It’s game day, one of the most important for the Argentina national team in recent years, and the entire Cox family seems on edge.
Argentina’s third game of the World Cup could be its last without a win today. Even the family’s black lab, Chloe, shuffles her old body about anxiously with a blue-and-white striped No. 10 Lionel Messi jersey cloaked over her.
“Soccer is such a big part of our family,” says James, the middle of the three Cox children. “It’s a passion like no other. We all go crazy. It’s just in the blood.”
James, 18, is the next chapter in a bloodline of talented men’s soccer players. The Bishop England rising senior committed to the College of Charleston this spring, following his 20-year-old brother, Tomas, who will be a sophomore with the Cougars this fall, and his father, Peter, who was a team captain for The College in the late ‘80s.
“It’s an interesting legacy,” Tomas said. “I don’t know too many other families who have something like that. Especially with [Cougars head coach] Ralph Lundy there coaching us all too. It’s a bond we’ll have forever.”
Peter was a local star in the mid-80s, leading former state power Middleton High School to consecutive state championships in 1985 and ‘86. He was named the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year his senior season and went on to become a team captain for the Cougars.
“That was back when Middleton was top dog,” Bishop England coach Ed Khouri said. “The best high school in the state.”
Tomas won a state championship at Bishop England as a freshman in 2013. He spent the next three years with the ultra competitive South Carolina Battery Academy, a now defunct club under the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. He took a gap year after graduating high school to play a season in Buenos Aires, Argentina before arriving at College of Charleston.
“Tomas is a tough, tough player,” Lundy said. “He’s grown up around some of the best competition out there.”
James led Bishop England with 28 goals this season on way to the state championship game. He finished fourth in all of Class AAA in scoring, netting nearly 40 percent of the shots he took. Tomas and Peter anoint James the best of the three with little hesitation though James seems surprised to hear it and thinks maybe they’re playing modest.
“My dad was a really good player and so is my brother so it’s kind of nerve wracking in way to live up to that,” James said. “That’s a lot of weight on my shoulders but I’m proud to carry that legacy on.”
Peter began to teach his sons the game as soon as they could walk. When he coached their micro teams, practices would carry over long after the rest of the players left, hours into the evening until their mother, Elizabeth, called the boys home for dinner. Soccer usually led the conversations at the dinner table too, although Elizabeth isn’t as consumed by the game and the youngest sibling, Sophia, much prefers cheerleading over playing soccer.
“We probably talk soccer at home more than my wife and daughter would prefer. It drives them mad but we all love the game,” Peter said. “Everything I know I got from Lundy so that’s what I put into them when they were little. They learned to work hard and stay focused. And you always had to have thick skin. That was really important.”
Thick skin was especially important when James and Tomas would go against each other. Practices often turned fierce because neither could accept losing to his brother.
“Those games were intense,” James remembers. “A few fist fights because one would play a little harder than the other, one would be winning and do a little talking.”
Lundy’s been a hero to the boys since they were little. Peter seems to share a similar sentiment. They’d all attend his camps each year in the summer, Peter as a coach and the boys as players. Lundy would yell from across the field to James and Tomas, “Boca, Boca, Boca,” their favorite team in Argentina, which they adored hearing from their favorite coach.
“Coach Lundy always makes a real connection with his players. That’s what solidifies what a real coach is,” Khouri said. “This is a guy that’s become like a father figure for all of them. You don’t often see that.”
With Lundy coaching and Tomas already on the team, the Cougars were an easy choice for James, who started 31 of 32 games for the Battery Academy’s U-15/16 team as a high school freshman.
“I’ve always known,” he said. “The whole process, I’ve always had my mind set on College of Charleston.”
James still has one more season of high school to get through first though. He figures to be one of the top players in the state next year for a Bishops team that returns its four leading scorers after spending most of last season ranked top 10 in the state. One more chance to capture his own state championship to go with his father and brother’s.
“He’s trying to create his own identity in Bishop England soccer,” Khouri said. “And he can. He has the vision and works both sides of the ball. He’s always attack minded. His whole arsenal in equipped. He can head it, volley it, run off the ball well, touch with side of his foot. He’s already doing things that players at the next level are doing.”
Tomas will be a junior when James arrives at the College of Charleston. It’ll be the brothers’ first time ever playing together, something they say the whole family is looking forward to.
“It’ll be cool to share that experience,” Tomas said. “He’ll have something I didn’t have, someone to show you what it’s like. I’ll have to tell him to do the dirty work that I’m doing now.”
The first time playing together, that is, other than the pickup games with their dad and his friends at Governor’s Park on Daniel Island. Tomas and James are maybe getting a little too quick for their dad but he assures that he still holds his own against the boys.
“I still try to show them a couple things here or there,” Peter says.
The boys laugh.
“Soccer definitely brings us close,” Tomas says. “My dad’s one of our best friends because of it.”
Eighty-five minutes into the game and Argentina is stuck even with Nigeria. A draw won’t do today. It has to be a win.
In an instant, Gabriel Mercado floats a cross for Marcos Rojo, who’s slid up from the middle of the defense to volley in the eventual game-winner for Argentina.
The room erupts. Chloe howls. All is right again in the Cox family.