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PASSAGE of a ROOKIE : Aaron Cox’s Saga, From South-Central Los Angeles to the Rams

Gene Wojciechowski is a Times sportswriter.

YOU’RE A CHILD OF A LOS ANGELES neighborhood that you call The Jungle--where gangs, drugs and crime are part of everyday life, and where people live behind wrought-iron bars. But when you were growing up there, your life was football. As a kid, you used to walk to USC from your mom’s house at 36th Place and Normandie just to shag footballs during Trojan practices. Then it was on to Dorsey High School, where you were a football star. An athletic scholarship set you down in Tempe, Ariz., where you were a premier wide receiver for the Arizona State Sun Devils. And now, fresh out of college, the ASU parking sticker still stuck on your Toyota, you’re back in Southern California.

You’re Aaron Dion Cox, NFL rookie and property of the Los Angeles Rams.

Cox had always dreamed of playing for the Rams, and last April they made him a first-round draft pick. He’ll be paid about $1.55 million over the next four years to play wide receiver. He’s 23 years old and living a dream come true. Aaron Cox, new millionaire, should be very, very happy.

But Cox is nervous. He’s just arrived at training camp, the National Football League’s brutal rite of passage. He’s an untested rookie, a question mark, and he’s about to go through eight weeks or so of trauma, self-doubt, embarrassment, pain and frustration, broken by rare moments of exhilaration. Quite simply, Cox is going to find out whether he’s good enough to play with the big boys. He knows that if you don’t cut it, you’re just another ex-college jock on the job market.

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Cox begins with a distinct advantage: He’s rookie royalty. In this year’s NFL draft, he was the 20th of 333 players chosen. That explains the big-time contract, the news conferences, the hoopla--and it also explains Cox’s apprehension.

Even as the April 23 draft approached, as scouts and coaches predicted his first-round selection, Cox remained cautious. He told friends that there would be no party at his Tempe apartment on draft day, that it would be just him and the ESPN sports channel.

“That’s the way I wanted it,” he says. “It’s just the way I am. I’m pretty much a loner anyway. I like to be by myself--a lot. And this was a big part of my life.”

The truth is, Cox was scared that he might be chosen in a later round.

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At the last moment, he let former Arizona State teammate Skip McClendon and McClendon’s father watch the telecast with him. A year earlier, McClendon had been selected by the Cincinnati Bengals. “Now (Skip) wanted to see somebody else’s reaction,” Cox says.

The Rams, who had two picks in the first round, took UCLA running back Gaston Green first. After that, Cox’s phone rang. The Rams were asking for the phone number of Cox’s agent. Five minutes later the phone rang again. It was his agent, Ernie Wright.

“The Rams are going to take you,” said the no-nonsense Wright, who played tackle for the Chargers in Los Angeles and San Diego and the Cincinnati Bengals in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. He now manages about 15 NFL players.

“That’s fine, but I still want to hear them say that,” Cox said.

Minutes before the Rams’ turn, the phone rang once more. This time it was Coach John Robinson welcoming him to the team.

Two hours later, Cox was on a plane to Orange County’s John Wayne Airport. At an afternoon news conference, he held up his Ram jersey for photographers. The next day he flew back to Tempe. Things were happening fast, yet Cox remained surprisingly calm.

“I didn’t feel at all different,” he says. “I thought I might have. All I said was: ‘They drafted me--now I have to perform.’ I guess that added a lot of pressure.”

It’s a strange, tough business. In April, Cox is a hotshot NFL draft pick with all that hometown publicity. By July, linebackers are trying to punch holes through his sternum. There is no grace period, no leisurely period of adjustment. Professional football is a big business in which Darwin’s theory is at work every day. You block. You run. You catch. You kick. You tackle. If you don’t, you’re just another name on the list in tomorrow’s sports section under “Cuts.”

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Unlike the veteran players who falter, rookies rarely receive second chances. They only have those eight weeks--the length of training camp and the exhibition season--to make an impression. But odds and audition times vary. Rookie free agents are the long shots of the game. Late-round draft picks maybe get a moment or two of attention. Middle-round selections earn consideration. Early round choices, such as Cox, are near-locks. They have to be; they cost more.

