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Never too late to give it the old college try

Posted: Thursday, October 09, 2003

CARLINVILLE, Ill. Tom Fox finished high school in the 1980s, then briefly worked for his father before buying a bar in Montana, where he spent seven years having ''more fun than I deserved.''

When he hit his 30s, he'd had enough.

Tired of being ''the only sober guy at 2 o'clock in the morning,'' Fox sold the bar and spent nearly a year working out to get in shape for the most unlikely of career changes.

Fox wanted to play college football.

Short and scrawny as a teenager, Fox wasn't big enough to make his high school team. Now 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, he was.

So what if he was 31? After countless phone calls, Fox finally found a college willing to take a chance on a freshman approaching middle age who had never played a down of competitive football.

Now 34, Fox is a third-year quarterback at Blackburn, a Division III school in central Illinois. He's started one game this season, played in all four and is having the time of his life.

''The first week I was in camp, you're 13, 14 years older than everybody and I thought, 'What in the heck am I doing here?''' said Fox, who is older than four of the team's assistant coaches. ''I've proved to myself that if I could have come here at 18 or 19, gosh, I could have had some success at this level.

''This was always a dream of mine. I'm having a blast.''

His unorthodox journey from teenage tennis star to rural bar owner to college quarterback started in Bradenton, Fla., in 1985.

Fox was one of the top junior tennis players in Montana in his early teens when his family sent him to Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy. His classmates included Andre Agassi and Monica Seles.

Fox spent three years at the academy. When he left he was the top-rated junior in Montana, but he also was losing interest in the sport and decided to pass up opportunities to play in college.

After graduating from high school in his hometown of Hamilton, Mont., Fox got married, had a daughter and worked a few years at his father's brokerage firm before buying a bar in Montana one of two longtime dreams.

Still, it was the other dream that nagged at him.

''In the back of my mind, I always knew I wanted to play football. I figured it was now or never,'' he said. ''I wanted to play one play, make one tackle, catch one pass I didn't care.''

Fox began contacting colleges to see whether any school might give him a tryout. Blackburn said they'd give him a look. They liked what they saw a lanky quarterback with a good arm whose maturity and leadership off the field made up for his diminishing skills on it.

Blackburn offered him a spot, and he gladly accepted.

His parents supported his decision to finally attend college, even if it included playing football with kids nearly half his age. His friends at the bar thought he was crazy.

''At first they were like, 'What are you thinking? You're going to do what? You're selling your business?''' he said.

Once at practice, Fox worried they might have been right.

''It was very awkward; you feel so out of place,'' he said. ''I thought I had done some work to get in shape and lose some weight. I was still so far behind. Your body doesn't respond to that stuff when you're 32 like it does when you're 18.''

His efforts were finally rewarded this season.

Fox was named the starting quarterback for Blackburn's first game of the season, splitting time with freshman Aaron McPherson.

''He brings stability to the scene. His execution is pretty flawless,'' coach Skip Mathieson said. ''He's very adept at doing things the way you program him to do them. There's a place for that, particularly with a young quarterback that's adjusting.''

Fox has since lost playing time to McPherson as the team retooled its offensive approach to emphasize the run.

When that happened, Fox knew it was only a matter of time. As he says with a resigned shrug, ''the other quarterback, he's got the legs. His legs are fresher, so to speak.''

''People always ask me, 'Well, is there a big difference between when you were 18 and 34? Yeah, there is a big difference between when I was 32 and 34.''

The NCAA doesn't keep track of player ages, though a spokesman said he knew of no other player in the nation as old as Fox.

Fox is on pace to graduate next year. When he finishes his degree, he'd like to go into coaching maybe at a small school like Blackburn. Eventually he'd like to move on to one of the larger conferences. Maybe the Pac-10 or even the NFL.

Fox has already proven to himself that he's capable of surprises.

''When I came here two years ago, I didn't have any intention of playing quarterback,'' he said. ''That I ever thought I'd start one game at any position was beyond anything that I had imagined.

''It's been a lot of fun.''



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