Getting shot at NFL could mean taking out a loan

PHOENIX – This dream-chasing business can be tough for a football player. Especially when that business costs you $400 for a job interview, $180 for physicals and more than $2,000 for a full-ride scholarship.

That's part of the bill for Rakim Cox, who had his last, best chance at the NFL here on Sunday at the NFL veterans combine. Cox, a defensive end who went undrafted out of Villanova last year, stood out in drills alongside Michael Sam in front of team scouts and personnel officials at the Arizona Cardinals' practice facility.

Rakim Cox (USA TODAY Sports)
Rakim Cox (USA TODAY Sports)

He certainly felt the urgency: Cox said he had to take out a loan to help cover the cost of the weekend trip and the taxes he paid on his "free ride" to Villanova.

Cox and his mother, Tiffinny Beard, were unaware that room and board on scholarship is taxable, so when they claimed it on a W-2 form, they ended up with a bill: $2,355.47.

"A lot of people who are on scholarship think it's a total free ride," said Villanova coach Andy Talley. "You have to claim the room and board as income, which seems kind of a shame for any athlete who has won a scholarship. I think it's particularly tough on a low-income family."

Beard even went to the IRS office in Houston, where she lives, to get clarity on the tax matter.

"I still got a headache from that," Beard said.

Cox's family is not wealthy, and so it's been many months of trying to cover costs and erase debt. He has considered getting a part-time job, but he fears doing so will cost him the time he needs to make it to the NFL. He even borrowed a car from the father of his old middle school teacher so he wouldn't have to buy one.

"My family has been helping me," Cox said. "A few people I know. I was living with my dad, my grandma. Just spending money wisely. Focusing on my diet and gym membership. Using a little bit of credit."

Cox doesn't like to complain – "He never gave us one ounce of a problem," Talley said – yet the last few months have been extra difficult. Cox signed with the Minnesota Vikings after school and was let go, and then he made it into a preseason game with the Miami Dolphins before being cut. He needed to put on a few pounds, so he couldn't scrimp on food or supplements. But he also needed to attend the scouting combines, including the new one here on Sunday. That cost him a $400 application fee plus $180 for physicals, since he said he couldn't get insurance to cover those costs. (His agent Christina Phillips paid for his flight from San Diego.)

Defensive lineman Rakim Cox, picture from left, with his sister J'nai Beard, grandmother Gloria Clark and mother Tiffinny Beard. (Special to Y Sports)
Defensive lineman Rakim Cox, picture from left, with his sister J'nai Beard, grandmother Gloria Clark and mother Tiffinny Beard. (Special to Y Sports)

He's not the only one with money concerns. Several players at the veterans combine have similar issues. The NFL did not cover travel, and only one night of hotel, so those who trekked long distances had to pay closer to $1,000 to attend. That's made more difficult when your job – training for the NFL – doesn't guarantee a paycheck.

Dallas Walker, a tight end out of Western Michigan who now lives in Chattanooga, Tenn., said one of his side jobs was as a sports director at his church. When asked how he and his wife press through the hard financial times, he said, "We prayed."

Cox has staved off part-time work, figuring this offseason would be his only real shot to get closer to 270 pounds – he's now up to 268 – and make his dream real. He got a paycheck for his preseason with the Dolphins, but a chunk of that went to the IRS.

"Now that it's getting toward the end of the six months [of offseason], it's become more of a problem," Cox admitted Monday. "But I don't let anything bother me. I have a way of dealing with it. I can hold off for another month and hopefully I'm in a camp."

Cox has always dealt with a lot. He moved around as a child, as he said his mother was incarcerated on multiple occasions when he was younger. He lived in different states, going to different schools and playing on different teams.

"The situation never crushed me," he said. "I always wanted to play football."

He stood out enough on the field to get a full-ride offer.

"When they called me," he said, "I didn't know what Villanova was."

Cox ended up being first-team in the conference and a pro prospect. He graduated after four years, in December of 2013.

"He was a gentleman from Day 1," Talley said. "He was about doing the right thing at all times."

That has remained the case even through this football odyssey. When asked why he thought he hadn't made a team, he didn't blame anyone. "I have to take it on myself," he said.

In San Diego, where he now lives with his grandmother, he trains by running 100-yard sprints in a weight jacket, up a hill, backward. It's difficult for him to watch the NFL at times because he knows he's so close, and yet only weeks from having to reevaluate that dream. When it got too difficult on Sundays in the fall, he turned the TV off and headed back to the gym.

One call could change everything. After this most recent performance, it might be coming.

"This is the kind of guy you want your daughter to marry," Talley said. "Clean living, top shelf, wants to do it right. His mom did a great job raising him. You would never have to worry about Rakim Cox."

He has taken steps to erase the doubt, and maybe soon he'll be able to erase the debt.