The United States Tennis Association Texas has honored long-time Mineral Wells tennis coach Henry Cox by naming its new state-wide honor the Henry C Cox Texas Adaptive Tennis Award in recognition of his years of service to USTA Texas.
The USTA Texas Henry C. Cox Adaptive Tennis Award honors individuals or organizations for their efforts in the development of adaptive tennis through playing, coaching, sponsoring or promoting the tennis for those with disabilities and/or differing abilities.
Cox, who was born without a left arm, certainly fits the bill to qualify for all four of the categories as he has had an illustrious career on and off the tennis court.
Cox has a glittering tennis pedigree and deep history in the game dating back to when he first picked up a racket at age 3. He was born into a family of tennis players, and expectations were high, with both his parents and sister earning high school state championships in the sport.
Cox’s first brush with tennis started with a badminton racket in his hand, which didn’t work well when it came to tennis, but it did set the groundwork for his further ventures into the game, while also offering him some challenges off the court.
One of those challenges was moving from his home state of North Carolina to Lincoln, Nebraska, where his father started a new job, and Henry became the new kid in school. Worse yet, because Cox had one arm, he was labeled as a special-education student despite having a straight-A average.
Things didn’t go well at first as Cox made two trips to the principal’s office before noon on his first day because he chose to defend himself rather than be bullied by students calling him a “dummy.” The kids that decided to take him on that day left school that afternoon with their bully reputations in tatters after being whipped by the new kid.
Gym class was after lunch, and Cox was culled away from the mainstream to sit in a corner where he picked up a basketball and began shooting buckets. The constant whipping of the net brought the same coach who had sat him in the corner over, and he learned Cox had averaged 15-points a game for his former school.
“I was back in the principal’s office again as the coach explained that he felt I was amazingly coordinated,” Cox said. “The principal told the coach he was already familiar with me as I had been in his office twice that day. When they contacted my mother about my playing, her direction was ‘I was to be treated like everyone else’ on the team.”
That meant Cox would have to concentrate on sports and not on beating up every bully that stepped in his path. If Cox didn’t already have enough challenges in his life, he was tossed a couple more at the tender age of 15 when his mother passed away on Mother’s Day, and his father had a heart attack the next day.
The community rallied around Cox and his father, but life wasn’t easy with his sister away in college, and his dad hampered by a heart condition.
Sports became more of a focal point for Cox as he excelled at golf, basketball, and of course, tennis, where he would develop into a champion, but not everyone was happy about how he went about it.
“I had learned to use my racket for popping the ball in the air so that I could serve it,” Cox said. “I had won a tournament when a mother of one of the players protested that the way I was serving was double-hitting the ball.”
Despite getting all the way through to the tournament finals with a modified serve, event officials ended up agreeing with the parent and took the trophy away from Cox.
“Anyone who knows me knows that didn’t sit well with me because I don’t like being told I can’t do something,” Cox said. “So I went home, and I started developing a different service where I would hold the ball between my forefinger and thumb and toss it into the air.”
A month later, Cox called up the kid who had “his trophy” and told him to come down to the court and bring the trophy with him because he wanted it back. Cox has told that story more than once, and the USTA now has a “Henry rule” where a player is allowed just about any way they can to get the ball into the air for service.
Genetics, excellent coaching, and a determination fostered by being told he “couldn’t” do something drove Cox, and he became the number-one player on his high school team and earning state championships in singles and doubles play.
His success in high school caught the attention of college coaches, and Cox decided Nebraska Wesleyan University was the best fit for him.
It was at NWU where Cox also found he could pass on his knowledge to others, and he continued his education as he pursued a master’s degree at the University of Oklahoma and University of Kansas.
Cox’s coaching ability and the love of passing on his tennis knowledge to others led to a coaching stint at his alma mater. As Cox’s reputation as a tennis dynamo was grew across the nation’s tennis community the USTA took notice and hired him.
From Nebraska, Cox made a move to New York City and became a tennis instructor (alongside Wimbleton and U.S. Open champion Arthur Ashe), where his students included Andre Agassi, Jennifer Capriati, and Pete Sampras, among many others.
Unless a sports fan follows tennis intimately, most wouldn’t know how the USTA has relied on Cox and other certified professionals like him. Cox and those pros combined to write the organizations “Manual for Teaching Adaptive Tennis” and Cox was able to draw on his first-hand knowledge as a player.
Cox’s chapter of “Teaching Those with a Loss of a Limb” is designed to take those with disabilities, whether they are congenital, accidental, war or cancer caused.