But Cox takes nothing for granted. “I’m thinking that if I go in there and just be average and there’s somebody better than me, there’s a chance I might not be around,” he says. “Then I heard that I would have to be pretty much a flop to get cut, and even then they might keep me around because of the signing bonus, tell me to try it again next year.

“But I tried not to think that way. I tried to think, ‘I have to be my best.’ I didn’t want them to say, ‘The only reason we kept him around was because he was drafted in the first round.’ I wanted them to say: ‘He made this team on his own.’ ”

Cox always wanted to be a professional football player, preferably for the Rams. Corny, but true.

He grew up watching Jack Youngblood worm his way into offensive backfields, Lawrence McCutcheon bully his way into the record books for rushing, Harold Jackson catch pass after pass. Cox swore allegiance to the Rams in one of those kid oaths that seem to stick with you no matter what.

Cox also worshiped USC football. When he would make the 15-minute walk from the neighborhood to the USC practice field, the gate was always open. Cox and maybe a dozen other kids would get there just as the punters and place-kickers arrived for their daily pre-practice sessions.

Cox’s childhood and adolescent memories are a collection of sweet, innocent moments that revolved around football: slapping players on the back, telling them how good they were; hanging around outside the locker room for a USC memento; encircling John Robinson, the balding, jovial USC head coach, in the Coliseum parking lot after Saturday games, swearing to him that someday you’d be one of his players.

The Jungle seemed less vicious, less threatening as long as there was football. But deep down, Cox knew things could get ugly fast. There were drugs and fights, and the crackle of gang gunfire sometimes broke the uneasy calm of summer nights.

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“We were living in a hostile neighborhood,” says James Cox, Aaron’s father. “But we tried to keep him out of all that.”

They did it with sports--baseball, basketball and football. They did it with music; Aaron loved to tinker with keyboards, so his father bought him a used piano. They did it with love and prayers and hoped that The Jungle wouldn’t get him, after all. Football was where Cox lost himself. He avoided the gangs. The only streets he ran were during touch-football games: Go to the Chevy and cut left, that sort of thing. “He just didn’t want to be like everybody else,” James Cox says. “He wanted to get out of the ghetto.”

Aaron’s mother, Betty Gordon, and James Cox split up when Aaron was about 5. But Aaron got along well with his stepmother and began dividing his time between the two households. In junior high, he stayed at his mother’s house during the week, his father’s place on the weekend. But in high school, his schedule was the other way around. That way he could attend Dorsey, where his Pop Warner League coach worked, rather than Manual Arts, the school in his mother’s district. Football was a constant. “There was something about it that turned me on more than the other sports,” he says.

He went to Arizona State on an athletic scholarship, majored in physical education (he’s about a year short of a degree) and finished second on the Sun Devils’ all-time receiving yardage list and third on the school’s all-time reception list. He helped ASU win a Rose Bowl, a Freedom Bowl and a Holiday Bowl. A beat reporter for a Phoenix newspaper remembers watching Cox drop only one pass in practice in the three years he covered the team.

Robinson was watching in Indianapolis in February during the scouting combine meetings--the marketplace where coaches, scouts and general managers of 17 of the 28 NFL teams assembled to assess 340 of the year’s best college senior players. He saw the 5-9, 174-pound Cox finish among the leaders in speed and agility drills. He saw the way Cox caught passes, how he ran patterns.

“That was a rough three days,” Cox says. “It was really time-consuming. They tell you you’re going to the hospital to take a physical. I’m thinking, ‘A physical--that’s 10 minutes.’ But there’s so many of us. And there’s six or seven doctors looking at you, checking out injuries, seeing if you’re OK. It’s like you’re a piece of meat.”

The Rams thought Cox was prime stuff. Shortly after the draft, Ram owner Georgia Frontiere had a garden’s worth of flowers sent to Cox’s mother. “I’m not talking about a bouquet of flowers,” Ernie Wright says. “I’m talking about something you have to turn sideways to get into the house.”

It was the least the Rams could do, says Robinson, who marvels at the team’s draft-day luck. “Playing the game is kind of natural to him,” Robinson says of Cox.

But which game? There’s no doubt that Cox can play football, but what about the games within the game? What about the contract bickering that follows the draft? The two-a-day practices and physical punishment? The dorm-room beds and the hazing? The unforeseen pressures?

It took eight long, tiring weeks, but Cox found out about the other games. And something about himself, too.

