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Arthur Cox Plays the . . . Good Guy? : Chargers: Once an interviewer’s nightmare, the tight end now saves his meanness for the football field.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It has been more than three years since you have heard a civil word from Charger tight end Arthur Cox, so never, never as long as you have known Arthur Cox, have you heard more than an unintelligible grunt or an obscenity.

It’s gotten so that anyone who approaches the menacing Arthur Cox with a notebook, is either, a) new to town, b) the kind of person who spends time looking for one-on-one interviews with Elvis, or c) someone trying to find out if they have what it takes to be one of the American Gladiators.

“The first year I was with Arthur in Atlanta, Arthur didn’t talk to me,” said Coach Dan Henning, “and I was the head coach.”

Unlike the media, Henning has hung tough with Arthur Cox. Henning liked him as a frisky free agent out of Texas Southern, and when everyone began taking critical pokes at Cox, Henning stood by him. Henning begins his seventh year in the league as a head coach, and Cox begins his seventh year with Henning.

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“You have to know Arthur; you have to know what is important to Arthur,” Henning said. “I told him at the end of last season to report back at under 275 pounds or he was finished. I’ve told Arthur to do things in the past and he hasn’t always come through, but this was different.

“He wants to build a house for his mother, and his mother is the most important person in his life. I know he wants to repay her for everything she has done for him, and he couldn’t do that if he was out of work.”

Arthur Cox has a mother.

You criticize Arthur Cox on almost a daily basis for being too fat, too ornery and too obnoxious, and isn’t that all he allows anyone to consider? Arthur Cox plays the role of bad guy to the media, and lets you go no deeper until one day you ask him about Minnie Lee Cox.

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And Elvis speaks.

“She’s a mom and a dad,” he said, and you should have seen the look on his face. “She can have anything I got.

“In the last two years I’ve gotten to know her better than I ever knew her before. I had been scared of her for years and years. I had never told her I loved her. She knew I loved her, but I had never said it to her until two years ago. I never told her that I loved coming home.”

Cox’s father died while he was a youngster, and Minnie Lee Cox raised nine sons and a daughter in the toughest part of in Plant City, Fla. In a year or so, she will have a new home near Tampa.

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“I respect her and love her to death,” Cox said. “I spent a week getting ready to talk to her, and I had to eat my Wheaties one day and just do it. I’m telling you, I was crying, I was hugging her. I feared her, but loved her. It was very important for me to let her know that. We talk all the time now.”

The white flag has been hoisted, the interview goes on, and Arthur Cox suddenly is nothing like the Arthur Cox you have known.

But you know all about Arthur Cox. The game with Seattle last season. He spits on a Seahawk, the Chargers get a 15-yard penalty and lose an chance to score a touchdown. In the fourth quarter, he catches a pass and fumbles. The game goes into overtime, he catches a pass and fumbles again. Chargers lose.

“Nobody messes with Arthur on the football field,” Henning said. “Sometimes Arthur’s dirty. But Joe Cain, the guy from Seattle, has been a thorn in our side for two years. A real dirty player. He spit on Arthur and Arthur’s not going to take that. And the team knows that.

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“He’s going to be the enforcer. There are better ways to do it than getting 15-yard penalties, but if anybody causes trouble, Arthur is gonna take care of it and that’s why the players on the team like him.”

Like him . How can anybody like Arthur Cox? Shoot, you remember Jim McMahon, Elvis Patterson and Steve Ortmayer; is there a motion on the floor to nominate Arthur Cox as president of that club?

“Art’s a great guy,” said quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver.

Tolliver off-target again?

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“I room with him,” running back Rod Bernstine said. “He’s a personable guy; a real leader on the field.”

The Arthur Cox that you have known, however, has been blubbery, out of shape and a lumbering clod on the football field.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Cox weighs 265 pounds, sets the tempo in practice, and to hear his teammates and coaches tell it, he is one of the game’s best blockers.