In Cox’s reasons for participating section, he lists the importance of being part of a group and that being accepted is a critical point in merging into the general population. The manual includes lots of ideas for coaches, and Cox doesn’t limit athletes to sticking to a single sport.
“Tennis can be a great starter sport for other activities,” Cox writes. “The eye-hand coordination and agility used in tennis help with the balance and vision that are required in other sports such as basketball, soccer, baseball, and golf.”
For Cox, the adventure of sports isn’t about a winning championship.
“Winning is not the goal, rather practicing not giving up and working hard,” Cox includes in the manual. “Sports teach you how to get along, use teamwork, win, and resolve to do better.”
Cox coached tennis with the UTSA for 15 years in New York before eventually finding his way back to the Mineral Wells area and he began instructing tennis at the Holiday Hills Country Club, where the effects of his coaching were almost immediate.
Mineral Wells High School won its first-ever girls and boys district championships as players Molly Clarke and Braylee Flaska, Skyler Flaska, Jacob Velasquez, Ethan Shirley, Matthew Strzenick, Dillon Hervey and Eric Parker qualified for the regional tournament.
Today at 74 years young, Cox hasn’t even started to think about slowing down and is involved in all aspects of tennis as he serves as president of Greater Fort Worth Tennis and the Parker County Tennis Association.
Rather than resting on laurels like establishing the Woods tennis facility (considered the best in the country) in Lincoln, and more tennis-related awards than he can count, Cox is ready for new challenges.
The lure of helping establish a new $33 million dollar Unified Sports Center in League City is his next project as he works with the Cristina Grillo Sullivan Foundation as a brand ambassador. The Woods Tennis Center in Lincoln is wanting to start an expansion project and also thinks Cox would be a great fit.
The foundation has partnered with Partnerships with USTA, Galveston Independent School District, University of Houston, A&M College Station, A&M Galveston, UTMB, Sea Star Base, Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Galveston Park Board and Microsoft for Unified eSports to bring the project online.
“We are so honored and awed to have a professional like Henry Cox coming on board,” foundation vice president Craig Sullivan said. “He brings so much experience to the table and has such a great drive to get the job done.”
The center’s multipurpose sports courts will hold tournaments for basketball, wheelchair, basketball, wheelchair rugby, power wheelchair soccer, wheelchair football, volleyball sitting volleyball, standing tennis (amputee), basketball, standing basketball, badminton, eSports, goal-ball, bocce and more. The multisport arena area will contain an indoor jogging track, adaptive rock climbing wall, 7,500 square feet fitness /adaptive gyms, multipurpose activity rooms, accessible men and women’s locker rooms, family caregiver area with adult changing center, bath, shower, and lavatory.
The Unified Sports Center will have a sports rehabilitation practicum area dedicated to students for learning and assisting athletes. Once at the center, the athletes and community will have a full-service Cafe and Pro Shop catering to both nutrition and equipment needs for the athletes and patrons.
Cox has always carried a positive attitude and says his situation has “enhanced his abilities instead of his disabilities.” Cox is also always reminding his students, he doesn’t give up on them, and he doesn’t expect them to give up on themselves.
One of his most relied upon teaching tools for his athlete about not giving up is a simple question about whether or not his students can tie their shoes? All hands go up when he asks that question, and almost all of those hands always go down when he asks, “can you tie your shoes with one hand?”
“Most people will say ‘no’ without ever trying it,” Cox said. “How can you know if you can do something if you don’t even try?”
That’s much like the vision Cox has for his town where he helped establish Leadership Mineral Wells, and he sees long-time residents as the town’s biggest asset.
“We have many things here in our community that we can be focusing on to make life better in this town,” Cox said. “I’m not talking about just sports but all aspects of our community. There is a need for us to get together and rally around our local leaders. If anything good comes out of our current world-wide situation, perhaps it will be people getting more involved in carrying through on projects that better our community.”
It’s hard to get Cox to talk about his latest award from the USTA because he is so focused on promoting the sport of tennis. The organization is well aware of Cox’s selfless attitude and had to work hard at hiding the news from him until it could be presented.
“They had me over in a corner with a screen behind me as Cindy Benzon (USTA adaptive/wheel cair coordinator) began talking about the award and I thought she had won it because she began crying as she talked,” Cox said.
Benzon wasn’t shedding tears of joy for herself, but instead, they were tears of recognition for the work Cox has done helping promote the sport of tennis.
“They got me with this one. It was a total surprise and a very humbling to think about my name being on something the USTA gives out as an annual award,” Cox said. “I’m very grateful.”