April 4, 2009

 

Hundreds gather to say goodbye to legendary coach Cox

Friends and family remember the life of a legendary football coach

By David Sez
Democrat Staff Writer

The line of people said so much.

Gene Cox touched a lot of people in 74 years. And many of those individuals walked through the doors at East Hill Baptist Church on Friday night to pay their respects to the family of the legendary football coach. Cox died of a heart attack on Monday.

About 175 people had already written their names on the sign-in books before the visitation began at 5 p.m.

And even after the scheduled two-hour reception, people spilled out past the four, white columns in front of the church. During the evening, about 600 people came to speak, share a hug, or a handshake with Cox's wife Patsy and children David, 50, Alan, 49, Gary, 45, and Cynthia, 40.

"This is unfortunate," said Everett Blakely, a former Leon football player and coach for Cox. "You measure the value of a man by the number of lives he's touched. And all you have to do is look (at the line of people)."

The friends, the co-workers, the boss, the coaches and the players took time sharing their Gene Cox stories and looking over memorabilia.

"The Gene Cox experience for me as a 13-or-14-old kid was thinking he was the meanest guy in the world," Blakely, 43, said. "Then it was, as a 17-year-old, that I realized he helped you grow. He was about character, perseverance, and never quitting. Those things helped me through a lot of things in life."

In the lobby of the church entrance, snippets of Cox's life laid across a table. Several items accompanied framed photos of Cox and Patsy and another photo of the Cox family.

A laptop computer displayed a slide show of news articles and photos, and there was a red baseball cap with the words Leon Football Hall of Fame, one of Cox's passionate projects, and the book he wrote titled "Go Big Red: The History of Leon High School Football 1916-2001."

Cox coached at Leon for 28 years and won two state championships (1969, 1974). In 1987, he won his 259th game, making him the state's all-time winning high school coach at the time.

On the table a trophy with a statuette of a football player holding a ball tight to his body with his left arm and with his right arm extended honored the landmark win.

Former Leon principal Mike Conley returned from a trip to Rome on Friday afternoon. Conley was an assistant principal when he first started working with Cox, and he eventually was the principal during part of Cox's tenure at Leon. More than a boss-employee or a principal-teacher relationship, Conley said they were friends.

"It's kind of hard to handle," Conley said. "It's the end of an era. People are coming here from all over the South. It's not a cliche to say that he prepared a lot of young men for life. His kids are successful.

"He showed me that work ethic pays off," Conley added. "There are probably coaches who are more knowledgeable and more capable, but no one outworked him. Wait until (today's funeral). They're going to fill the church up tomorrow. And there's a story each (person) has to tell."

Charlie Pope, 59, had a couple, including one story that occurred on March 27. That Friday, Pope received a brief e-mail that said Cox had been thinking about a long-ago game against Gainesville, where Leon routed its opponent before 17,000 at Doak Campbell Stadium. His main point was to say that Pope had been the star of the game.

"I probably wasn't," Pope said. "But it was nice for him to say so."

For Paul Howard, Cox was the first coach who treated him with respect "and not just a piece of meat." Howard, 56 and living in Birmingham, Ala., had moved to Tallahassee his senior year from Raleigh, N.C. The year before, while in North Carolina, Howard experienced what he called a terrible football season, though he'd played well.

The sourness of that experience changed with one year at Leon. During that 1969 season, Howard played defensive end on the state championship team. His season ended with him being named the All-Big Bend Player of the Year and all-state. He went to the University of Georgia on a football scholarship. Eventually, he graduated from Florida State and attended medical school in Alabama.

"(Playing for Cox) was a seminal event in my life," Howard said.

When Judy Steverson, 63, became the yearbook and school newspaper advisor at Leon in 1970, the Cox Era was soaring. The teams provided plenty of good copy for her journalism students and helped bring attention to the school as a whole.

"His winning tradition did much to put Leon in the headlines and to accomplish a great deal," Steverson said. "He embodied the spirit of Leon."

A former math teacher and cross country and track coach at Leon, Marilynn Willis, 73, felt she had a similar work ethic.

"I respected him for that," Willis said. "His players really respected him a lot because he cared about them."

One person Cox cared deeply about was his friend of 62 years, Morris Williams. He and Cox grew up in Lake City playing sports and working jobs together. They used to sell boiled peanuts on the side of the roads and set pins in the bowling alley.

"You guys see the Gene Cox that coached football and won games," Williams, 76, said. "I see the kid that I used to sell boiled peanuts with.

"You don't know the half of it, the number of people he's touched. Whatever those qualities are that appealed to people, he had them."