THE RELUCTANT HOLDOUT

JULY 13-JULY 18: EVERYTHING WAS so much simpler in May, at the rookie mini-camp. That’s when the Rams bring their draft picks and free agents to Rams Park--the converted elementary school in Anaheim that serves as the team offices and regular-season practice field--for a week’s workout. Cox did well, and he couldn’t wait for the official training camp, held at Cal State Fullerton, to begin.

Then the one thing Cox doesn’t want to happen happens. He’s a holdout: He and the Rams are about $100,000 apart on a deal. He hasn’t caught an official NFL pass yet, and here he is, a no-show for the beginning of training camp. But his agent is used to this--he’s seen it before.

“First of all, there’s just total elation that they’re first-round draft choices,” says Wright. “Then Aaron had to go through rookie camp. He’s saying, ‘I’m on the same field as these guys.’ Everything is going very well. So it’s the elation of being drafted, the awe of going to your first Ram practice, wearing a Ram uniform and then . . . the contract struggle comes up.”

The Rams are tough negotiators. They don’t part with their money easily. So, instead of being at training camp, Cox is at the Dorsey High track, preparing for a workout, trying to sound unconcerned about the contract impasse. Rap music blares from a convertible in the parking lot. Kids run in and out of the gym. A pair of joggers give up after two laps in the midday sun.

Cox will run sprints, practice routes, try to work on his conditioning. That’s what Ram receiver and tight-end coach Norval Turner told him during mini-camp: Keep the legs strong, keep them stretched.

Later, Cox’s buddy Gary Payne will come by and throw Cox passes. Payne, now a security guard, and Cox were teammates at Dorsey; Payne played defensive tackle, Cox wide receiver. They’ve remained friends ever since.

Cox is worried that the Rams will hold this no-show stuff against him, that he’ll become even more conspicuous. But mostly he’s concerned that the impasse could stretch into weeks. “Ernie is handling everything for me,” he says, “but I still think about it. That’s just human nature.”

Even when he’s troubled, Cox reveals his emotions in measured doses. He is friendly but guarded. “I really don’t trust a lot of people,” he says. “I guess it’s from growing up, seeing a lot of things. There wasn’t one incident that made me that way, it’s just that things happened. I mean, I’ll stop and talk to you, and I’ll be nice, but . . . .”

In 1986, after Arizona State defeated Michigan in the Rose Bowl, about as big a game as there is to win, Payne, elated with the victory, found Cox in the stadium parking lot talking to friends.

“You won! The Rose Bowl, man!” Payne said. “You won! I can’t believe it!”

Answered Cox: “Uh-huh.”

Cox is funny that way. It’s as if he almost expected to be where he is today. At Dorsey, when other players made a beeline for the locker room after practice, Cox stayed and ran more sprints, or more pass routes, or more whatever. The way Cox figured it, dreams aren’t answered on their own. You have to help them along.

“I remember asking him at one time, ‘Would you like to play pro ball?’ ” Betty Gordon says. “He just said, ‘Yes.’ He’s very determined. When he’s interested in something, he will see it through.”

Which makes this sitting-around business all the more frustrating.

Cox spends a lot of his time at Payne’s house. He gets up in the morning and waits for the phone to ring. He isn’t eating regularly, either--maybe once a day. His nerves are semi-shot. He’s antsy.

Payne calls him. “What’s up, man?”

“Nothing,” Cox says. “Just waiting for Ernie to call.”

“Say, let’s go play basketball.”

“No, man. I’ve got to wait for Ernie to call.”

Payne can tell that his friend is hurting. “Aaron doesn’t express emotions too much,” he says. “When he does, it takes a lot for him to do it.”

Cox and Payne have this little ritual. When the two friends need to talk about their doubts, their problems, they convene on Payne’s porch. “We always say, ‘Let’s go outside and tell a couple of lies,’ ” Payne says.

One night during the holdout, they stay up until 5 a.m. telling lies. Another night, until 3 a.m.

Cox needs it. Nobody said anything about this on draft day. Nobody told him his future might be tied to a single phone call. The age of innocence has ended.

