A former football player with a difficult past goes on to help troubled youths find their way

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Renard Cox remembers the boy’s odor. Kevin, as we’ll call him, was a 17-year-old social misfit. He didn’t shower, comb his hair or brush his teeth nearly often enough. No one, it seemed, had ever taught him about personal hygiene.

Kevin also was a hoarder. His small dormitory room at The National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda was cluttered with gum wrappers, scribbled notes and random junk. So Cox, the boy’s primary counselor at the time in NCCF’s Greentree Adolescent Program (GAP), cleaned Kevin’s room one day while he was out and threw away the trash.

Only it wasn’t trash to Kevin, the product of a neglectful home who had scraped for everything in his life. When he saw his room that evening, he cursed Cox. Then he ran out to the dumpster, retrieved all his items and defiantly poured them onto his bedroom floor. Cox was stunned.

“Anybody who ever did anything for him, he kept a piece of it,” Cox recalls. “If you bought him a drink at McDonald’s, he’d keep the cup.”

Cox, a former NFL player who still cuts an imposing figure at a muscular 6 feet, 190 pounds, learned a valuable lesson that night: You don’t always know what’s going on in a kid’s life when you go to help him.

Four years later, Kevin is in the Air Force and engaged to be married. And Cox is now NCCF’s director of childcare services for GAP. The program provides a supportive residential community for up to 20 boys ages 13 to 20 who don’t live at home because of abuse or neglect, other family conflicts or serious behavioral issues.

Residents come to GAP from all over Maryland through referrals by the state’s Department of Juvenile Services and Department of Human Resources. Some have been homeless. Others come from juvenile detention centers, foster homes, other residential facilities or group homes, or substance abuse treatment facilities. Many bring lengthy rap sheets.

“I have to expect the unexpected,” Cox says.

Cox and his staff of 16 counselors try to provide a stable environment while teaching the boys life skills, conflict resolution, anger management and acceptable social behavior—all with the goal of returning them to their homes or preparing them for independent living.

“Every time they succeed,” Cox says, “I succeed because I feel like I’ve done something right.”

The 34-year-old Cox once resembled the adolescents he now mentors. He grew up on the rough south side of Richmond with his mom, stepdad and two siblings. He never met his biological father.

Uninterested in school and prone to temperamental outbursts, he was expelled from Huguenot High School as a freshman, but returned after improving his grades and became a star football cornerback.

After graduating from the University of Maryland in 2000, Cox signed as a free agent with the Arizona Cardinals, beginning a seven-year, pro-football odyssey that took him to Scotland and Spain (NFL Europe), Canada (Canadian Football League) and three NFL teams. A recurring knee injury forced him to retire in 2007.

In a way, it was a blessing. Pro football, he now admits, was a narcissistic existence that left him wanting more from life.

The following year, an old Maryland teammate connected Cox with NCCF, where it’s not unusual now for him to put in taxing 12-hour days. “My day-to-day can be very stressful,” says Cox, who lives in Silver Spring and was married in November.

Grateful for the individuals who helped mentor him, like his brother and high school football coach, he wants to pay it forward. And this job provides far more satisfaction than the glamour of professional football ever did.

“I was a very selfish person,” says Cox, who hopes eventually to get his master’s degree in social work. “Now I’m doing service work to help people, and I actually feel better about myself. I like the person that I’ve become a whole lot better than before.”

Sheryl Brissett Chapman, executive director of NCCF, sees Cox’s personal transformation as an essential part of his ability to connect with the boys. “His journey of recreating himself is a model for the kids,” she says.

Last summer, Cox received a letter from one of his GAP residents that reinforced that idea. It said, “You’re the closest thing to a father figure I’ve ever had.”

Joshua Cooley lives in Germantown. His most recent book is Playing With Purpose: Inside the Lives and Faith of the MLB’s Top Players (Barbour Publishing, 2012).

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