Caden Cox stands proudly next to an exhibit in the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. This isn’t just any exhibit; it’s his exhibit. His No. 21 Hocking College football uniform—a nod to the 21st chromosome associated with Down syndrome—is folded neatly in a standalone display, and it sits near the memorabilia of legends such as Syracuse University’s Jim Brown. His brother is capturing it all on video. “The moment I walked in, I saw my uniform, and it was pretty crazy,” Cox says via Zoom.
The College Football Hall of Fame recently honored Cox because of the path he is clearing for people with intellectual disabilities. The 23-year-old kicker is the first known collegiate football player with Down syndrome to play in an official game. He also scored in that game. On Sept. 11, 2021, he kicked an extra point in a home game for Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio. “I was so happy when I made my first ball through the uprights,” says Cox, a tried-and-true Ohio State Buckeyes fan.
To build on that momentum, Cox and his family have been on a Kickin' Down the Barrier tour—an idea his mom, Mari Cox, dreamed up—to highlight what people with intellectual disabilities can do. He was invited to kick through the uprights at Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, the University of Alabama, the University of Louisiana at Monroe and the University of Memphis.
In just a brief period, Cox has experienced some of the most prestigious environments college football has to offer. He toured the Alabama campus and took a moment to pay tribute to pictures of former Alabama head coach Gene Stallings and his late son John Mark, who had Down syndrome. Around Christmas, Stallings called Cox and had a 20-minute conversation with him. “[Stallings] talked a lot about his son and his times at 'Bama with John Mark being there,” says Cox’s dad, Kevin Cox, via a Zoom interview. He also spent time with Crimson Tide quarterback Ty Simpson. With excitement in his voice, Cox lets out a huge “oh my gosh” when detailing Bryant-Denny Stadium and the athletic facility.
Before there was football, Cox played multiple Special Olympics sports, including, basketball, softball, and bowling, but swimming was his favorite. “When I came to Ohio, I swam a lot at the Ohio State University and have won several gold medals,” says Cox, who lived in Tennessee and Virginia before moving to the Midwest. But it was watching his older brother, Zane Cox, play football when he found his calling. Zane is now a strength coach at the University of Louisiana at Monroe but will soon transition into a position with the Texas A&M football program.
Falling in love with football and competing in high school, Cox could not participate in Special Olympics because of time constraints. To stay involved, he was part of a Special Olympics Virginia Polar Bear Plunge team, the Ice-aholics. Being one of the top fundraising teams, they raised $77,000 one year and $94,000 the next.
“The fun part about it was his brother would fly in from Tennessee, and his cousins and they would get dressed up and plunge,” Mari says. “They always say, even if they don’t raise the most money, they at least put it out there for other people to compete, and whoever raises the most, it’s a winner for everybody—so it was a fun time for the family.”
When Zane was a senior at Fremont Ross High School, a handful of players on the team asked the administration if Cox, then an eighth-grader, could run out onto the field with his older brother. This gesture of kindness ended up being a milestone in his life. The next year, after the head coach saw Cox kicking with Zane, he was invited to join the squad. “The team won 49–0 one week, and Caden kicked seven extra points and made every one of them,” his mom says proudly.
The then high-schooler had the chance to play much more than just kicker. Cox kicked off and made the tackle, after hearing the crowd chant, “Caden! Caden! Caden!” He has played linebacker and recorded one play at running back too.
At Hocking College, Cox is working toward an associate degree in performing arts therapy and assisted animal studies. He dreams of one day attending Ohio State University. When featured on ESPN’s College GameDay in November for his on-the-field accomplishments, he met with Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day and visited the locker room after Ohio State beat Michigan State, 56–7.
Cox and his parents hope that people with disabilities and their families “never take ‘no’ as an answer,” says Mari. Cox shattered all expectations. Not only is he on the official roster, but he is in the stat and record book—on the field and off.