SIGN ON THE LINE AND SUIT UP

JULY 19: BY NOW, COX IS CALLING Wright about every hour. A few days earlier, the Rams increased their offer to $1.55 million for four years--a fair offer, comparable to other late-first-round choices. But then they pulled it off the table, telling Wright that Cox wouldn’t be rewarded for being a holdout and that the amount would drop each day.

Cox doesn’t know what to think. Is this just another negotiating ploy? Cox keeps asking Wright why they can’t simply meet with the Rams and take care of the contract in an hour or so. “Why can’t this be resolved? Why?”

Wright tells him not to worry. This is part of that other game they don’t play at Arizona State. Here, you posture and spout stuff for the newspapers. You create impressions, try bluffs, plot strategy. And even then, there are no rules. It depends how high your client was drafted, how patient he’ll be if negotiations break down, as they often do with high draft picks. Wright has a theory about such things.

“If you have a guy in the top five or six (draft picks),” Wright says, “a lot of those guys are conscious of the money. Those guys feel that they should get the maximum dollars. The other 21 or 22 ballplayers (taken in the first round) also want to get the right money. But they think--and wrongly so--that if they perform well enough, that they’ll be taken care of, that they will be paid by Mr. Team Owner or Mrs. Team Owner.”

Cox wants the maximum dollars, but he could do without the maximum waiting. So he sits at his mother’s. And sits.

Finally the phone call comes.

“Pack your bags,” Wright says. “I think we’re going to come to a conclusion with the contract.”

Cox packs. Wright calls back. “Come sign.”

Wright recalls: “When I said we made a deal, he didn’t even ask me what it was. He was just ready to go to camp.”

At about 3 p.m., Cox calls Payne. “Hey, G,” Cox says. “I’m gone, man, I’m out of here. Time for the dream to come true. I’m on my way to the Rams right now.”

Payne smiles. He’s going to miss the little man.

Later that day, Cox arrives at Rams Park. Wright is waiting for him, as is Jay Zygmunt, the Rams’ general counsel. All Cox wants to do is sign on the dotted line and suit up for the afternoon practice at Cal State Fullerton.

Wright tells Cox, “I think we got a good contract.” Cox nods. “Welcome to the team,” Zygmunt says.

Cox is handed a check for $100,000--the initial installment of the $600,000 signing bonus included in his $1.55-million contract. He hands the check to Wright, who makes a photocopy of it. Then he’s whisked to the team’s preseason offices in Fullerton, where officials inform Robinson over a walkie-talkie that his new wide receiver is signed and ready to be delivered. Bring Cox over to the field, Robinson tells them. So it’s into a golf cart for the quarter-mile ride.

As Cox is driven up to the field’s edge, practice slows. The players, almost all of them rookies or free agents, glance toward Cox, the new bonus baby. Reporters start to make their way toward him. Too late. Robinson points to the locker room and tells Cox to get in uniform. This is too weird, Cox is thinking. This morning he was worried when he’d play again. Now the guy whose shirttail he once tugged at the Coliseum is his boss.

Equipment managers give Cox jersey No. 89, formerly worn by Olympic sprinter and sometime receiver Ron Brown. Cox isn’t crazy about the number (he’d prefer 84, his college number), but it’s his first day so he doesn’t argue. They give him a new pair of cleats, a clean uniform, a sparkling helmet and send him on his way.

Back on the field, the players are tired; sweat, grass and blood stain their jerseys and pants. Here comes Cox, who looks like he just walked out of a Tide commercial. After a brief warm-up, he steps into the receivers’ line. Someone makes a remark about Mr. Clean.

“Yeah, I was nervous,” he says later. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, man, first pass.’ But I caught it. I was fine after that.”

IT’S NO SUMMER CAMP

JULY 20-JULY 29: AS THE WEEK WEARS ON, problems show up. Cox calls them “beginning jitters.” For the first time in years, he’s dropping easy passes, running routes so poorly that the ball boys could have done better. “I’m going, ‘Man, what are you doing?’ ”

It’s called learning. Cox is thinking first, reacting second. Once you know the plays, it’s the other way around. Cox occasionally studies his playbook in the dorm room, “but it really doesn’t help me a lot. It’s one thing to know the plays in the apartment, and it’s another to know them in the huddle, where you know them spontaneously. A lot of times in a meeting I’d say, ‘Yeah, I know that play.’ An hour later on at practice, you don’t. You’ve got to make the transition from meeting room to playing field. The only way you’re going to do that is by doing it over and over and over again.”

