The Road

I always knew what I wanted. I wanted the NFL dream. I wanted to go to a major Division I school, get drafted, go to an NFL training camp, make an NFL team and have a long career catching balls in the NFL. That was the dream.

But sometimes life isn’t about what you want. It’s about what somebody else needs.

It was 2010 and I had just arrived at The University of Florida for my first fall practices. I was about to take the first step on the road to the NFL. Everything was on track.

Three weeks in, I got a phone call.

My father was diabetic. One morning, he wasn’t feeling well, so he went to the hospital — just to be safe. He was admitted and he stayed overnight. When he woke up the next morning, he couldn’t see. Nothing. It was completely dark.

Blind? How could he be blind? People don’t just wake up blind. It doesn’t make any sense…

The doctors considered surgery, but there was nothing they could do. As a result of his diabetic condition, my father was suddenly and completely blind. An uncommon, but very real side effect.

My father wasn’t always a big part of my life. When I was young, he made some bad decisions and landed himself in jail, so he was out of the picture for a long time. When he got out of jail, my sisters and I didn’t let him back in right away. But deep down, we’d always wanted to have a dad in our lives and to have a relationship with him — especially me, being the only boy — and eventually we decided to give him another chance. And if we were going to let him back in, we were going to do it completely. We don’t do anything halfway.

That was about a year and a half before I got that phone call. In that time, I had grown close with my father. I could see he was really hurt by the whole process. I mean, he just woke up blind one day. No warning. No fade. Just closed his eyes to go to sleep, and when he opened them the next day — darkness. So when I heard that word — blind — I knew what I had to do.

After just three weeks, I left Florida — the school, the team and the NFL dream — to go home to Maryland and help take care of my father. I wouldn’t even say it was a tough decision. It was the only decision. When I let my father back into my life, I did it 100 percent. I wasn’t about to go back on that just because things were about to get hard.

I went home and enrolled at Maryland so I could continue my education and still be close to my dad. I had to sit out from playing football for a year anyway because of NCAA transfer rules, but I wasn’t focused on football anyway. I was focused on family. I was focused on helping my dad. And football — especially at that level — isn’t something you can do halfway.

But I wanted to keep all my doors open, too. So one of the first things I did when I decided to move back home was talk to Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen. I was familiar from being recruited by him the year before, and I explained to him why I left Florida and told him that when — not if — my dad started feeling better and got more comfortable with his situation, I’d like to be a Terrapin.

He immediately gave me a scholarship to come home and play for Maryland.

You know as well as I do, he didn’t have to do that. It was an amazing gesture that I’ll forever be grateful to Coach Friedgen for. But he didn’t stop there. During that first year when I had to sit out, he had no problem with me coming home during the week between classes and practice. I went back and forth between campus and home to make sure my dad was taking his meds and that he was comfortable. I was late for a lot of football meetings, but coach was OK with that. I was practicing as much as I could, but he wanted me to take care of my dad, first and foremost. He knew my father was the reason I came home, not football.

He really looked out for me — so I could look out for my father.

I knew my dad’s sight wasn’t going to come back. In helping my sisters care for him, we just wanted to make sure he was comfortable and he was learning to live with his blindness. When you lose your sight as suddenly as he did, there’s not time to prepare. You just have to live with it and learn as you go, so that’s what we did. And over time, he started to get more comfortable. He was upset when he first lost his sight. He was depressed. He was hurting. But he wasn’t alone, and we made sure he never would be.

At the end of the 2010 football season — the season I sat out — Coach Friedgen was fired, along with his entire staff. It caught everybody by surprise. The guy who let me take care of my father and still be a part of his team was gone. The coach I’d built a relationship with, gone. I was finally eligible to play in 2011, but instead of repaying Coach Friedgen on the field, I would play for the new head coach, Randy Edsall.

When you’re not an established player at a college program and there’s a coaching change, it can be a tough transition. You didn’t choose that school because of that coach, and you don’t know if you’ll be in his plans or not. If you stay, you just have to work hard, play, make the best of it and hope it works out.

For me and Coach Edsall, it didn’t.

It’s not that he’s a bad coach or a bad guy. He just wasn’t my coach. He wasn’t my guy. And in that 2011 season, I only caught four passes in nine games. I just never found my place in his offense. With my dad needing me in Maryland and the bleak outlook on the field, I felt that NFL dream slipping further away. I started to think, Maybe the NFL isn’t in my future.

It had been about a year and a half since I returned home, and my dad was starting to learn how to live a normal life with his blindness. Things were getting a little easier for him and us, so my sisters and I got him get an in-home nurse to help take care of him. He still needed me, but he was making progress and his spirits were high. He didn’t need me to be a caregiver anymore. He just needed me to be a son.

Which is really what I had been doing all along. That’s why I came back in the first place. He needed me. That’s what sons do.

He decided it was his turn to be a father, too.

