It was November 7, 2014 and the Ladue Horton Watkins Rams trailed Webster Groves 28-6 at halftime in the Missouri state playoffs. Jack Fox, the quarterback for the Rams, was nearing the completion of his high school career — it wouldn’t end that night. That’s because Fox was asked to do something out of his comfort zone in a high leverage situation. He rose to the occasion.
As the Rams mounted their second half comeback, Ladue Horton Watkins head coach Mike Tarpey saw an opportunity. With the Rams’ opponents crashing on one side of the line, Tarpey dusted off the quarterback option and called it toward the opposite boundary. The play was scarcely used. It wasn’t remotely integral to their offense. Still, with the fate of the season on the line, Fox took the snap, took off, and didn’t stop running until he was standing in the endzone.
Ladue Horton Watkins would win the game and go on to finish 12-2 that season after a deep playoff run. Fox was the hero. Not just because he had the big play, but because he was always the guy who made the big play. For Fox, dependability has always been a reality. Coach Tarpey, who saw Fox up close in person for four years, knows that better than most.
From day one, Tarpey knew Fox was different. “Other coaches would comment about your kicker,” he said. In his 19 years of coaching that’s not something he’d heard very often. The small school was filled with two-way players. Everyone wore multiple hats, but none seemed to warrant as much attention as the guy doing the kickoffs.
Special from the start
Tarpey called Fox “an athlete that can also punt and kick”, adding that Fox was the kind of person who could completely compartmentalize the game, wiping negative plays from his short term memory in order to focus on the task at hand. Tarpey used words like “deliberate”, “methodical” and “perfectionist” when it came to how Jack Fox attacked the game.
That focus and level of detail gave way to a college scholarship. In the fall of 2015, Fox traded one blue uniform for another and transitioned permanently to a special teamer at Rice. He handled kickoffs during his freshman season, but quickly expanded his role to extra points and his first collegiate field goal against North Texas.
The following season Fox became the Owls’ punter, taking over for James Farrimond who had begun his own senior year on the Ray Guy Award watch list. Fox had big shoes to fill, but no matter the stage, things never seemed too big for the eager specialist.
Fox averaged 40.7 yards per punt with a long of 58 yards that season, improving his average to 44.2 yards in 2017 with a career-best 62-yard boot. That wasn’t enough for Fox, who applied the same taciturn commitment to his craft every week. Not a “rah rah” vocal leader, per se, Fox led by humble example, grinding away to be the best version of himself he could be. He hadn’t yet begun to realize what might come if he continued to improve his game. He was just determined to get better.
Things took off when special teams coordinator Pete Lembo was hired from Maryland the spring prior to Fox’s senior year. A previous head coach at several stops in the northeast, Lembo had coached several specialists who’d taken their shots at the NFL. By his own admission, none of them, save perhaps Ray Guy award finalist Scott Kovanda at Ball State, measured up to the pure talent Fox possessed.
Lembo’s insertion into the special teams’ room gave Fox structure. That order helped Fox clear his head and focus on the intricacies of punting and kicking. The Rice specialists watched film of themselves, other collegiate specialists and NFL greats. Lembo helped Fox break down what elite punting ought to look like and Fox translated those lessons to the field.
The impact of Lembo’s guidance was readily apparent in Fox’s breakout 2018 season. The year began with a walk-off win over Prairie View A&M, spearheaded by five field-flipping punts by Fox and his first-ever game-winning field goal as time expired. It only got better from there. Fox would lead Conference USA with an average of 45.5 yards per punt, 31 punts inside the 20-yard line, 26 punts of 50 or more yards with a long of 76 yards against North Texas.
In a few short months, Fox had gone from scarcely entertaining professional football to being in rooms with NFL coaches and personnel on a regular basis. It’s been a whirlwind, one that Fox acknowledges he didn’t see coming.
