Given second chance, Grand Valley's Cox gets career back

Tony Paul, The Detroit News

It was Halloween 2012, and Aaron Cox wanted to get in a fun workout — and relive what he called his “glory days” as a high school basketball standout.

So, with some buddies in tow, he headed to the Grand Valley State rec center.

“I was feeling pretty good,” Cox said.

At least the first couple games. Then came the last game.

“I got the ball, dribbled up the court, did a jump stop and hit a sticky spot on the court,” Cox said. “My knee got caught, and basically my body, with the momentum, went forward and my knee went backward.

“I didn’t really know what just happened. I knew I went down. I heard three clicks or three pops.”

Within a week, after MRIs, more tests and second opinions, Cox learned he had a torn ACL in his left knee and serious meniscus damage.

His season as a lineman on the football team was over.

Worse, he had to face coach Matt Mitchell — a terrifying scenario for a redshirt freshman from Utica Ford who didn’t know if his career was over or if the injury might’ve spelled the end of his time with the perennial Division II powerhouse.

Four years and a lot of work, setbacks and frustrations later, Cox is the starting center for a Grand Valley State team that’s 11-0, ranked No. 1 in the region and No. 2 nationally heading into its playoff opener against Texas A&M-Commerce (11-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Lubbers Stadium.

Grand Valley State earned a first-round bye, while Commerce beat Colorado Mesa, 34-23.

“This season’s been a special one just because it’s kind of a reflection, personally, for me of coming back from nothing to an important role on the team,” said Cox, an anchor on the line that’s been a significant factor behind the program’s eighth undefeated regular season.

“It’s been fun. There’s no other words I can say.”

Getting back

First, Cox had to face the music, meaning Mitchell and offensive coordinator Tim Morrison.

“I was terrified,” Cox said. “I just remember sitting in the team room. He told me he wanted to meet me at 1:30. I think I was there at 12:30, just sitting there playing out the situations in my head. What’s going to happen? Am I gonna get cut?

“All the worst possible situations I could think of.

“I remember walking into the meeting room and sitting down. I was cold. I felt cold. It didn’t really feel like a welcoming environment.”

That’s because it wasn’t. Mitchell wasn’t happy.

“I was upset,” he said. “You can’t put kids in a bubble, but playing pickup basketball and tearing your ACL? I was upset, and I think everybody was frustrated.

“I told him, ‘That was dumb.’ That was a bad decision.”

But Cox’s fears of his career — at least at Grand Valley State — being over never were realistic.

“No, we don’t take it to that point,” Mitchell said. “Kids make mistakes. I’ve got 119 18- to 22-year-old guys that make mistakes. It wasn’t like he was malicious or out to get the team. He made a mistake.”

The injury, instead, just set Cox back — with a warning. The coaches were willing to give him a second chance, but he was going to have to work hard to earn back their trust, as well as his standing on the depth chart.

Just because he was a standout at Ford — as a senior defensive lineman, he was honorable mention all-state and made The News’ All-Metro East team — didn’t mean anything.

Cox had surgery that December and got ahead of schedule on his rehab. He figured he’d worked his way into a possible rotation spot. Then spring practice rolled around.

“I wasn’t part of the rotation., I wasn’t part of anything,” Cox said. “Coaches basically, they didn’t ignore me, but it was the silent treatment, sort of.”

In 2013, Cox essentially was used sparingly, on special teams.

During his exit interview at the end of that season, Cox told Morrison he believed he’d be a starter the following season.

Morrison said he wasn’t as convinced.

“He told me he didn’t think I’m one of the top five guys; he had me slotted at No. 8 or No. 7,” Cox said. “They didn’t trust me. They didn’t think I learned my lesson.”

He didn’t help matters when he showed up to spring camp in 2014 out of shape. He had put on 30 pounds to reach 335.

“I couldn’t run like a 15-yard sprint without needing to sit down for two minutes,” Cox said. “It was bad.”

In 2014, Grand Valley State started 0-3. Cox mostly watched.

But after some injuries to other Lakers Cox finally played, starting the final seven games as the team finished 6-5.

But it was a valuable stretch for Cox, who had a glimmer of hope his career could be salvaged.

He arrived at 2015 spring practice in the best shape of his life — 310 pounds — and continued with a great fall camp.

“Coach Mitchell said I was running around like my hair was on fire,” Cox said, laughing.

Cox has started all 26 games at center the last two seasons, including last year’s run to the Division II semifinals.

This year, he earned first-team, all-Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference honors, and Grand Valley State is looking for its fifth national title, first since 2006.

Making impression

Getting to this point hasn’t been easy. There were all the initial doubts about his future, followed by rehab, followed by the testing of his patience.

Then there were the coaches, whom he felt basically ignored him for years.

Mitchell doesn’t see it that way.

“The fact of the matter is, we’re game-planning, dealing with the guys we’re working with and trying to win games,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think it was an intentional cold shoulder. It’s just the nature of the situation.

“With an athlete in your program that hasn’t really played at all, or proven himself, and is injured and not practicing, it’s really difficult for you to have a great relationship.”

But whether Cox knew it, Mitchell was impressed with the Macomb native’s work ethic.

And with his leadership. Cox has been a mentor to younger players, and talked about what’s expected an athlete at Grand Valley State.

“I was a dumb kid who made a poor decision,” said Cox, now 24. “I’ve been made an example of for that, quite a bit.”

Around him on the line are a freshman, two sophomores and a junior.

So, Cox has taken it upon himself to be the guy — even organizing weekly Wednesday dinners for the line.

After dinner, they head to the football facilities to watch film.

“It made me realize how important football is to me and how important it is to my life,” Cox said of the long process that led to this point. “All I can say is I’m so thankful Coach Mitchell was willing to give me a second chance.”

Division II playoffs

Texas A&M Commerce at Grand Valley State

Kickoff: 1 p.m. Saturday, Lubbers Stadium, Allendale, Mich.

Records: Texas A&M Commerce 11-1, Grand Valley State 11-1

Colorado School of Mines at Ferris State

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Top Taggart Field, Big Rapids, Mich.

Records: Colorado Mines 10-2, Ferris State 10-2