He said to me one day, “Do you want to play football? I mean, play football and focus on football as much as you did before I went blind?” It seemed like a silly question. I didn’t know how to answer it.

I’m like, “Yes, I do, but I don’t want to leave you.”

We talked about the coaching situation at Maryland and what my options were if I really wanted to continue my football career.

“It’s time for you to take a chance and go play football,” he said. “Do whatever you have to do and go wherever you have to go. I’ll be fine.”

It wasn’t going to work out for me at Maryland. I knew that. If I was going to continue playing football, I needed a change of scenery. But I also realized I wasn’t exactly on the fast track to the NFL, so when choosing where to transfer, education was my first priority. I didn’t know how things would work out on the field, and if my football career ended earlier than I wanted it to, I wanted to have something to fall back on.

That’s what made Stony Brook such a good fit. It wasn’t so much the on-field opportunity. Yes, I would get a chance to play, but I’d be a wide receiver in a run-first offense. I wasn’t going to be the focal point. I wasn’t going to be the star.

In the back of my mind, the goal was still to make it to the NFL, however unlikely it may have seemed. No player from Stony Brook had ever gone on to play in the NFL, so I told myself I would be the first, and I made the move to my third school in two years. But this time, I wanted to play right away, so I appealed to the NCAA to get a waiver so I didn’t have to sit out. I explained everything: The circumstances around my transfer from Florida. The unexpected coaching change at Maryland. What my family had been through.

And they cleared me.

It was a blessing to not have to miss another year, and I didn’t plan on wasting it. It took me a while to get going — new offense, new school, new everything — but after two years at Stony Brook I was ready for my senior season and ready to make a name for myself — a name teams would look at on draft day.

Back in Maryland, though, my dad was having a rough time. He was having seizures. He was always sick. I hoped for the best — you always do.

Then, on the first day of camp my senior season, the phone rang. On the other end, I found the same sterile tone I remember from that call I got when I was at camp at UF.

The doctors. My dad. He’d had three cardiac arrests the night before. He’s not doing well.

I felt this weight come down on my shoulders. Here I am, ready to start my first day of camp in a season that could launch my NFL career, and now, this. I felt selfish, but you can’t help but ask those kinds of questions.

Why me?

Why him?

Why us?

Why now?

I immediately went to my head coach, Chuck Priore, and told him what happened.

He said, point blank, “Go home.”

When I got back to Maryland, it was a lot worse than what I was told over the phone. My father had lost the use of the left side of his brain. He was on feeding tubes. He was on a ventilator. He was basically a vegetable. When I’d touch his hand, he wouldn’t respond. I stayed with him in the hospital for three days, and after those three days, the doctor said he wasn’t getting any better.

So my sisters and I had to make a decision. Is this how we wanted our father to live? Being kept alive by a machine and fed through tubes? Or is it time to just let him go…

The blindness. The seizures. The cardiac arrests. He’d been through enough. We decided it was time. We decided to let him go.

I didn’t want to be there when my father passed. I went back to Stony Brook and just waited. The next day, I got the phone call. Even though I knew it was coming, it was still surreal.

My father, Lawrence Coxson, had passed away.

When tragedy strikes, it’s hard to know exactly what to do. I just sat back and thought about my father and all we’d been through. I thought about when he first got sick. How I thought I was never going to play football again. How he talked me into getting back on the field.

I decided to go straight back to practice. My dad wanted me to play football and he wanted me to pursue my NFL dream, so I stepped back on the field for my senior season with insane amount of focus. I was doing it for me, but I was also doing it for him. I started every game and every practice that season — and still do — with a little prayer that I dedicate to my father and my family.

Everyone’s road to the NFL is different. Some go in a straight line — shine at a D-1 college, get drafted, show out in training camp and make the team — and some zig-zag their way into an opportunity.

I’ve done plenty of zig-zagging.

I had a great senior season, but my name didn’t get called on draft night. It didn’t bother me that much, because I was used to things not going quite as planned. I talked to 10 teams on the last day of the draft, so I could feel the interest level. All I wanted was an opportunity, and I had a good feeling I would get that chance as an undrafted free agent.

And I did. After visiting with a couple of teams, I chose to sign with the Packers. And today, as training camp begins — and after five years, three schools and all the battles I watched my father face — I’m on the field with a chance to compete for a spot on an NFL roster.

I think about my father every time I step on the field. This is what he wanted, and as long as I have the opportunity to play this game, I won’t take one second of it for granted. I still have work to do, and I know my father is in a better place, pulling for me. Still saying, Don’t give up on your dream.

Don’t worry, Dad. I won’t. I’ll make you proud.

I just wish you could be here to see it.


UPDATE: Three days into his rookie NFL training camp, Adrian Coxson suffered a Grade 3 concussion that ended his NFL career before it even began. Click here to watch Adrian discuss the effects of his concussion and his decision to retire in our latest installment of The Players’ POV.