A little past seven last Friday morning, the NFL's most misunderstood player sat in the cafeteria of the Chicago Bears' training-camp complex in Platteville, Wis., looking nothing like the quarterback terrorist his new coach, Dave Wannstedt, hopes he will be. He looked placid, actually, a man happy with his job and his stature and what he considers his ridiculous wealth. Well, there was one thing bothering him.
"You know," said this complex man, his brow wrinkling on his round face, "I went to Coach Wannstedt the other day, and I asked him, 'Nothing against this camp, but can we get the f—-out of here early?' I've been a month without seeing my wife, six weeks without seeing my kids. Man, I miss seeing my kids when I go home at night. Do you know what that's like?"
Cuddly and forthright and rebellious, all at the same time. That sums up what the Bears got for their $13.2 million when they signed free-agent defender Bryan Cox to a four-year deal in February. Cox made his Soldier Field debut on Sunday in Chicago's 24-21 preseason victory over the Miami Dolphins, his former team, and Bears fans had to be happy with what they saw. The ebullient Wannstedt certainly was. "He's everything we thought he'd be," Wannstedt said. "And more."
Cox made but two tackles in two quarters, but twice he snuffed out drives with impact plays. On fourth-and-one from the Miami 44 late in the first quarter, Cox the middle linebacker stood up lead blocker and fullback Stanley Pritchett, allowing five teammates to stop running back Irving Spikes for no gain. In the second quarter Cox the defensive end—that's where he'll play on most passing downs—was scrumming with Dolphins left tackle Richmond Webb when quarterback Dan Marino fired a bullet toward the left sideline. Cox extended his right arm and deflected the pass into the arms of defensive end Al Fontenot.
"Sure was funny seeing him in that black uniform," Webb said afterward. "We didn't see that competitive rage today, but it'll come."
To be sure. Cox plays with a fire few players have, and the preseason is no time to ignite it. Come October he'll blow a gasket at a referee's call or a misplay by a teammate, and every football fan in every bar and den will think he's seeing a replay of one of the five or six memorable occasions during Cox's five years in Miami, when defensive line coach Joe Greene or even coach Don Shula had to hold Cox back from doing something stupid, like attacking a teammate or an official. Unfortunately, when that happens, Cox's talent as a football player will be overshadowed.
Cox brings it on himself, this out-of-control tag. Three seasons ago in Buffalo he was fined $10,000 by the NFL for making obscene gestures to the crowd at Rich Stadium. That incident is vivid in the minds of many fans, but the two death threats Cox says he received on the eve of the game were never widely reported. He says that the league failed to provide adequate security for him that day, which put him on edge, and that his outburst was a response to vulgar taunting by Bills fans. Ten months later Cox sued the NFL for undisclosed damages for forcing him to play in a racially hostile environment; the sides eventually settled out of court, with the league paying Cox's legal fees.
Leashing his fury, Cox contends, isn't an option, because it would hinder him as a player. Whatever his excesses, he's an important player in a league all too concerned with conformity. Cox isn't afraid to speak his mind. Ask him how he gets mentally prepared for a game, and he says, "I make up things, like the guy I'm playing against has just done something evil to my wife or my kids or my mom. If somebody has just kidnapped your kids, what are you going to do? You're going to try to kill his ass." Ask him if he's crazy, and he says, "That's what people don't understand. You know you're crazy for playing this game anyway. If I lose that edge, I can't compete. This is a violent game." Ask him about the responsibility of black players outside football, and he says, "Black players in this league are suckers. They don't know how to be accountable and stand up and be a man about nothing. The one thing that this league can use to keep black athletes, especially, in check is to talk about fining them. 'Oh, I ain't losing no money,' they say. If I believe in something, you can take my whole paycheck, because I'm going to fight you tooth and nail."
He says he is embarrassed when he sees his outbursts on TV. He says there is "no damn way" he's worth the $3.3 million a year he's earning, which ranks him among the highest-paid defensive players in the league.
If salaries were measured solely on statistics, he wouldn't be. He doesn't figure to be among the league leaders in sacks; the Bears would be happy if he finished with 10 or 11, which would be a healthy increase over the 7.5 he had with the Dolphins last year. And he will get pushed around occasionally because, at 250 pounds, he's no match for Nate Newton-sized offensive linemen. But in comparative terms he's a bargain. When guys without pedigrees, guys like Marco Coleman of the San Diego Chargers and Alonzo Spellman of the Bears, are making $3 million or more a year, then what is Cox, a three-time Pro Bowl player at 28, worth?