After graduating from East St. Louis High School in 1986, Bryan Cox went on to do great things as a football player.
As a senior at Western Illinois University, Cox was a first team All-American linebacker who went on to a long and successful career in the National Football League where he played for five teams and he also was a three time Pro Bowler and three-time all-pro selection.
Cox earned a Super Bowl ring as a member of the world champion New England Patriots’ 2001 team and has been an assistant coach for several NFL franchises since 2006.
But for Cox, it all began in East St. Louis where he learned how to win. Cox learned about team work, discipline and what it took to be successful, both on the football field, and in life.
One of his teachers was legendary Flyers coach Bob Shannon.
“Coach Shannon was a mentor. He was a father figure to so many of us, me included. He was a disciplinarian and he was stern, but he was also loving,” Cox said on Thursday. “Most of the teams that I played on in the NFL, I was a captain of. But without the foundation that he laid in my younger days, I don’t think I would have been the player I was.
“The toughness when I have to be, the leadership qualities that I have developed were as a result of my relationship with coach Shannon and have made me the man I have become.”
Shannon, now 71, but still looking as as dapper and chipper and in shape as ever and Cox, 48, the defensive line coach of the Atlanta Falcons, were reunited on Thursday as part of the celebration and 30th class reunion of the East St. Louis Class of 1986.
The reunion, held at the Regency Conference Center in O’Fallon, also honored the Flyers football team which, in the midst of a 44-game winning streak, won its third straight Class 6A state championship, and finished 14-0. So dominate was that team that is was named as the national high school champions by both USA Today and the NSNA (National Sports News Service).
Simply the best
Shannon, who led 5-4 record in his first season in 1976, compiled a record of 193-32 in his 20 seasons with the Flyers. Included among that mark were six state championships.
East St. Louis won the Class 5A title in his fourth season in 1979, then won Class 6A championships in 1983 through 1985, 1989 and 1991.
But Shannon, who also coached at Alton High School and CBC High School in St. Louis, before retiring from coaching at age 63 in 2007, said the 1985 team was special in many ways.
“We had everything you could want on a football team in 1985. We had size, we had speed, we had strength, we had mental toughness and we were an exceptionally smart football team,” Shannon said. “We had a group of kids who wanted to win and were willing to do whatever took to get the job done.
“We probably did some things back then that we wouldn’t be able to get away with now. In the morning, we would be out running before practice. We would time the kids in the mile then we would time them in the two mile. After that we would put the gear on and practice. We were very big on conditioning. Plus, we had a great coaching staff and the wonderful support from our student body.”
And they had the best high school football coach in the nation to lead them. Shannon was selected as the USA Today High School Football Coach of the Year in 1985.
Beaten by Burbank (Reavis) in the 1982 Class 6A quarterfinals 25-13, the Flyers remarkable streak began on the opening night of the 1983 season and ended in October of 1986 when they lost 17-14 to Granite City in a Southwestern Conference game.
East St. Louis would gain a measure of revenge in the playoffs, defeating the Warriors 20-0 in a second round Class 6A game before seeing their dream of a fourth straight state title end the following week, losing an 18-15 decision to Homewood-Flossmoor.
But the 44-game streak, which was highlighted by Class 6A title game wins over Addison Trail (13-0) in 1983 and Downers Grove South (38-6) in 1984, reached its pinnacle during the 1985 season.
Cox, who also played some tight end on the 1985 team, said highlight of the season came in the playoffs.
“For me going up to Chicago and beating Carl Sandburg in the quarterfinals was a big deal and then going to the state championship and winning the title at Illinois State. I even caught a touchdown pass while playing tight end in that game,” Cox said. “How good was that football team? Well, let me put it this way. At the time, I was probably the 20th best player on that team.
“We just had some much talent. We used to joke that our second team was the second best team in the state. We had that much talent and depth. We were just so deep.”
After rolling through an undefeated regular season, East St. Louis outscored its five playoff opponents 194-19, defeating Chicago Brother Rice 46-0 in the state title contest.
“God blessed me. I was a good football player who had the opportunity to be seen by coaches and scouts when they came to recruit other players,” Cox said. “I went to Western Illinois University, worked hard and made the most out of my opportunity. But the hard work and discipline that it took to be a good college player and later a coach in the NFL were learned from coach Shannon.”
The Flyers finished the 1985 season 14-0 after winning state championships with 13-0 marks the two previous season. That 1985 team was voted as the national high school champions by both USA Today and the NSNA (National Sports News Service).
The Flyers, who would finish the 1989 season 14-0 with another state championship and also captured the 1991 state championship, appeared in seven state championship games from 1983 to 1991.
From Macomb to the NFL
After graduating from East St. Louis in 1986, Cox went on to Western Illinois where he was a two-year starter at linebacker and earned first team all-American recognition as a senior. Cox was drafted by the Dolphins in the fifth round of the 1991 NFL Draft, chosen 113th overall.
As a rookie, Cox started 13 games as the Dolphins right outside linebacker, racking up a total of 61 tackles along with two sacks.
Cox remained with the Dolphins until 1995. He also played with the Chicago Bears, New York Jets, New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints before retiring after the 2002 season.
A member of the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots in 2001, Cox was voted to to the NFL Pro Bowl Team in 1992,1994 and 1995 and was also an all-Pro selection in all three of those years.
Cox has been coaching in the NFL since 2006.
“I’m not playing anymore. But I still get to be part of the game I love. I’m really enjoying coaching,” Cox said. “I’m looking forward to getting back to work here in the next couple of weeks.”
Shannon still going strong.
Shannon isn’t coaching anymore but he still remains active. Living in suburban Florissant Mo., Shannon and his wife enjoy traveling and Shannon still remains physically fit as well.
“I was a coach for a long time and my wife was right there with me all the time,” Shannon said. “Now its her turn to do what she wants to do. We do travel a lot and we both enjoy that. I run a lot and I still work out out at Golds Gym four of five times a week. After all these years of staying in shape,I want to keep it that way.”
But as for coaching, Shannon still gets asked the question at times. What was his best East St. Louis football team?
The answer? Isn’t it obvious?
“The 1985 team was the best. If I remember right, we gave up 85 points and scored like 650 all season,” Shannon said. “Our first team hardly every played in the second half and when they did, it was only for a series or two early in the third quarter.
“That was a great football team and a great group of hard working kids.”