Demetrius Cox, a 5-foot, 7-inch, 200-pound running back and former Tabor College athlete, signed with the Salina Bombers last December.
“I went out for the tryout, and the coach offered me a contract that same day,” Cox said. “I didn’t sign it until a day later.”
Cox said he was hesitant because of a previous experience with arena football.
“I went down to play with the (West Texas) Roughnecks,” he said. “That didn’t go as well as I expected it to, so I had a bad taste in my mouth about arena football.”
In spite of the circumstances, Cox’s passion for the sport won in the end.
“The passion and the love for the game was still there,” he said. “After trying out and seeing that I still had the drive to compete and I still could compete at a high level, I felt like I could play with the Bombers.”
The Bombers, currently 8-3 in the Champions Professional Indoor Football League, follow a spring season that begins in March and ends in late June or early July. They play every Saturday.
The team practices twice a week, and players range in age from early to late 20s, Cox said.
Multiple Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference schools are represented on the roster in addition to Division I schools such as Kansas and Kansas State.
“Our team is made up of a whole lot of different college levels,” Cox said. “Even though we play(ed) in the KCAC and they play(ed) in the NCAA, we all came to the Bombers for one goal, and that’s to make the Bombers a better team.”
This year’s final regular season game is scheduled for Saturday, June 8, against the Oklahoma Defenders (3-8).
The Bombers anticipate a playoff bid to follow the regular season.
“One of our goals set for the team was to make the playoffs, so we’re the first organization to make the playoffs their first year,” Cox said. “I think that was a big achievement.”
Cox praised those involved with the team, listing communication as key to the organization’s development.
“This organization is one of the best,” he said. “From the owners to the (general manager) to the players to the coaches, I mean we’re just one big, big family, and I think that’s what helped our success this year.”
With all its success on the field, the Bombers’ impact reaches beyond the arena.
“We go out and visit schools in Salina or nearby, and all I can say is that this community needed it to rebuild itself, to get a new image,” he said. “From what I hear, this team is just a whole success to the community.”
The early years
Prior to arena league, Cox’s involvement in football dates back to his childhood.
The Orlando, Fla., native recalled those early years and the passion that fueled the fire.
“I was a scared little 8-year-old out there running the ball,” he said. “But my passion came from two great runners: Walter Payton and Barry Sanders.”
Cox remembers watching Payton highlights.
“I was just amazed by his ability to run people over, to run around them and just his flat-out ability to run,” he said. “And then I can remember back in Florida on Sundays playing outside and then rushing inside to go see Barry Sanders play.
“He’s probably one of my true influences for playing the game of football.”
He also credited his father for laying the foundation by ensuring Cox could get to football practice even when his father wasn’t there. His father called the coach and asked him to pick up his son.
“It’s kind of stayed with me that I could do it, even though my father’s not there, but he gave me that drive to do it,” Cox said. “I would have to give him all the credit. Without him telling that coach to come get us, I don’t think I ever would have started the game.”
Cox continued playing football at Oak Ridge High School in Orlando, where his roles included receiver, quarterback, kick and punt returner, linebacker, cornerback and running back.
His team won more games than it lost his junior season and continued to improve the following year.
“My senior year was the first year our high school had been to the playoffs in 25 years,” Cox said. “So I had success at the high school level.”
Following high school, Cox signed to play football with Graceland University, an NAIA school in Lamoni, Iowa.
“I was ranked in Florida, top 100 coming out in 2003,” Cox said. “My test scores and grades and cockiness, I would say, kept me from going Division I, but I won’t hold that against myself because it led me on to better things.”
Cox red-shirted his freshman year, then suffered an ankle sprain the following year that kept him sidelined. The next year he accumulated more than 500 yards rushing.
Cox first heard of Tabor College when 12th-ranked Graceland met the sixth-ranked Bluejays in Wichita during a first-round NAIA playoff game in November 2005.
Tabor won the game, 17-14, securing its first post-season victory in school history.
Cox, meanwhile, considered transferring. He applied to about four NAIA schools, including Tabor. Something about the Bluejay head coach Mike Gardner caught his attention.
“I loved the way Gardner coached,” Cox said. “His team wasn’t big, they (weren’t) that fast, but they were sound.”
