January 31, 2015 10:47:29 PM
Brandon Walker - [email protected]
The days are quiet for Justin Cox now.
That's fine with him.
There are no fans around, no teammates, nothing but football.
At around 7 a.m., sometimes earlier, the former Mississippi State safety jogs onto the football field at Training Farm, a facility in Aventura, Florida, where he is currently preparing for the upcoming NFL Draft. He immediately begins running, sprinting, jumping -- all the necessary workouts to stay in peak physical shape.
The West Point native stays on the field, taking a short break around lunch, until the sun goes down. Then he returns to his apartment and does it again the next day.
"I'm just trying to realize my dream of playing in the NFL," said Cox, who played two seasons at MSU after an All-American stint at East Mississippi Community College. "I'm eager to get out there and show my talents."
This is what Cox's road to redemption looks like. It is a path that became necessary after his collegiate career was derailed last fall.
On Nov. 21, Cox was arrested following an off-campus incident near Starkville involving he and his girlfriend at the time. At around 3 a.m., deputies with the Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Office responded to Rock Road in the Apsen Heights apartment complex regarding a report of domestic violence.
Cox was arrested and charged with domestic violence and trespassing. He was booked into the Oktibbeha County Jail, where he remained until a $20,000 bond was posted one day later.
The arrest had immediate consequences. Cox was indefinitely suspended from MSU's football team and missed the final three games of the season. He never played for the Bulldogs again.
On Jan. 6, Cox appeared in Oktibbeha County Justice Court, where he pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of trespassing and was fined $600. The domestic violence charge was dismissed at the victim's request, according to Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Investigator Brett Watson.
Authorities did not release the name of the victim. The Dispatch did not speak to her for this story. Cox will not speak of the incident or the aftermath of being suspended from MSU's football team.
Those around him would, however.
"It was surprising to us when it happened," said former MSU defensive tackle Curtis Virges, who also a teammate of Cox's at West Point High School. "I've known Justin a long time. He's not like that. He's a quiet guy, goes about his business. Off the field, when you get to know him, he's fun-loving and crack jokes, but mostly he's all about business. Never bothers anybody."
Others, including those involved with Cox's training for the draft, agreed with Virges.
"He was never guilty," said P.J. Augustine of NextD1ProspectFla.com, Cox's manager. "The day he got here, I picked him up from the airport. Before we left to go train, I told him to leave everything behind. He looked me in the eye and said, 'I know what I did, I know what I didn't do, and God knows what I didn't do.' It's a shame that a young man...had this placed upon him, but he's moving forward."
'We both cried"
Paulette Gibson was overwhelmed.
Sitting at her home in West Point on Tuesday, she answered the phone and heard the voice of her son, Cox, on the other end. After three weeks away from home, the 21-year-old had news.
"He called me and told me he got at invitation to the NFL Combine," said Gibson. "I had tears in my eyes. We both cried together over the phone."
Cox has faced adversity. After signing with MSU out of high school in 2011, he failed to qualify academically. He eventually ending up playing at EMCC in Scooba, where he spent two years dominating in the Lions' defensive backfield.
Gibson wasn't the only observer in West Point watching Cox's legal trouble in November. West Point High School football coach Chris Chambless also had his eyes on the situation.
"When the arrest happened, it was surprising to me and of course we were disappointed that a situation like that would even happen," Chambless said. "I know Justin, and I know he's a good kid, and I was hoping that whatever happened that night would eventually get resolved. I want the best for all involved, and I think it has been straightened out."
Of his demeanor on and off the field, another West Point coach described Cox the same way Virges did.
"Just a quiet, hard-working guy," said West Point offensive line coach Casey Welch, who was the running backs coach during Cox's Green Wave career. "We never had any real problems with him as far as his behavior goes, on or off the field."
Cox's legal fate was determined when the domestic violence charge was thrown out. His football fate, though, remained in doubt.
After getting suspended for MSU's final home game against Vanderbilt, he missed the Egg Bowl and the Orange Bowl, and he never again participated in a team activity.
MSU officials declined to comment for this story.
Cox found a sanctuary in West Point, where his family's support never wavered.
"They are my family, been there for me my whole life and they'll always be there," said Cox.
For Gibson, the response in her hometown was heart-warming.
