ROCKLAND COUNTY, N.Y. -- Heroin and football aren't usually two words that go together.
But for Clarkstown North High School senior Ryan Cox, Section 1 All-Section, All-League, Linebacker of the Year, and USA Football's Heart of a Giant nominee, for years the young star football player thought it was "normal."
"My birth mother and brothers and sisters and step-father are all heroin and drug addicts and it was normal to find my mother overdosing in the bathtub or to have everyone high all the time," Cox said.
That's not how Cox's life started. He was the youngest of three with his father and mother before she began using drugs, and life was pretty normal. Then his mother became addicted to drugs when he was a toddler.
And that's when his life turned upside down. His parents divorced and he moved to California with his father. The next six years were steady and pretty normal for the little boy. Then one day his mother, who had never visited, written or seen the boy in years, decided she wanted custody and unbelievably, won in court.
Soon, the small child found himself standing in a parking lot holding his father's hand asking if each woman that pulled up if that was his mommy.
"It was heartbreaking and a shock," said his father Thomas Cox, a sergeant investigator with the Corrections Department.
The move back to New York to live with his mother and step-father and his brothers and sisters was like stepping into another world. A world of heroin and pills and pot, Ryan Cox said.
It's also when his father began the long fight to win custody of his son.
"I walked away from my home and life in California and came to New York and started over and began the long fight to get Ryan back and to make sure that he was safe," he said.
That fight took until Ryan was in the sixth grade. By then he had been exposed to years of living with drug addicts and the uncertainty and fear that creates. When he first moved back with his father he was shocked and afraid and didn't understand that life could be, well, "normal," he said.
But looking back, the young man who excels at everything from academics to wrestling to football, is so thankful that his father fought for him and he works every day to make his father, and his step-mother, Dr. Kimberly Collica-Cox proud.
"She's my real mother, she was there for me every day," Ryan said. "She made life what I have today and I'm so thankful to her and to my father for saving me."
But the really amazing thing about Ryan, who heads to college next year to study dentistry and has been accepted by Pace University and has interest from several others, is that none of his classmates or friends knew his life story.
"I didn't really hang out with any clicks, I was just friends with everyone and when I was nominated for this award and had to tell my story on video I was a little worried that people would judge me," Ryan said.
So was his family.
"I was unsure about putting all of this out to the public," Thomas Cox said. "I work in law enforcement so it's embarrassing. But the country is fighting a national epidemic and it was right for Ryan to tell people that good can come from a hard life if you work at it."
But the exact opposite happened, Ryan Cox said.
"The whole school came out behind me and has supported me and voted for me and helped me make it to the final six in the award," he said.
But he's also worked, and worked hard to get where he is. He's played through numerous injuries and kept going, always with his eye on being a team player and winning and making his parents proud.
"I'm just so honored and humbled and really, I'm on top of the world right now and can't wait to see what else the future brings."
The winner of the annual USA Football Heart of a Giant Award will be announced on Dec. 11. To learn more about the award and other nominees, click here.
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