Zack Cox couldn’t take it anymore. Frustration was flying at him from all directions like 90-mph fastballs from a pitching machine gone berserk. The game he loved felt more and more like a prison sentence. So he did what any athlete would do. He found a bathroom and broke down.
It was May 2009, and Cox was in the middle of the Southeastern Conference baseball tournament, an annual gathering of some of the most dominant teams and athletes this side of the College World Series. The pressure was intense, and, quite frankly, Cox was buckling under the load.
The talented infielder/pitcher had arrived at the University of Arkansas with enough high school accolades to fill a small dugout, but his freshman year at college was a mishmash of success and failure. His faith was lagging behind his emotions in a volatile quest for achievement.
On the first day of the SEC tournament, Cox smashed a home run and made a great defensive play to help the Razorbacks beat Florida. But against Georgia the next day, he went 0 for 4 and missed an opportunity to win the game. Disgusted, Cox called his parents from the bathroom.
Zach Cox- #7
|School: University of Arkansas|
Height/Weight: 6-0/215 lbs.
Trivia: 2010 USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award Semifinalist
“I want to quit,” he announced.
Jim and Sandra Cox were dumbfounded. Baseball had been Zack’s entire life.
And therein lay the point. Baseball had become too big, too consuming. Cox needed to let go.
The next morning, he attended an FCA breakfast at the tournament. He can’t explain why other than to say, “I think I just wanted a free meal.”
What he received that morning was far more satisfying than a full stomach. He got a life-changing experience that broadened his narrow focus.
Now, where there was spiritual tepidity in Cox’s heart, there is passion. And on a campus that once barred FCA’s existence, Cox—one of this year’s top college baseball players—is enjoying the Christian fellowship and accountability he needed so badly.
“Thank God I went to that breakfast,” he said.
Little Zack Cox sprinted down the aisle as fast as his 8-year-old legs could carry him.
It was a Sunday morning at Campbellsville Baptist Church in Campbellsville, Ky., a midsized town in the middle of the Bluegrass State. The preacher was on fire, and so was the young man’s heart. He knew at that moment he wanted to make a public profession of faith. Cox looked at his mom and said, “I don’t know everything about it, but I want Jesus to be my Savior.” And off he flew.
By high school, Cox had joined the local FCA Huddle and appeared—at least externally—to be just fine. What few realized, though, was that his faith was withering as his baseball success flourished.
But, oh, how it flourished. Cox finished his prep career at Pleasure Ridge Park High School in Louisville as one of the most highly prized recruits in the country: a stocky power hitter/pitcher who earned three separate All-American honors and had schools from the ACC, SEC, Pac-10 and Big East clamoring for his services.
But Cox wasn’t interested in college. Hoping to jump straight to the Majors from high school, he was devastated when he plummeted to the 20th round of the 2008 MLB Draft. Rather than signing with his draft team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, he opted for the University of Arkansas.
“He is definitely the spiritual heart of the team, but not in a loud way.” – FCA’s Bill Burnett
By this point, Cox was a spiritual mess. Like a parasite, baseball was eating away at him from the inside out. His very existence, it seemed, hinged on every plate appearance. God was still present in his life, but he had unwittingly tried to lock the Almighty in the bullpen.
“My life became infatuated by baseball,” he said. “Zero for 4, or 4 for 4—that was all that mattered to me. I was a good player, but I hated it. I was an unhappy baseball player.”
For Cox, the timing of the FCA breakfast was serendipitous. The speaker was Travis Fryman, a fellow Kentucky native and a fivetime Major League All-Star third baseman. As part of his testimony, Fryman recalled his own early struggles, which mirrored those of Cox. The struggling freshman was captivated by the parallels.
“I was shaking the whole time,” Cox said. “It was like he was speaking to me.”
That morning, in the same bathroom where he had threatened to quit baseball, Cox surrendered his career to God.
“It was a weight off my chest,” he said. “The devil didn’t have a grip on me anymore.”
Despite the inner struggles of last year, Cox still put together an impressive first season for the Razorbacks. Louisville Slugger named him a freshman All-American after he batted .266 with 13 home runs (an Arkansas freshman record), 39 RBI and three game-winning hits while also going 5-1 as a relief pitcher. In the postseason, he earned SEC All-Tournament and NCAA All-Norman Regional awards, and, in the third game of the SEC tournament against Florida, he hit what is possibly the longest home run ever at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala.—a moonshot that shattered the letter “R” in “Park” atop the 90-foot-high scoreboard in right-center field. His efforts helped propel the Hogs to the College World Series for only the second time in 20 years.
Cox addressing the crowd at an Arkansas FCA
This season, now liberated from the bondage of baseball idolatry, Cox has produced quite an encore. As one of three team captains, he was batting .443 with seven home runs and 45 RBI through Arkansas’ first 45 games and had also earned SEC Player of the Week honors in late March.
“I’m a totally different ballplayer,” said Cox, who is focusing solely on third base this season. “I know going into the game that, even if I don’t have my best game, everything will be fine. It’s going to be God’s decision.”
Cox is also putting his new perspective to work as a spiritual catalyst. Last fall, he and three other teammates formed the leadership team of FCA’s baseball Huddle on campus. He has spoken at local high school Huddles in the Fayetteville area, and, last October, he shared his testimony in front of 1,500 people at an FCA rally prior to the Arkansas-Eastern Michigan football game.
“He is definitely the spiritual heart of the team, but not in a loud way,” said Bill Burnett, FCA’s Northwest Arkansas area director. “Other players really look up to him because he’s a good player, obviously, but also because he’s a quality person.”
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Courtesy of Wesley Hitt/Arkansas Athletic Media Relations