"Everybody in West Point was supportive," said Gibson. "They called us, told us they were praying for us. I believe that all the prayer around him is working."
The NFL Scouting Combine, held each year in Indianapolis, brings together the best prospects from the college football ranks and puts them on display in front of scouts, general managers and coaches from the National Football League. To get an invitation is a big deal, and it's one that was uncertain for Cox after his college career ended the way it did.
But, according to some, the decision-makers in the NFL saw no issue with Cox's arrest and eventual dismissal of the domestic violence charge.
"The NFL sees it for exactly what it is," said J.T. Johnson, Cox's agent. "Justin was ultimately given a minor trespassing charge and that doesn't even register as a story."
Cox is one of four MSU players -- linebacker Benardrick McKinney, defensive end Preston Smith, running back Josh Robinson the others -- who will attend the Combine, which starts on Feb. 17, with the goal being catching the eye of at least one NFL team.
Cox accomplished that with his play on the field. He started eight games in 2014 and finished with 21 tackles and an interception, a game-sealing pick in MSU's 38-23 win over then-No. 2 Auburn. Before signing with MSU, Cox enjoyed an All-America career at EMCC, where he picked off 11 passes in two seasons. At West Point, he engineered back-to-back state championships as the team's starting quarterback, where the quiet, reserved Cox earned Class 5A All-State honors as a senior.
"Athletically, he's one of the most gifted players I've ever seen," said Chambless.
Now comes the Combine.
"It's one of the biggest moments of my life that I've experienced," said Cox. "It's a dream come true."
His days are spent at Training Farm, where he works to better prepare himself for what lies ahead.
His biggest obstacle, however, may be putting the stigma of the arrest for domestic violence behind him.
"The Combine is the start of that," Johnson said. "Time heals all wounds. Right now, he is focusing on training. All he does is get up, train, go back to his condo. He doesn't go out, he doesn't party. He's focused on being a better football player."
In Cox, the NFL will be looking at a player with all the measurables. At 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, he played both cornerback and safety during his two years in Starkville. He also possesses next-level athleticism, a fact not lost on Augustine.
"Yesterday, he ran a 4.14 laser-timed 40-yard dash, and on the stopwatch it was 4.22 and 4.23," Augustine said. "That right there tells you he has focused on his training."
Cox was not allowed to play in MSU's Orange Bowl loss to Georgia Tech. But, paying his own way, Cox bought a ticket and traveled to Miami to see his team play for the final time.
"Those are my guys," he said. "I wanted to be there with them, to support them. My teammates have supported me so I had to be there for them."
Though his numbers weren't outstanding this season -- he had two career interceptions at MSU -- his absence was noticeable after the suspension. In nine games with Cox, MSU gave up an average of 20.2 points per game in starting the season 9-1. In the three games he did not play, MSU went 1-2 and gave up 27.6 points per game, which included losses to Ole Miss (31-17) and Georgia Tech (49-34).
"I knew he was there, it meant a lot to us," said Virges. "That's one of our guys. When it all went down, it was hard to watch him go through that. But he did and I think he can rebuild himself."
Two questions remain for Cox: Will the charges continue to haunt him, and can he move on from them?
To his closest ally right now, the answer is clear.
"The charges are behind him, that's over and he was never convicted of anything, never guilty of anything," Augustine said. "He is going to have a long professional career, and he has already moved on."
Virges, who played alongside Cox for two years at West Point and then two years at MSU, is hopeful Cox can put the dismissed charges in the rear-view mirror.
For his part, Cox doesn't say much.
Instead, he wakes up each day and goes straight to Training Farm, his home for the last three weeks since the dismissal of his charges in Oktibbeha County Justice Court. Some of his former MSU teammates are just 10 minutes down the road in Miami, going through the same NFL Draft training, just in a different location. But he doesn't talk with them much, doesn't try to hang out with them at night. Instead, his only interaction with people comes in the form of his trainers and fellow football players at the training facility.
He doesn't offer much in the way of reflection, either. He won't discuss the night of Nov. 21 or his suspension from MSU. The only words he offers are promises to keep fighting to reach the next level.
"The training has been easy to focus on," said Cox. "I have a lot of people behind me. I'm just trying to reach the place I've always wanted to reach."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat