It had been a long time coming for Taylor Cox. In fact, it was over two years and exactly 756 days since the sixth-year senior running back last played a football game for Kansas.
But here was the determined Cox, who had battled back and persevered through various injuries, running with grit on Saturday against No. 3 Baylor in KU’s 66-7 loss at Memorial Stadium.
“I was a little nervous (night before the 11 a.m. kickoff), just kind of visualizing what it would be like to be out there again,” Cox said after making the start and carrying a career-high 19 times for 45 yards.
“But once I got hit for the first time, it was like riding a bike.”
Cox, who also caught three passes for 16 yards, was thrilled to be back playing the game.
“It felt really good,” he said. “My main thing is getting out there and playing my heart out for my brothers to the right and left of me, and from that standpoint, it felt (great).”
However, the strong critic and perfectionist wasn’t exactly thrilled with his performance.
“I don’t want to put a grade on it, but not well,” Cox said. “I put the ball on the ground too many times (one fumble lost). That’s something we stress at practice, that’s going to eat at me for a while, but you got to move on the from it and prepare for the next week.”
Kansas head coach David Beaty also wasn’t pleased with Cox’s fumble, but thrilled to see the Mill Creek, Washington, native back in action after missing more than two years.
“I'm really happy with Taylor,” Beaty said. “He's a senior, and he's lost so much time with his injury. With the exception of the fumble, the kid played his tail off today. I thought he played really hard. ... He was pressed into a lot more action because of (Ke'aun, starting running back) Kinner's injury. But it was good to have him back out there. It really was.”
Beaty also lauded Cox’s invaluable leadership.
“He picked up like he'd never been gone,” Beaty said. “The demeanor was great; he was a leader just like he'd always been. He never let those guys get down. He literally refused to let anybody look negative in that huddle, which man I'm so proud of that, and we need that. From a senior, the guy's been around a long time, and that was good to see.”
Junior tight end Kent Taylor praised Cox as well, especially for being an inspiration and mentor to the younger players.
"He's seen a lot and has been here for a long time,” Taylor said. “A guy like that with experience that has seen a lot -- he knows that no matter what the scoreboard says, you've just got to keep fighting and that's what he believes and that's why he's a great team leader and a great teammate, so that's just how he is -- he's competitive. ... It's nice to have someone older to look up (to)."
Despite the lopsided score, Cox wouldn’t let his teammates quit, wouldn’t let them get dejected, wouldn’t let them lose their poise, wouldn’t hear of anyone not going 100 percent, wouldn’t let the players focus on anything but the next play.
“I try to lead by showing my heart and letting those guys know I’m always there for them -- on and off the field,” Cox said. “I have a little bit of experience in the Big 12 so I try to rub off on them that way.
“I think that’s huge to keep everyone motivated,” he added. “I think the younger guys need to learn from an early age that it’s very important to stay engaged and support your teammates.”
Cox has received great support himself during his career dealing with injuries. A bad hamstring caused him to miss 10 games in 2013 before a torn Achilles tendon forced him out of the entire 2014 season.
But he never lost sight on his ultimate goal of playing again.
“I’ve had an extremely good support system with my mom, my family, my girlfriend and her parents,” Cox said. “Everybody was behind me through the whole process. I just try to take it one day at a time. I feel like that’s one of my philosophies, just in life. With the injuries and everything, I knew that football is my passion. I just wanted to get as healthy as I could to get back out there and play for this great university.”
Cox stressed he feels 100 percent now and looking to win some games in the tough Big 12. After all he’s endured, after all his pain, after all his adversity, he just feels grateful to return to action and playing the game he fell in love with as a kid.
“We talk about this all the time here. It’s a blessing, nothing is given. It’s a blessing to be back out there and be healthy,” Cox said. “I’m just trying to improve week in and week out.”