By the time Cox arrived at Tabor in 2007, Gardner had moved on to accept a coaching position at Malone University. Mike Gottsch was the Bluejays’ new head coach.
Despite the unexpected change, Cox stayed at Tabor, completing the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons as a running back, During that time the team went 3-17.
“I learned a lot about the game of football during those two years,” Cox said. “I learned that a player can only do so much without the foundation of that coach.
“I’m not saying Gottsch wasn’t a great coach, it’s just that I think we could’ve gotten a lot more out of players than what we got.”
In the end, things turned out OK for Cox.
“I wouldn’t put it down at all,” he said of his playing years. “I wouldn’t change it because it’s allowed me to develop into a better running back.”
The following year, Cox—who by this time was married and had a family of his own—chose to step off the field, but served the team as a student assistant running back coach.
“I just wanted to get my degree—the most important thing,” he said. “I got my wife and kids, and I just thought it was time for me to start changing my life and moving on from college.”
He graduated from Tabor in 2010 with a degree in health and physical education and a minor in coaching, yet retained his love for the game.
Following college, Cox explored his options for playing at the next level.
“What many people don’t know is that after I got done playing at Tabor, I actually had a couple tryouts with the (Canadian Football League), and my agent was in contact with a couple NFL teams,” he said.
In the end, Cox entered the world of arena football—first for one season in Texas, and now in Salina.
“It’s much different than outside—faster pace, up-tempo game,” he said of the sport. “I think it takes a bigger toll on your body than outdoors.”
In addition to the switch from 11-man to eight-man, Cox had to adjust to playing on a smaller field—50 yards long by 28 yards wide—enclosed by a 4-foot padded wall.
“You run into the wall a lot,” he said. “You’ll lose the battle against the wall, I’ll tell you that. The wall’s not moving. But that’s something you have to get used to.”
Perhaps the biggest adjustment came in the form Cox’s running style.
“I would say indoor ball is more of a patient running because you have to wait until (a hole) opens because the field is not that wide,” he said. “You have to be patient outside, but you have more room to wiggle.
“Indoors, you don’t have that room, so if you don’t hit it on the first try, most of the time you’re going to get tackled. And that’s the biggest change for me is just being a patient runner.”
In addition to the joy of the game itself, Cox said he enjoys the opportunity for his family to watch him play.
Cox is married to his high school sweetheart, Ciara, and has four children: Demetrius Jr., 12; Demarius, 10; D’myia, 8; and D’asia, 3.
“D’myia, Demarius and Demetrius all got to see me play football, and I want to give D’asia that chance, too,” he said. “Being able to do that has allowed me to fulfill one of my dreams—to have all my kids see me compete at a high level.”
Yet Cox admits his ball-playing days may be drawing to a close.
“My body’s taking a beating this year,” he said, His list of injuries included a dislocated AC joint in the shoulder, turf toe and a fractured bone in his wrist.
“I think with all of these injuries, I only missed one game so far,” he said. “I probably had my wrist fractured for about four weeks now. I’ve been playing through it.”
Cox’s wrist is currently in a cast, and it’s probable he would not play in last Saturday’s game, but he hopes to be back for the regular-season finale Saturday.
When Cox, who currently holds a summer position at Prairie View in addition to playing with the Bombers, does decide to leave the playing field, his children’s athletic endeavors will be plenty to keep him busy.
His oldest son is a running back on his football team in Florida, he said, adding that his 10-year-old son plays baseball and soccer, and his daughter D’myia participates in gymnastics.
“So even if I do decide to walk away (from playing football), I wouldn’t be bored,” he said. “My plate would still be full. I think it’s time for me to be more involved with their sports.
“I just want to be there for my kids—in one piece,” he said. “So in the near future, I’m going to have to realize that it’s my kids’ time to take it over, and I think I’m ready to pass that torch.”
In the meantime, Cox has the Bomber playoffs to anticipate.
In spite of his wrist injury, he said he intends to be back full force.
“I won’t miss the playoffs for nothing,” he said. “I mean, even if that’s putting my wrist at more harm, just the passion of the game and being able to play in a playoff game at every level is an achievement.
“I played in a playoff game in high school, college, and now I get to do it in the pros. I don’t think I could miss that. Not if I have something to do with it.”