Making matters worse is the presence of the veterans, who arrived two days after Cox signed his contract. They like to pick on rookies, especially well-paid ones. They pin running back Keith Jones to the floor one day and wrap him from head to toe in athletic tape, like a mummy. They interrupt Cox during the middle of lunch and have him do a rendition of the Arizona State fight song.

There are other indignities. If you’re a rookie, you can’t get your ankles taped in the regular training room. That’s only for veterans. Rookies have to get taped in the dining hall. And if you’re a rookie, you have to take your turn sitting--just sitting--at the new members’ desk in the middle of the cafeteria. Violation of these rules means a small fine, usually a dollar. “It’s nothing degrading,” Cox says. “Actually, it’s pretty fun.”

Living arrangements at the training-camp dorm hint at a player’s status. Veterans are generally housed on the first floor and spared the stairs. High draft choices are put on the second floor. Late-round draft selections and free agents are placed on the third floor.

Cox begins to understand the differences between being Joe College and Joe Pro. His body is sore from the practices, the weightlifting, the running, the sun beating through the smog. So he naps during the lunch break.

Breakfast means getting up by 6:30; Cox rarely eats breakfast. Meetings begin at 8:30. A light practice from, say, 10:30 to 11:45. Then comes lunch, maybe a nap, or a soap opera (“All My Children”), or a game of video baseball. Afternoon practice begins about 3, followed by dinner at 5:45 and more meetings until 9:30 or 10.

If Cox is lucky, he has an hour or so until the 11 o’clock bed check to hop in his Supra, crank up the stereo and “clear my mind out,” he says. On nights when no meetings are scheduled, Cox visits his folks or Payne back in Los Angeles. A night owl he isn’t. “I’ll never miss the bed check,” he says. “I think it’s a $150 fine.”

Cox rooms with Gaston Green, the former UCLA running back also chosen in the first round; Purdue linebacker Fred Strickland; UCLA wide receiver Willie (Flipper) Anderson and Oregon defensive back Anthony Newman. Oddly enough, it is Cox who has become the entertainer of the group. Behind closed doors, he turns out to be a comedian. “He’s always cracking jokes, he’s always happy,” Anderson says. “He’s a funny guy.”

At the annual Rookie Show, where the rookies entertain / lampoon the veterans and coaches, Cox, Green, Anderson and Keith Jones perform a couple of rap songs. Cox plays keyboards, Green dances, the others take turns rapping. The veterans love it, especially the rap about big-time college stars getting humbled in the pros. As passages go, this is a night to remember. It is the night the veterans begin accepting the rookies as teammates.

But Cox’s favorite shtick is his Eddie Murphy imitation. Remember the scene in the movie “Trading Places” where Murphy is thrown in jail and confronted by two thugs? Cox knows it by heart:

“I am a chain-belt kung fu. Bruce Lee was my teacher. Watch this: (Cox starts moving his hands in some sort of Far East martial-arts motion, his face contorting) Woooop . . . aaaaap . . . a-gaaa, woooop, woooop . A-gaaaa. Arrrrrggh. A-gaaaaa. Woooop. Taaa-daaaaaaa. (Cox finally rests his hands, his face calm.)

“That’s called The Quart-of-Blood Technique. You do that, and a quart of blood will drop out of a person’s body.”

Anyway, it goes over big at the dorm. It helps to be accepted, to be liked.

His single dorm room holds much of the Rams’ future. Cox and Anderson are projected as starters or key reserves. Green is the heir obvious to the Ram running game. Strickland and Newman are considered starting material within a season or two. For all of them, their professional debut, the Hall of Fame Game, is an important test.

THE ICEBREAKER

JULY 30: YOU DON’T KNOW NERVOUS until a television crew is recording your every move, until 23,801 fans, including the NFL commissioner, are in the stands, until ABC starts pointing its cameras your way, until you wonder whether breakfast is going to stay put.

On this Saturday afternoon, Cox is in the end zone in tiny Fawcett Stadium in Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is about to be introduced to a national television audience at the first NFL exhibition game of the 1988 season--the Rams vs. the Cincinnati Bengals in the Hall of Fame Game.

Suddenly, a public-relations person taps Cox on the shoulder and tells him that he’ll be the first player whose name will be announced.

