Good as gold

Torrie Cox might become the first Buc to run back a kickoff. He has overcome bigger obstacles.

Published November 28, 2004

This is the one, you tell yourself. It has to be.

Kickoff after kickoff, game after game, week after week, year after year for 29 years, it begins with eager excitement and ends in familiar futility.

He is the one, Torrie Cox assures you. He will run faster and farther than the 125 who tried and failed before him.

And, to tell you the truth, there is something different about the way he runs that makes you believe.

He runs to reflect a blinding smile, the light bouncing off a full mouth of gold crowns glistening from his teeth, the dental equivalent of Fort Knox. He runs with a surgically repaired knee, the one he tore up in a preseason game last year in his hometown of Miami that wiped out his rookie season.

He runs to support his unemployed mother, helping her fix up a tiny house for his two brothers and two sisters in riot-scarred Liberty City.

He runs to make history. As you may have heard, the Bucs have returned 1,686 kickoffs without a touchdown.

Cox believes he will do it, and don't bet against him. He has beaten bigger odds.

* * *

Cox grew up in Liberty City, a mostly black community of about 100,000 and largely abandoned by developers after riots in the early '80s.

He is the oldest sibling in a family with no father. He was raised by his mother, Tousha Cox, whom he says never worked and relied on public assistance for housing and food.

"I knew we were poor, but the kind of support I had from my family and my uncles, I never really felt we were poor," Cox said. "I knew it was always tough to get what we wanted. The basic things had to be taken care of first."

If there was one provider in his life, other than his mother, it was her boyfriend, Robert Lanier. He fathered one of Torrie's brothers with the same name.

"Of all the boyfriends she had, I like him the most," he said. "I liked him more than my father."

The problem was that Lanier sold drugs, which meant a lifetime of running from police and carrying a gun to protect large sums of cash in his pocket from dealers and thieves looking to rip him off.

On Lanier's birthday some "friends," having spotted a roll of bills in his pocket, took him out for drinks. Torrie, who was not yet in middle school, remembers the phone ringing and his mother sobbing, repeating over and over, "I don't believe it. It's not true."

"My little brother's daddy, he was a dope boy, and I saw what happened to him," Cox said. "He got killed, he got killed in a drug thing gone bad.

"I was so upset, I couldn't even go to the funeral. ... I saw the life that he lived and how he always had to watch his back. I didn't want that. I wanted to be able to make money where nobody is looking over you, not wondering if the police are watching you or somebody else is watching you trying to see what you've got."

What Cox had was talent to run the football and enough drive and determination to help him rush to a better lifestyle. He also had some good examples to follow.

At Miami Northwestern High School, sports is viewed as a way out, one that gives you a chance to attend college, get a degree and perhaps play professionally.

The school has produced 19 NFL players, including five active players. Former Bucs linebacker Nate Webster preceded Cox to the NFL. Dozens more receive scholarships. According to USA Today, 24 NFL players come from Miami, more than any city in the United States.

Cox had never been out of Miami, let alone Florida, until he was recruited as one of the nation's best high school running backs with 1,500 yards as a senior, becoming a first-team all-state selection while leading his team to a Class 6A state title.

He settled on Pittsburgh, but two weeks after arriving on campus, isolated from family and friends and suffering from culture shock, he wanted to withdraw and return to Miami. It didn't help that coaches wanted him to switch from running back to defensive back.

Maybe it was the long telephone conversations with his mother, his strong faith in God or a sense of responsibility for his brothers and sisters, but Cox stuck it out. Every dollar left over from Pell Grants, financial aid or scholarship money was mailed home to Miami.

"All I could think about was I've got to do this to keep my family straight," Cox said.

Meanwhile, Cox's value to the Panthers increased each season. He was the special teams most valuable player each of his last three years. His closing speed made him one of Pittsburgh's hardest hitters, and he started at cornerback his final two seasons, earning All-Big East honors as a senior.

"I pray every day to God I was one of those guys who kept my head focused and kept my eye on that prize," Cox said. "Some of those other guys who didn't, I still pray for them and hope they're out there doing the right things. There's a bunch of guys I played with in high school, hey, everybody had the same talent. The only difference was I made it."

