—osteoporosis, lethargy, an impaired immune system—but if Brandon avoids flare-ups, he should be able to keep playing. His doctor recommends avoiding anything that can aggravate his immune system: trauma, stress, fatigue. Looks like the doctor has never played quarterback.

When the season begins, Cox, a sophomore trying to make varsity, attempts to put the disease out of his mind, and keeps it to himself. The medication is effective, so if MG is not a big deal to him, why should anybody else care? By midseason, he has worked his way back into a red-andwhite jersey, a backup content to be able to watch the game without getting a headache. By the next fall, Cox is giving headaches to opposing defenses, leading the Huskies to an 8—3 record. And as a senior, he completes 70.8% of his passes for 2,887 yards and 27 touchdowns and is named Alabama's Mr. Football. Even Auburn's coaches see MG as a nonfactor. Ever eager to prove himself, Cox enrolls at Auburn for summer classes.

HEADLIGHTS PUNCH through the thick Alabama night as Cox drives his Nissan Maxima down the barrel of Highway 85. He's heading back to campus from a quick weekend at home before August practice begins for the 2002 season. Back to the stress of being a freshman carrying the weight of his reputation. Back to standing up to the trauma of drills and the fatigue of grueling two-a-days. Minutes from Auburn's campus, the white lines tick by like a countdown, and he wonders if it's worth it. He's tired just thinking about it.

A phone's ring disturbs the Cox house in the quiet of downtown Trussville. Brandon's number flashes across the caller ID, but it's a stranger's voice on the line. There's been an accident. I was driving right behind him. He must've fallen asleep. Just drove off the road and into the trees. By the time Terry gets to the East Alabama Medical Center, several of Brandon's coaches are awaiting the diagnosis. It's a concussion. Just a scare. A few days rest, and he'll be back at practice.

But the next time he goes out to toss the ball, something is different. White jerseys blur together as players jog from drill to drill. Cox rubs the sweat from his eyes, but his vision fades around the edges. He squints as the quarterbacks line up for the next exercise, then wipes his face with a towel. Setting up to pass, he tries to focus on the receiver, but the image splits. Oh, no. It's back.

Cox tries to pray the double vision away in the jumble of the team chaplain's office. There, beneath a War Eagle statue wrapped in a crown of thorns, he kneels with Brother Chette Williams. Inevitably, the two begin to talk about the future. The symptoms are still mild, thanks to the meds. The double vision comes and goes. Maybe Cox can tough out the fatigue, take a redshirt year and stay in school. But the relapse hasn't just affected his vision; it has changed his whole outlook. This condition isn't going away. So maybe he should.

Cox goes to see the coach. Tommy Tuberville sits across his desk from his prized recruit. A view of the practice field glimmers behind him, green like a stained-glass window. His wheels spin behind paternal eyes as Cox says, "I need to go home." The coach can't force the kid to stay, but he can keep the door open. So he sends him off with a promise to hold the scholarship. Go get healthy, get you're head straight, then we'll talk. "And I told his dad," Tuberville says, "if you love your son, work his ass off."

That's how, a couple weeks later, the hard-luck Mr. Football finds himself at Terry's Carpet Service in Trussville at 7 a.m. Dad has laid down the law: Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Time to get out of the house. As his teammates slog through August drills, Brandon lugs rolls of shag. If he turns on the van's AM radio, he'll hear the talk-show boys speculate about his absence. He has an undisclosed injury. He's in drug rehab. There's a pregnant girlfriend. He tried to kill himself. Or worst of all, he just plain quit.

By Labor Day weekend, Cox feels up to watching the Tigers lose at USC, 24-17. As a TV camera pans the sideline, he catches glimpses of guys who came in as freshmen with him. Right then, he knows. "I had a hole," Cox says. "I felt lost. I realized I couldn't be without football."