“Me?” Cox says, unnerved by the news. “What do I do? Where do I go?”

“Just run out to the middle of the field and wait,” the man says.

What a week it’s been. Members of an L.A. TV crew have been following Cox, trying to capture his mood as his first game as a professional approaches. Mostly, they capture edginess. He wants the game to begin yesterday.

The Rams arrived in Canton the night before. Today, they dress in the high school stadium’s makeshift locker room. “You can’t describe what I was going through,” Cox says later. A thousand butterflies flutter in his stomach. What if he forgets the play? What if quarterback Jim Everett sticks his head in the huddle and says something like, “Double wing right split, 68 C.I., on one, ready . . . break!” and Cox is left standing there, dumbfounded, terrified, thinking: “My God, when did we cover that one in the meeting?”

Cox has memorized the plays, but they don’t come naturally. He still thinks too much. There’s the formation to remember, the play itself, the snap count, the possibility of an audible. So much to know, so little time to absorb it.

David Fulcher, a buddy from Arizona State who plays defensive back for the Bengals, visits with Cox on the field before the game. “Let me tell you how many interceptions I’m going to get,” Fulcher begins, laughing. He cracks jokes, dispenses NFL wisdom and does what he can to calm Cox.

Two passes are thrown Cox’s way during the game, but he can’t catch either one. The first one, he has no chance for. The second falls through his arms, settles on his hip and then bounces to the ground.

“I wanted to catch it,” he says. “I gave it my best shot. But my legs were so dead.”

As expected, Cox made mental errors. Several times, as he changed formations or went into motion moments before the snap, his mind went blank. “I’d forget the play,” he says. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, man.’ Then Henry (Ellard, veteran Ram receiver) would say, ‘I’ve done that too.’ That made me feel better. I thought I was the only one.”

The first game is finished--Bengals 14, Rams, 7. The worst is over. In the end, Cox says, “It was a blast.”

GOOD REVIEWS, BUT NO TDS

JULY 31-AUG. 14: COX PLAYS IN TWO MORE exhibition games, a 40-31 loss to the Denver Broncos on Aug. 3 and a 27-6 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Aug. 13. All Cox has to show for them are three receptions and no touchdowns. At least he’s starting, he figures. And he got his old jersey number back: No. 84.

Payne watched both games. He saw Flipper Anderson catch two long scoring passes against the Chargers and he mumbled, “Dangit, that should have been Aaron.” Later, Payne went to bed, only to hear a gentle tapping on his window at about 1 in the morning. It’s Cox. “Let’s go out and tell some lies, man,” Cox says.

They stay up until 2:30.

“Man, you’re not upset about not catching any touchdowns?” Payne says.

“Nah, I’ll get mine,” Cox says.

Even without touchdowns, Cox is earning compliments. Robinson singles him out for his maturity, his ability to catch passes over the middle, his knack for blending into the team. Turner marvels at his attitude. Nothing, it seems, affects the way he plays.

Cox is no longer pure rookie. By now, everyone--the coaches, players, Cox, though he won’t admit it--knows that he’s easily made the team. He isn’t as fast as Anderson or as polished as Ellard, but he is getting there. It’s an exhausting process, mentally and physically demanding.

“You come into training camp and you’re fresh,” says Ram receiver Michael Young, a four-year veteran. “Then you go through the middle period of camp, and you just don’t know if you’ll get through. Your legs are fatigued, you’re tired, you’re thinking about your routes and what they’ll look like on film. Then the practices start getting shorter, less demanding. Your legs start coming back, there’s less meeting time, and you’re able to get back in there.

“I don’t think rookies realize that they’re going through that period. You have to learn that there are times when your body isn’t going to do what your mind is telling it.”

And add to this the occasional mindless prank.

One night, Cox and Anderson open their dorm-room door and hear a tiny chirp. And then another. And another. Anderson makes his way to a light switch. As he does, he feels something crunch under his foot. “Oh, man,” Anderson says as he turns on the lights.

Crickets. Everywhere. In the bedrooms. In Cox’s clothes. On the furniture. It could only be the work of the Midnight Madness Crew, rumored to be led by veteran linebackers Carl Ekern and Mel Owens.