But Cox wasn't given much of a chance to make it in the NFL. He was an unheralded sixth-round pick, the 205th player chosen in 2003. When he arrived for minicamp, players took one look at his golden grill and knew he didn't grow up next to Starbucks.

"My first impressions of that guy was he's just a tough guy," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "Somebody asked me the other day on my (radio) show if I see myself in him and I said, "Not at all. No way, he's from a different universe than me.' But he is a tough guy. A guy that understands what it takes to play in the league. He's a guy who will give 110 percent every time he has a chance to get on the field."

Cox's fearless approach made him an instant locker room favorite. Pro Bowl defensive end Simeon Rice took an instant liking to Cox for having the confidence to be himself in a league that discourages individuality.

"He's a younger generation guy, just a younger generation guy. Spanking new in this league and he's himself," Rice said. "You're getting him. He is who he is and comfortable in his skin. When you see somebody wear, like, gold, just something like that, you say, okay, what's he about? You can reflect things and bring stereotypical things to mind. But he's just himself. He's still a kid off the block where he's from. He just happens to be in the NFL. He had ability and took care of it."

And when you are a low-round draft pick, it doesn't hurt to shine off the field, as well. Cox said he began with three gold crowns on his front teeth in high school.

"Once I got to Pitt, I got them all done at one time and had them in every since," he said. "I just got outrageous once I got up there. I'm familiar seeing it down here and I like the look and it's just who I am. If I ain't smiling, there's something wrong. If something's wrong, you don't want to be messed up with me at that time.

"(Teammates) like the look. Some people call me Goldie. My (special-teams) coach (Richard Bisaccia) says I want to see that smile every game because if that smile is on the field, things are good."

But Cox's smile disappeared just a few weeks into his pro career. His rookie season was cut short when he tore the ACL in his left knee in a preseason game against the Dolphins, a few miles north on I-95 from his hometown. The silver lining was that he was guaranteed to earn the first season of his three-year, $835,000 contract on IR.

Bisaccia said it was during Cox's long rehabilitation, coming to work at 6 a.m. for treatment and the grueling workouts, that he became a dependable pro. His work habits improved and his speed slowly returned.

Cox was inactive in three of the Bucs' first four games this season. But when kickoff returner Frank Murphy tore his Achilles' in a loss to Denver, the 24-year-old got his chance and pounced.

* * *

Three times this season, the 5-9, 187-pound Cox has come oh so close to breaking a kickoff return for a touchdown. Twice against the Rams he needed only to beat kicker Jeff Wilkins for a touchdown but was tripped and pushed out of bounds, forcing him to settle for returns of 59 and 44 yards. But Nov. 14 at Atlanta, there was nothing between Cox and history but white lines.

After the Falcons took a 3-0 lead, Cox gathered the ensuing kickoff at his goal line, burst through a hole in the wedge, bounced to his left before briefly colliding with teammate Earnest Graham, then sliding to his right to find nothing but daylight. But before he reached the 40, he stumbled and fell with no Falcons defender in front of him.

"Either I got tripped up by the turf or (Graham) got a pad into me and tripped me up," Cox said. "All I saw was green grass, I saw a block and everything was set up perfect. But hey, it probably wasn't the time to have it happen."

Bisaccia bites his lip when asked what he thought when Cox tripped.

"The good part is we've gotten a bunch of great looks at it, and now if we can just finish it ... " he said.

The Bucs have been close before. Aaron Stecker returned a kickoff 86 yards against New Orleans two days before Christmas in 2001. Vernon Turner, who returned the first punt for a touchdown in team history, went 77 yards against Minnesota in '94.

Cox finally reached the end zone for the first time last weekend. But, alas, not as a kickoff returner. Taking advantage of increased playing time as the fifth defensive back, he punctuated the Bucs' 35-3 win over San Francisco by intercepting a pass from Tim Rattay and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown.

A kickoff return for a touchdown is next. It just has to be. Cox has always known where he started from, where he's going and how to get there. How hard could it be?

"I'm very proud of where I'm from," Cox said. "I wouldn't want to be raised anywhere else. I'm a Dade County, three-oh-five boy. I've always known I was a top player. Once I got here, I left everything in God's hands."