A cavalcade of awards
Although it might have come as somewhat of a surprise to him, it wasn’t to his coaches. Tarpey knew Fox would be special coming out of high school. Lembo echoed those observations, “He’s a junkie,” Lembo said, “That’s part of why I’m optimistic that he’ll make it [to the NFL]. At that level, you gotta live it.”
Live it, Fox has. As a testament to his incredible senior season, Fox was awarded Rice Football’s George R. Martin Award, given annually to the team’s most valuable player. Not only the Rice football MVP, Fox was named the Conference USA Special Team’s Player of the Year, the first punter to ever win the award. To top it all off, Fox finished as a semi-finalist for the Ray Guy Award, given to the nation’s best punter.
Not one to sit back and bask in his own success, Fox kept working. He represented the Owls at the East-West Shrine Game, where he blasted a 57-yard punt in front of NFL coaches and scouts. From there he traveled to Indianapolis for the NFL Combine, came back to Houston for Rice Football’s 2019 Pro Day, and spent the last few weeks of April doing individual work outs for several NFL teams.
Lembo, who’s continued to keep up with Fox throughout the entire process, remains confident Fox is on the right track. “The great thing about what I’ve been seeing from Jack,” Lembo noted, “is that he’s been treating those opportunities just like any other work out. That’s what you gotta be to make it at that level. You gotta be consistent.”
Throughout his years of development as both a football player and a person, perhaps no word better describes Fox than that: consistent. Whether it was stepping up to the plate in the key moments of a high school football game, the game-winning field goal over Prairie View A&M or the countless field-flipping bombs he launched to keep his 2-10 team in games, Fox has never waived.
Head coach Mike Bloomgren ran out of new adjectives for Fox’s repeated wondrous performances about midway through the 2018 season. Instead of inventing new praise, Bloomgren started to stick to a repeated epithet: “Jack Fox is a stud.”
That’s Jack. He’s the best who refuses to cease his own efforts to become even better. He’s been so busy perfecting his craft, his big moment, coming in the next few days, has almost snuck up on him.
When asked about what it’s going to feel like come draft time, Fox offered a nonchalant grin and an honest reply. “I haven’t thought about it yet,” he admitted. “I feel like there’s these steps — I had the season, then the Shrine Game, then the Combine, then the Pro Day, so I really haven’t had a whole lot of time to think about anything other than that.”
His apparent easygoing disposition is genuine. The way he describes it, “kicking and punting is definitely a big personality thing.” Whether it’s a certain level of quirkiness or an abnormal attention to detail and a process-oriented perspective, Fox is the total package. And even if he wasn’t, he’d work at it until he was. Because that’s who Jack Fox is.
Nowhere to go but up
The former All-Conference high school quarterback became one of college football’s best punters, and he did it in four years. If the past eight years have been any indication of what the future holds, Fox is going to build on this foundation and continue to improve. He might get drafted, he might not, but Jack Fox is going to do everything within his power to kick in the NFL, a notion which is still a bit surreal for the small-school kid from Missouri.
Making a roster as an NFL specialist isn’t easy, neither is being drafted. Conversations with NFL teams have given Fox a feel for his future. Ultimately, though, he still doesn’t know what the NFL Draft holds for him. All he can do right now is enjoy the process.
“This whole thing is really cool,” Fox revealed with a twinge of angst in his voice, “It’s been really exciting, but I’m ready to know where I’m going to go and kinda start focusing on the next chapter of the whole thing.” That next chapter remains a mystery. From the Combine to his workouts, Fox has spoken with nearly every NFL team. He’s established better relationships with some, but has yet to receive any guarantees.
With days leading up to the biggest moments of his football journey, Fox doesn’t know what to expect. “I wonder about where I’m going to go. I don’t really know,” Fox said, “Hopefully I get drafted, but if not it sounds like I’m going to get an opportunity [as a free agent].”
Few punters have more ability than Jack Fox, but he’s made it his mission to ensure no one outworks him. So far the results speak for themselves.
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