Cox begins swatting them out of his pants, the excited chirping of who-knows-how-many crickets growing louder each minute. Anderson plugs in the vacuum cleaner and begins vacuuming them to death. The next day, exterminators are called in, accusations issued and denied.

“Maybe it was an act of God,” Ekern says. “Maybe it was pestilence in biblical proportions. But to blame me? I’ve been blamed by circumstantial evidence, hearsay and innuendo. In America, I’m innocent until proven guilty.”

Cox laughed the whole time. “I’m a rookie,” he says. “I expected it.”

TOUCHDOWN, COX

AUG. 20: WITH 9:53 REMAINING IN THE first quarter of tonight’s game against the Houston Oilers, Cox catches his first NFL touchdown (if you count the exhibition season). Or so the referees say at first. But then someone notices that maybe Cox stepped out of bounds as he made the 9-yard scoring catch. If that’s the case, no touchdown.

Cox doesn’t exactly know what to do. He grabs the ball and jogs happily back to the sidelines. Coaches and players congratulate him. Then comes the wait, as officials review the videotape. Cox takes a seat on the Ram bench and waits too. A minute or so later comes the decision: Count it.

Cox has a 100-watt smile on his face. A touchdown, at last. Equipment manager Don Hewitt takes the precious football to have it painted and detailed for Cox, who is trying, at the moment, to act as if he does this sort of thing all the time. It isn’t working. For one of the few times since training camp began, there is an actual look of relief on Cox’s face. It might even be joy.

“Hey, (the catch) looked good to me from my angle,” he says afterward, laughing.

But what about the instant replay?

Cox quits laughing. “I was worried. I’m always worried.”

THE SURVIVORS

AUG. 29: FINAL ROSTER CUTS are announced. Fullback Donald Evans, the Rams’ first draft choice only a year ago, is waived. So are quarterbacks Hugh Millen and 10-year veteran Steve Dils. There are others--veterans, free agents, rookie draft picks. Of the 333 players selected in the NFL draft, 91 are cut by opening day. Of the 14 players selected by the Rams, four are cut. Among the draftees, Cox is the only starter. It turns out he was a lock.

“He had an air about him; he wasn’t afraid,” says Michael Young. “There was a point where he could have said, ‘I’ll catch you guys next year, when I’m ready.’ But he didn’t.”

“You look at him,” Robinson says, “and you don’t see a rookie. You see a player.”

You also see a man trying to make sense of everything he’s gone through. All he’s done, after all, is earn some serious money, survive a summer’s worth of anxiety and pounding and make good on a dream. That’s a career for some people.

Three nights ago, after the Rams had disposed of the Chargers in the final preseason game, Cox stood near his locker and attempted to put the weeks into perspective.

“That was a long one,” he said wearily. “A long camp, a long preseason.”

As for lessons, Cox decided that you had to be “mentally prepared” each day for this league, that it has a way of draining you without you knowing it. “I’m just gonna go home and fall in bed,” he said.

Then his eyes brightened and a small smile appeared. He glanced around the locker room. Robinson, still jovial, still balding, was making his way out the door. Nearby were new buddies Green and Anderson. An equipment man whisked away Cox’s bag, the one with the once-shiny helmet.

“You know, I wouldn’t trade (training camp) for anything in the world,” he said. “I learned a lot.”

THE REAL DEAL

SEPT. 4: THIS IS THE DAY Cox has waited for, dreamed of. Payne used to tell him that Cox would play for free if he had to. Cox would laugh, but today, as he boards the team bus for his NFL regular-season debut, he knows Payne was right.

As for that $100,000 check, almost all of it is sitting in the bank. Cox has bought a few clothes, is eyeing an entertainment system, but that’s about it. No Porsche. No villa overlooking the Pacific. If he splurges, it will be on his mom. Cox wants to buy her a house that doesn’t need wrought-iron bars over the windows.

“I’m thinking that I’m still the same person I was before this all happened,” Cox says. “I guess it hasn’t dawned on me yet. Everything’s moving so fast. It seems like just yesterday I was playing Pop Warner football.”

Cox starts against the Packers at Green Bay’s legendary Lambeau Field, where Vince Lombardi once ruled. In the third quarter, on a first-and-10 play from the Ram 30, Everett drops back, throws and then watches quietly as the ball settles into the outstretched hands of Aaron Dion Cox, question mark no more.


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