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Wandering in the NFL, athlete shows strength of character

Vernon Fox admits there was a time he felt pretty cocky, and who could have blamed him?

Growing up in Las Vegas, his superiority on the athletic field was evident early. He excelled in the classroom, too. Coaches were impressed with his skills, character and work ethic.

After graduating in 1997 from Cimarron-Memorial High School, Fox starred as a defensive back at Fresno State, twice earning First Team All-WAC honors and being named a National College Scholar Athlete in his senior year. He wasn’t always the fastest player or, at 5-10 and 200 pounds, the biggest, but he seemed unstoppable.

At this point in most sports stories, the hero signs a big contract and starts endorsing athletic shoes and breakfast cereal. Fox admits he imagined his future in the National Football League rolling out before him like a red carpet.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Pro Bowl.

In 2002, Vernon Fox went undrafted. Not a single team came calling. For a guy who had been flying first class, getting stuck at the terminal was a powerful experience.

“For the first time I was humbled to the level where, without God, I wasn’t going to be able to do whatever I set out to do,” he recalled. “I had to rely on something greater than myself.”

Fox could have whined about how the NFL was all politics. He could have quit and moved on.

Instead, he used the rejection as a learning experience. He revealed the character he had shown his childhood coaches. He redoubled his efforts to make the team, any team.

He found a temporary home in San Diego and played two seasons as a Chargers backup. Then he was released.

He traveled to Detroit and played for the lowly Lions for two seasons. Again released.

He landed in Washington, where he started games for the Redskins and in 2006-2007 had his best season with 53 tackles and an interception. A year later, Fox was back on the road.

He played 10 games for the Denver Broncos in the 2008 season but didn’t make the team in September. He worked out for other teams but went unsigned.

He could have quit. Most players don’t last more than a couple of seasons. He had made it seven seasons.

But Fox kept working. He also kept up with his duties as a father and a man of faith at the City of Refuge Church of God in Christ. Not only does he minister to youth groups, but in recent years, Fox has sent out daily devotional messages.

In December, Denver came knocking again after a rookie was injured. Fox was ready.

“It has been great to be back playing,” he said. “I guess this time around I feel wiser being in this situation.”

His Las Vegas friends never doubted him.

“He had some trying times,” Cimarron-Memorial Athletic Director Calvin Valvo said. “He’s not gifted like, say, a Peyton Manning. He has that special quality that he’s not going to be denied. He’s a person of great character.”

The years of hard traveling and disappointment taught him about the game, but even more about himself.

“I learned early on that you have to look at it as a job,” he said. “It’s great to have an opportunity to do something I love to do for a living. I’ve learned how the business works. I realize you have to have a thick skin.”

It also helps to have your life priorities in order. During our conversation, Fox talked nonstop about his family and his church, but not once about the nuances of an NFL defense.

When sports fans go looking for players worthy of their admiration, sometimes it pays to look past the starting lineup.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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