The next three years are a progression of sacrifice and pain. Days with Dad followed by long nights with a personal trainer. Mop-up snaps for two-plus seasons. A four-interception debut against Georgia Tech in 2005. He chose every bump and bruise that night on his father's couch. "I heard he installed carpet in 110° heat," Tuberville says of his quarterback, not quite winking. "Suddenly, what we do here didn't seem so bad."

PRESEASON PRACTICE is no Sunday picnic for Tim Duckworth, who started a morning this past August at 318 pounds and will finish the day under 300. Struggling to the sideline, he is about to take a knee when along comes an unexpected assist. "You can lean on me," Cox says. The little quarterback supports his bodyguard long enough for the right guard to recover. "It touched me," Duckworth says. "He's a quiet guy, but he's a good guy. I'll hurt myself trying to protect him. I'm like a pit bull that will do anything for his owner."

As a member of Cox's recruiting class, Duckworth was one of the few players who knew the extent of the QB's condition. Those who did sheltered his privacy for four years, respecting his choice not to talk about it. But in July, Cox and 57 of his teammates, dressed in suits and ties, shared tables with donors to Brother Chette's ministry. One by one, the veteran players stood in a Birmingham country club banquet room and told of how the chaplain had guided their personal odysseys. Then Cox, dark eyes glistening under his black surfer-style mop, told his story from beginning to end. For most of the team, it was the first time they'd ever heard of MG.

"I knew he was a competitor, a fighter," says Aairon Savage, a redshirt freshman who starts at free safety. "When I heard that story, I thought, okay, that's where it comes from."

What Savage and his teammates can't ever really know is how hard it is for Cox to ignore the fatigue and will himself out of bed some mornings. Or that he sometimes wonders if he'll finish a sprint. Or that he can't afford to eat junk, miss a good night's sleep or stop working out for even a day, because that would mean giving up too much ground against the muscle-depleting disease.

And no one, on the team or off, can even guess how the cumulative effect of all those violent collisions will impact the MG as he grows older. To this day, Cox's family downplays the disease, hoping it will be a nonissue and that it will stay away. Cox, though, has graduated to quiet resignation. "It's part of me now," he says. "I'm always going to be like this, so I just live with it."

LYING ON the turf against LSU, Cox stares cruel fate in the eyes. Has he really fought MG for seven years just so he can hear something pop in his left knee?

He can't feel his leg as he awaits the trainer's bad news. Then, he hears a rolling murmur from the student section: Bran. Don. Bran. Don. Rising like a summer storm, the chant envelops the stadium. BRAN-DON! BRAN-DON! Suddenly, he feels something give and the numbness rush from his leg. Cox rises to his feet, as a stadium roars a common note of thanks. He has already sprinted to the sideline, adrenaline-fueled, before he realizes how bad it hurts. But you don't waste opportunities, not nine yards from paydirt. After a timeout, the backup QB returns to the bench as Cox hobbles in. The drive comes up empty, but only on the scoreboard.

Down 3-0 at halftime, Cox gets a handle on his injuries: sprained knee, sprained ankle, bruised leg. Apparently, it ticks him off. On the team's first possession of the third quarter, Cox drives Auburn to thirdand-goal. There, at the 1, his teammates hear him curse for the first time. Ever. It is an exhortation and a revelation.

Then, a surprising call comes in. He looks to the sideline, to make sure. I don't think we've ever run this on the goal line since I've been here, he thinks. He is not mistaken. Moments later, without hesitation, the smallish quarterback with an old man's disease throws himself between guard and center for the game's only touchdown. Auburn 7, LSU 3.

Back on the sideline, wideout Courtney Taylor tracks down his quarterback. "You've got to go down sometimes," he says. "Don't be taking so many hits."

But as the season wears on, the hits keep coming. And on Oct. 7, Arkansas punishes Cox with a career-high five sacks, knocking the breath out of Auburn's title hopes with a soul-numbing 27-10 upset at Jordan-Hare. More than ever, the Tigers need a leader who can show his teammates how to peel themselves off the turf and take another shot, even when the future doesn't look so bright.

Sometimes toughness is the only choice.