By Bill Studenc
John Clayton “Clay” Cox, a former kicker for the Western Carolina University football team, has a new perspective on the disparities that exist between athletics facilities at other institutions and those he remembers from his playing days as a Catamount.
That’s why Cox, a 1991 graduate of WCU with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, has made gifts and pledges totaling $100,000 to help improve athletics facilities at his alma mater. His contributions are part of the “Fill the Western Sky” comprehensive fundraising campaign.
With an overall goal of $75 million, the campaign has a significant focus on enhancements for the Catamount athletics program. As a key priority of the campaign, WCU aims to raise at least $30 million in philanthropic gifts to support upgrades to athletics facilities.
“We are thrilled to have Clay’s leadership support of these much-needed athletic facility improvements that will provide our student-athletes with the quality experience they deserve,” said Alex Gary, WCU director of athletics. “As a Catamount football student-athlete alumnus, Clay is serving as a great example to other alumni who we hope will follow his generosity.”
Cox said he recently went through the student-athlete college recruitment process with his youngest son, and they were able to get a first-hand look at several Football Championship Subdivision schools and tour their athletics facilities. He characterized the experience as eye-opening.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, these are way better than what I had at WCU,’ but I assumed that Catamount football had kept up – after all, it had been 30-plus years since my playing days,” he said.
But then Cox took a campus tour with Gary and with Ben Pendry, WCU’s assistant vice chancellor for development. “After the tour, I remember a feeling of alarm regarding the state of all WCU sports facilities compared to other schools – including schools with which the Cats directly compete,” he said.
“With the completion of the improvements, which are to be transformative, all Catamount sports will be able to recruit athletes to our programs who, at this point, are choosing our competitors,” he said. “I look forward to that.”
Cox recently retired from the business he and his wife, Alisa, founded in 1992 – Professional Probation Services Inc., a firm that privatizes offender management services in more than 60 locations across six states. He also is retired from the Georgia House of Representatives after serving four terms, and he coached the kickers and punters at Greater Atlanta Christian School for 21 years.
After graduating from WCU, he worked briefly as a probation officer for the Georgia Department of Corrections before launching his business. A native of Lilburn, Georgia, he now resides in Braselton, Georgia.
Although he had remained connected to WCU over the years since graduating, Cox had not made a significant financial contribution to the university until recently.
“Honestly, if I hadn’t made the time to accept Ben’s invitation, tour the facilities and listen to the plans for improvement, I would not be this committed,” he said, also pointing to a prior invitation from a former Catamount teammate to increase his engagement with WCU.
“I have always made a point of attending a few football games each year. About five years ago, my college roommate, John S. Martin, and I began to organize a sort-of football alumni cabin for Homecoming each year. John routinely shared how he had become much more involved, and he encouraged me to do the same.”
A 1990 graduate of WCU with a bachelor’s degree in business law, Martin is a member of the WCU Foundation Board of Directors, serving as chair of the board’s finance and audit committee. Martin and Cox both began their WCU football careers under legendary head coach Bob Waters, who died in 1989 after a six-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“Being a player for Coach Waters and watching him serve WCU with such courage as he battled Lou Gehrig’s disease has stuck with me my whole adult life. He was a true example of how to face life’s challenges with grace and toughness,” Cox said.
A practitioner of the barefoot kicking style, Cox attended WCU on a scholarship and was a three-year letterman in football and All-Southern Conference Scholar-Athlete. His final season was cut short when he contracted an illness in his kicking foot.
In his role as a kicking coach for the Greater Atlanta Christian School in Norcross, Georgia, he decided to make a wager with the players on his team after a disappointing season in 2009 when the Spartans missed the playoffs for the first time in nearly 15 years. If the team made the playoffs the next season, Cox promised the players that he would try out for a spot with a minor league football team.
He had to pay up on that bet after the Spartans rallied to advance to the playoffs in 2010. He tried out for – and earned – a spot on the Atlanta Chiefs, playing all 10 games during the 2011 season. “I always knew I had one more season left in me,” Cox, then 43 years old, told the Gwinnett Daily Post.
Cox said he is glad to be able to support WCU and the Catamount athletics program through the Fill the Western Sky fundraising campaign.
“It seems that young people are looking for a college that can offer a campus experience of excellence. I think winning sports programs may create a more exciting atmosphere and attract even more of the region’s best and brightest to Cullowhee,” he said.
When asked what he might say to fellow alumni and former Catamount student-athletes about supporting the current campaign, Cox replied simply, “Get involved, and go Cats!”
For more information about how to support the Catamount athletics program, contact Julie Miller, associate athletics director for development, at 828-227-3084 or visit the website WesternSky.wcu.edu.