April 5, 2009

 

Family, friends remember Gene Cox with stories and laughter

By Jim Lamar
DEMOCRAT sports editor

There was laughter and plenty of it. And there was plenty of football talk, too.

But mostly there was a sense of peace in the air at Bradfordville First Baptist Church as 450 or so friends, colleagues, former players and family members gathered to pay final respects to legendary football coach Gene Cox.

It was a ceremony that Cox, who retired in 1996 as the state of Florida's all-time winningest coach, would surely have appreciated for its message as well as its impeccable sense of order and purpose.

Longtime friend Morris Williams set the tone for the service by recounting a handful of stories detailing his and Cox's adventures as youths in Lake City. As young boys, Williams said, he and his friend would sell bags of boiled peanuts on the streets of Lake City for five cents a bag.

As teens, the two buddies saw their worlds expand thanks "to the magic of hitchhiking" as they traveled to cities like Jacksonville and Daytona Beach to watch every sporting event possible.

It was a trip to Daytona Beach to watch the Lake City Columbia High basketball team win its first and only state championship where Cox and Williams were forced to sneak into the room of schoolmate Pat Summerall so they would have a place to sleep. It was during a trip to Jacksonville when they discovered the truth about one of life's great mysteries.

"We watched and came to the conclusion that professional wrestling was the real deal," Williams said, as the crowd howled with laughter. "We were eyewitnesses the night that Roman Kirchmeier 6 feet, 7 inches tall and possessor of the 'Octopus Clutch' pinned down the evil, wicked masked man Mr. X in three minutes and 23 seconds for a purse of thousands. We knew then that good reigned over evil and that professional wrestling was the real deal, for sure."

Jim Sauls, who played for and coached under Cox at Leon, then shared his mentor's recipe for coaching success. The details of Cox's approach to coaching were printed in a story by former Tallahassee Democrat sports editor Bill McGrotha in the 1970s. That was at a time when the Leon dynasty was in full bloom and when thousands of fans would pack the stadium to see Cox's Lions play.

Sauls, a member of Cox's first team at Leon, recalled his first encounter with his new coach.

"It was the spring of 1963, and I was an upcoming senior," Sauls said. "He and (assistant) Coach Brent Hall drove from Live Oak every day for spring practice. After the first day of practice, I thought I had died and not gone to heaven.

"We started that spring with just over 100 football players. We ended that spring with 32. We as players did not realize we were on the ground floor of something very, very special."

Cox's four children sons David, Alan and Gary and daughter Cynthia paid tribute to their parents by sharing stories on the day Gene and Patsy Cox would have celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary. Many of them showed how their father preached the same values at home as he did on the football field.

"I didn't play football for my father," Cynthia said in her opening comments, eliciting a huge round of laughter from the crowd. She later playfully corrected that statement as she talked about donning her older brothers' football gear as she tried to play in the front yard of the family house.

"To this day, if I happen to pick up a ball and throw it, I can still hear my dad's voice saying, 'Cynthia, get your elbow up when you throw that football,' " she said.

Gary, the youngest son, described how his parents met when they were both young and single and working as P.E. teachers at Jefferson County High School.

"In spite of my dad's athletic accomplishments in college and high school, he was a quiet man," Gary said. "And she couldn't get him to talk to her. So one day in the gym, she picked up a medicine ball and threw it at him. From that point on, he started talking to her."

Their conversations continued, as Gary said, even when his father left coaching briefly to spend some time in military service.

"I can't imagine any of you football players imagining Gene Cox writing love letters," Gary said, as the former players hooted with laughter. "But it happened."

Alan, the second son and now the principal at Chiles High, had the crowd laughing from his first words.

"I'd like to tell you that my dad when he'd leave that football field he'd come home and be a loving, kind father," Alan said, smothering his own grin as the audience erupted in laughter.

Alan then talked about one of his father's passions summer camping with the kids. One of those trips produced a memory the older Cox sons won't forget.

"Coach Sauls used the term that my dad would 'go off,' " Alan said. "Well, you ought to see him in the car when he can't get directions from my mother. I remember one time when he was yelling, 'I got to have that turn right now. I need it right now.' And my mom said, 'Gene, you missed the turn.' And dad said, 'I got the Hell's Angels on my butt.'

"David and I turned around and it was some old man on a Honda Gold."

David, the oldest child, talked lovingly about the atmosphere the football coach and his wife created in their family's house.

"It was definitely a team effort between them," David said, "and it all turned out really beautiful."

And no one left Bradfordville First Baptist Church on Saturday afternoon doubting that for one second.