ERIN, Tenn. — Jefferey Cox considers himself a normal teenager.
Being confined to a wheelchair after being paralyzed while making a tackle last fall during a preseason high school football scrimmage hasn’t changed his outlook on his life or his future.
Cox fractured his C1 and C2 vertebrae, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. Doctors aren’t sure if the paralysis is permanent.
X-rays show bruising around the spot where the C1 and C2 vertebrae went out of place, then back in when the injury occurred.
Because it is a bruise and the spinal cord is not severed there is hope he could get at least some feeling back. However, doctors have told Cox and his family it could be up to two years before they know the severity of the injury from the bruising.
Cox’s mom, Alicia Parker, said her son has shown some improvement. He has some muscle reaction in the back of his neck when he shrugs.
Cox now has head control and can keep his head up on his own, something he couldn’t initially do.
Also, he sweats below his injury, something doctors have told the family he shouldn’t be able to do because of the paralysis.
For his inspiration and courage, Cox was honored at the fourth annual Tennessean Sports Awards presented by Farm Bureau Health Plans on Friday at Music City Center with the 2019 Kaia Jergenson Courage Award.
“Just because I’m in a chair doesn’t make me different from anyone else,” said Cox, a recent Houston County (Erin, Tennessee) graduate. “Yes, I’m paralyzed. I’m a little different.
“But I’m a normal kid. I love sports.”
That includes being an avid fan of the Green Bay Packers, Tennessee Vols and Nashville Predators.
He goofs off with his friends and remains close with girlfriend Landry Clardy
“You can see his positive attitude,” Houston County coach Orman Meadow said. “If it wasn’t for that chair, you wouldn’t know there is anything different about him.
“He hasn’t changed a bit. He’s still a great kid.”
Cox has a goal of walking again. But he knows that may not happen.
“If I’m not able to walk, I want to at least be able to move my arms and hands,” he said. “People have to feed me now. I feel like I’m being treated like a baby.
“If I could feed myself it would be a huge uplift.”
‘Jefferey was dying’
Cox never played high school football prior to last fall.
He sustained a severe concussion his eighth-grade year playing football and his mom didn’t allow him to play again before finally relenting.
The play during an Aug. 3 scrimmage in Cedar Hill wasn’t anything difficult. Jo Byrns ran the football off tackle just as coach Tom Adkins had instructed his offense to run a play prior. Houston County’s outside linebacker didn’t squeeze in to the line enough and the running back bounced to the outside — just as had happened a play earlier.
Cox was the next line of defense at cornerback. He went in to make the tackle as he had a play earlier.
“His head was slightly down when he went in to make the tackle, using a little bit of bad form,” Houston County assistant coach Zac Bisto said. “He just slumped over to the side. He was laying down on the ground.”
Cox remembers little about the play.
“I remember hitting the kid,” he said. “I remember hitting the ground. I thought it was like eighth-grade year all over again where I got knocked out.
“But instead I couldn’t move my arms.”
Cox couldn’t speak, but mouthed to Bisto, “Coach, I can’t breathe.”
What coaches thought was simply an athlete getting the wind knocked out of him turned into a coach’s nightmare.
“Jefferey was dying,” Bistro said.
Cox knew something was wrong.
“He looked up at me and mouthed, ‘Coach, I’m scared,'” Bisto said. “I was supporting his head and I looked over at Orman and we were both in shock.”
The two began to pray on the field for Cox as Jo Byrns athletic trainer Alex West worked on him while someone else called for an ambulance.
“I blamed myself a lot,” Parker said. “His eighth-grade year he took a tackle and he got hurt. I didn’t let him play his freshman, sophomore or his junior year. We argued about it. And we even argued his senior year, and I finally said OK.
“And we were at a scrimmage. If I had just said no, would we be where we are?”
Cox refused to let his mom take the blame. He told her he could have been injured anywhere. And what if the injury happened to a younger teammate? They may not have survived, he told her.
Parker credits West for saving her son’s life. West had been a certified athletic trainer for five months prior to graduating from Cumberland University. He thinks about that day often.
“It’s one of those things where that’s an athletic trainer’s No. 1 fear,” West said. “The training kicked in and took over that day.
“I didn’t have time to second-guess myself.”
Cox spent over a month at Vanderbilt University Medical Center before being sent to Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, which specializes in rehabilitation from brain and spinal cord injuries. He returned home in January.
West has grown close to Cox and his family since the injury. He went to Erin when Cox came home from Shepherd Center. And he recently attended Cox’s high school graduation.
“He’s a family friend now,” West said.
Cox plans to attend Austin Peay in the fall. He will begin school with 23 credit hours he’s acquired from classes he’s taken at Nashville State during his junior year after school and through dual enrollment courses at Houston County.
Cox has always wanted to be a lawyer because he wants to help others.
At Austin Peay, he’ll have his own team assisting him, including nurse Alonda Mills and someone to help take class notes. Mills is one of two nurses who take turns being with Cox since he returned to home from Shepherd Center and returned to school.
One is with him during the day, the other at night. The night nurse stays awake in his room while he sleeps to make sure his breathing tube doesn’t dislodge.
Mills and Braden Crowell attended class with Cox at Houston County after he returned home to complete his senior year. Crowell took notes in class for Cox while assisting Mills if needed.
Bisto said he knows Cox has a bright future.
“Jefferey is not defined by this injury,” Bisto said. “It doesn’t define him as a human being. He is defined by his great qualities as a Christian young man, who is a fighter, has a great attitude.
“Jefferey is going to define himself when he’s in a courtroom in six to seven years as a lawyer and people say, ‘Wow, he overcame all of this.’ That’s Jefferey Cox if he’s in that chair or, God willing, he can stand up and walk.”