By Jim Gehman, Player Engagement Insider
Apollo 11’s trio of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin made history by being the first astronauts to land and walk on the moon.
Clearly more down-to-earth, the Baltimore Ravens’ special teams trio of kicker Justin Tucker, punter Sam Koch and Morgan Cox, the long snapper, has enjoyed some gridiron success of their own.
Cox, an undrafted free agent, signed with the Ravens out of Tennessee in 2010. After his rookie season came to an early end when he tore the ACL in his left knee, Cox was chosen to receive the Ed Block Courage Award. Voted on by teammates, it honors players who exemplify commitment to the principles of sportsmanship and courage.
“Because that’s a fellow player elected award, I was truly honored and humbled,” Cox said. “It was tough going through surgery and the rehab, so to be rewarded like that was pretty incredible.”
Especially being a rookie.
“Definitely. Not only a rookie, but a long snapper,” Cox said. “I mean, most people don’t even know what exactly I do. So, to be recognized with a major award like that, that was truly an honor for me.”
Cox raises a good point. What exactly does he do? There’s clearly more to it than just waiting to hear Koch, as the punter or the holder for Tucker’s kicks, yell “hike!” What’s it like for a long snapper has he positions himself over the ball at the line of scrimmage?
“They talk about routine and when you go through your training, you don’t really hear anything,” Cox said. “If you’ve seen a baseball movie with Kevin Costner and he talks about clearing the mechanism, everything goes really quiet, and it honestly does feel like that. You’re focused on the routine you’ve created through a lot of hard work, a lot of practice, and you just kind of go into that muscle memory again.
“Punts are very similar except for the fact that I’ve got more responsibility than just delivering the ball with laces out on field goals. On punts, you’ve got to know who you’re blocking, know who everybody else is blocking so you’re not doubling up on one guy and letting a guy go free. In addition to delivering the ball on time and on the money.
“So, yeah, there’s a lot more to it. But essentially, it’s the same thing. You’ve just got so much to think about. You can’t really focus on anything that’s going on outside you.”
Teammates since 2012, Cox, Tucker and Koch helped the Ravens make the playoffs that season as a wild card team and go on to win Super Bowl XLVII. Since then, they have continued to prove to be one of the most reliable special teams units in the league.
“We have a great chemistry around here,” Cox said. “We like to give each other a hard time, we like to have fun and count on each other. I think chemistry and accountability would be two key words. We know that we’re putting in the work each week. We have a great routine and great coaches that put us in the right position to be successful.”
Before becoming Baltimore’s head coach in 2008, Harbaugh was Philadelphia’s special teams coordinator for nine seasons (1998-2006) and the defensive backs coach for one year (2007). Does that special teams history give him confidence to rely on Cox, Tucker and Koch to have greater roles with the Ravens?
“I would definitely think so,” said Cox, who was selected to play in the 2015 Pro Bowl. “Tucker’s done so well with 50-yard field goals this year. We have been able to convert on those 50-yard field goals and not a whole lot of other teams are attempting that many field goals. I think that goes to the trust that Coach Harbaugh has in us.
“He sees the hard work because those aren’t give-me’s. A lot of times we set a standard of excellence around here that a lot of people think that they’re supposed to happen every time. It’s really not. You put yourself in a tough position if you miss that kick. And so, I think it shows a lot of trust and a lot of guts, I would say, to make that call, to send a guy out there for a 57, 58-yard field goal.”
Now in his seventh season, Cox, played in his 100th career game on December 18th against Philadelphia. Having already doubled the average length of a player’s NFL career, what’s the key to his longevity?
“I’ve got a great support system around me,” Cox said. “In all honesty, it definitely is not me. Having an organization that has faith in you, first off, that has gone through the tough times with you, and coaches that have coached me and pushed me to be better, to be better than I think I can be. And then moving to Sam, who expects excellence from me every time and doesn’t let me let up for a second in many aspects. He’s a great mentor for me.
“And then, of course, my family. My mom, I’m not even sure she’s ever watched a snap that I’ve been on the field for. She’s always praying for me to be safe and to do my job right. My dad’s always a part of it too. And I come home to a great wife (Lauren) that supports me every day and has been with me through the tough times.
“It’s tough to pick one thing [that makes me most proud of my career so far]. I’ve won a Super Bowl, torn my ACL (in 2010), tore my other ACL (in 2014), went to the Pro Bowl last year, I’ve got a kicker that’s done a phenomenal job, set records and is just a fun guy to be around. I’ve gotten to play with Hall of Famers and guys I’ve learned a lot from just in life in general. So, it’s tough to pick one thing. The easy answer would be the Super Bowl, but for me it’d be an all-encompassing thing.”
Off the field, Cox, who will become a first-time father in March, does all he can for his teammates as their NFL Player Association representative. He also does all he can for the Baltimore community as a relentless volunteer for charitable causes.
“It’s an honor to be a part of that side of the NFL, to be a representative of the team,” Cox said. “I’m a team guy and I love to help guys out in the locker room. I’ve stacked a few years together now and I’ve been through a few injuries, so I kind of know the ins and outs of that process.
“(And giving back to others) was taught to me very young. I went to church with my parents every Sunday and they always emphasized a leadership position in my community. I know how I looked up to professional athletes, really like they were walking on water. So, if that’s even close to how some kid in the community views me, then I want to be approachable. I want to show them that dreams are possible if you work hard and do the right things and listen to the right people.
“But getting to suit up every Sunday is not even a close second to getting to be a dad. I’m looking forward to that.”