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“He’s serious,” tight ends coach Ed White said. “To me, he’s a throwback to the guys I started playing with in the late ‘60s. He loves football and the guys around him feel it.”

Henning said, “This is a pretty good football player.”

He has never missed a game since joining San Diego, and it’s no coincidence that upon his arrival three years ago, the Chargers discovered a running game.

“Arthur Cox is tougher than a wood hauler’s ass,” Tolliver said. “He doesn’t get enough credit in this league for his run-blocking ability, and he plays a physical brand of football. A lot of guys in this league don’t like being hammered all afternoon, and because of that, Arthur’s been kicked and spat upon.”

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You don’t want to make Arthur Cox upset on the football field.

“I feel sorry for those people,” H-back Steve Hendrickson said. “He just pummels them. He’ll watch film, he’ll see someone who did him wrong five years ago, and you’ll know that poor guy is in for one of the longest days of his life.”

Last season Cox suffered a back injury in training camp and he ballooned to 285 pounds. The injury kept him off the practice field and put him first in line in the cafeteria. He never missed a meal. Or a dessert.

After the season, he was told to lose weight or find a new job. He stopped eating, loaded up on the fruit drinks and refused to turn the air conditioner on.

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“I sweated a lot,” he said. “I sat there in front of the TV working out and sweated. When it comes down to having a job and making money and not having a job, it was easy losing the weight.”

Cox dropped below 255 by the time the Chargers sent someone to Atlanta to check on him. They were both startled and pleased by his dedication to improve. They asked him to put a few pounds back on.

“You see this sweat suit,” Cox said. “I bought this three years ago. I tried on the pants and they stuck to me like glue. I never wore it, but figured I would one day.

“When I traveled from Atlanta to San Diego, I took off the tags and this is what I wore. Pretty good, huh? I feel good. I got a new attitude, so are we (media) going to change or what?”

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The request to interview Arthur Cox for the first time in more than three years has been made without the expectation for success.

“Arthur will talk,” said Bill Johnston, the team’s director of public relations.

And the world will end one day.

“I’m turning over a new leaf,” Cox said, and from the very first word, every word was civil.

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“I want to do the things that it takes for this organization to win ball games,” he said. “I’m being positive all the way--no more negativity. Negativity gets you nowhere in this world.”

But the past. The evil stares. The mocking laughter. The anger. The Steve Carlton routine.

“It has been like that in the past,” he said. “I wish it wasn’t like that, but that’s behind me.

“I’m at the crossroads. I had a long talk with myself and if I’m not playing tight end, someone else is going to be playing tight end. I like this game and I don’t want anything to come between me and football. When you have lumps, you got to smooth them out. I’m not a bad guy.”

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The daily dispatches in newsprint, however, painted a different reputation.

“There were a lot of cheap shots,” Bernstine said. “I can see the friction; I can see why Arthur was the way he was. And why the media was the way it was.”

The gap between media and Cox took on Grand Canyon proportions with the passing of time. No one knows precisely where it began, but so it continued.

“I just tried to stay out of the way of the media and do my job,” Cox said. “How can you not take it personally when someone writes something bad about you? This work is your livelihood, and you’re interfering.

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“It was ‘Do unto others,’ you know, you bash me, I bash you. But it’s not worth it. That’s the change. Life is too short.”

Cox’s football career, however, already has lasted longer than anyone predicted. The Chargers selected Michigan State tight end Duane Young in the fifth round of the draft this year to be the next Arthur Cox, but Duane Young better fasten his chin strap if he’s gonna make a move on Arthur Cox.

“I’ve survived in this game because I got a mean streak in me,” he said. “I got what it takes not to be pushed around. When it comes down to being nasty on the football field, I got it.”

You knew that about Arthur Cox, but is that skinny, cooperative guy wearing No. 88 really Arthur Cox?

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“It’s the weight,” Cox said. “I’m different; I’m proud of myself. I’m happy. There’s nothing you can do right now that can upset me.”

You don’t say.


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