From NFL Dreams to Canal Street

06:10 March 04, 2016
By: Krystral Cooper Christen

The Mike Cox Story

One morning I walked in to a tour center to take a city tour, and I ran across one of the most colorful individuals I have ever met.  He was so loud and charismatic I almost thought he was putting on a show.  He seemed so comfortable selling various tours in and about New Orleans.  I thought to myself as I listened to him that he must have done this for a long time.  I soon realized he had only been in New Orleans five short years and had never been in the tourism business before then. 

When asked what he did before that he chuckled and said that I wouldn’t believe it if he told me.  Then he sat there and told a very interesting story about an 8th grade boy who dreamt of the NFL, growing up to be a man who is arguably one of the most successful tour salesmen in New Orleans.  Mike Cox has lived a very colorful life that has landed him on one of the most intriguing streets in the world – Canal Street. 

With Canal Street’s European roots and eccentric flair, it is quiet customary for its inhabitants to be just as fascinating.  Mike Cox has only been here five years, but he has carved a spot for himself in the center of the Big Easy.  A 60-year-old, North Carolina native, he has a larger-than-life personality and has become part of the fabric of the busy street.  He is a mixture of southern drawl and dry humor, and pulls his customers in by simply being an attraction all on his own. 

Seeing him sitting on his stool, completely in his element, one would never guess that Cox has only sold tours for such a short period of time.  Long before his days consisted of tourists and tales of the exciting city he now calls home, his dreams were as large as his personality. 

If what you did yesterday still looks big, you haven't achieved anything today.

Cox once imagined himself playing football for the National Football League.  For a large part of his life, it seemed that his dreams would in fact become reality.  As an All-Star placekicker for Independence High School in North Carolina, Cox kicked a 47-yard field goal that caught the eye of many colleges.  He had a very promising future and decided that East Carolina would be the first stepping stone in accomplishing his goals.

Cox spent his first year playing football for East Carolina and then decided to transfer to Gardener-Webb.  He was an All-South Atlantic Conference choice and he kicked a 54-yard field goal his sophomore year.  Cox was a star on the rise and it seemed he was going places.  With nothing to hold him back and every confidence in the world that he would succeed, he opted to skip his senior year and play semi-pro football.  He signed on with the Carolina Chargers and he was considered the leading placekicker in the semi-pro American Football Association. 

Cox’s accomplishments in the AFA soon earned him the attention of the NFL.  His big break came in the form of a one-shot tryout with the Buffalo Bills.  During that tryout Cox was offered and accepted a contract in the amount of $27,500 per year as an NFL placekicker in 1981.  Cox was not offered a no-cut contract.  At the time those contracts were offered to more successful and better- known players.  But the terms of his contract did not matter to Cox.  He had finally made it and all his dreams seemed to be coming true.

Cox had one major hurdle when signing with the Bills.  His main competition was some guy named Tom Dempsey, who happened to hold the record for the longest field goal ever kicked in NFL history.  Although his competition was steep, Cox still seemed to have the upper hand on Dempsey.  He played five games for the Bills that season and could not fathom how far life had taken him.   His luck changed, however, when the Bills acquired John Leypoldt, who had previously kicked for them.  With the acquisition of Leypoldt and with Dempsey still on the roster, there was no room left for Cox.  He was sent back to the AFA and back to the Chargers due to lack of experience.

Cox brushed off the setback with the Bills and continued pursuing his football career.  He spent a few years with the AFA, did a pre-season with the Atlanta Falcons, played Canadian Football and played for the United States Football League in San Antonio, before giving up his NFL dreams at the age of 28.

Shortly after his football career ended, Cox was offered the opportunity to take over his father’s insurance company.  Not exactly wanting to follow in those footsteps, he chose instead to sell franchises for his brother.  The franchise business took him all over the United Stated and he eventually found himself in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Cox had found his new home in a city as loud and extravagant as he was.  He did stand-up comedy for three years and played poker for 14.  He was back on top of the world.  He owned real estate in Vegas and had seemed to get his life back into order.  But then the economy crashed in 2008 and Cox had to sell everything just to break even. About the same time Cox’s father fell ill.  Cox decided to move back to Charlotte to spend time with his father.  It was a decision he is grateful he made.  He felt it gave him time to reconnect with his biggest fan.  “He was my greatest supporter,” Cox said with tears in his eyes.

With the death of his father in 2010, Cox decided to head back to Las Vegas and try his luck there again.  But before heading back, he stopped in New Orleans to catch a Saints game with a friend, and he has been here ever since.  A split-second decision had Cox and his friend attaining a wholesale license to sell cars. 

That decision led him to a chance meeting with the owner of a tour company.  Cox accepted the job, but then decided it wasn’t the right fit for him. Then Cox met Joseph Spinato, the man he accredits with changing his life for the better.  “I wasn’t broke but I was at the bottom of the barrel when I met Joe,” he says as he remembers the meeting that led him to where he is now.

Spinato offered Cox a position selling tours outside on St. Charles Avenue.  He accepted and worked every day for six months.  He proved himself to be a valuable asset and worked until he was finally offered a shift or two at the coveted window located at 414 Canal Street.  That was three years ago.  Now you can find Cox at that window, which he calls “the window to the world,” six days a week, including holidays. 

You will probably hear him before you see him.  One thing is for sure, once you meet him you will not soon forget him.  His overwhelming personality can be accredited to a life of extreme highs and extreme lows.   He is a man that had the world at his feet and lost it all.  With perseverance and determination he made it back to the top.   Simply look above the stool where he sits and you will see a post-it with the motto that he lives by:  If what you did yesterday still looks big, you haven’t achieved anything today. 

Cox may not be in the NFL Hall of Fame.  He may have never exceeded the dreams of his 8th grade self, but if you ask this eternal bachelor how he is doing he will respond with, “This is the best day of my life.”  Looking at him, loving life and loving his job, you know he means it.  Cox has now found a new home suited to his charisma and charm, and there is no place else in the world he would rather be.

Spending time with Cox and having him invite me inside of his incredible journey was a pleasure.  I looked at an entertaining salesman and thought he fit the stereotype, but I soon learned the meaning of “Never judge a book by its cover”.  Cox has also showed me that even though your dreams change you can still find happiness in new ones.

Canal Street

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