DEAN Cox's first football dream was to play for the Dampier Sharks' senior side.
Haven't heard of them? That's not particularly surprising, since the port town is home to fewer than 1500 people and tucked in the Pilbara region in north-west Western Australia.
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Cox ticked that box and never stopped dreaming.
He dared to move 1500-plus-km away to Perth as an 18-year-old – leaving his parents and younger brother (plus best mate and sparring partner) behind – in search of a WAFL game, thinking then the AFL wasn't realistic for him.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The "uncoordinated" ruckman blossomed into a West Coast premiership player, club best and fairest and games record-holder, six-time All-Australian and now Hall of Famer who is forging a coaching career. He is credited with revolutionising the ruck role in a 290-game career that spanned 15 seasons and ended in retirement in 2014.
Cox's journey was extraordinary for many reasons, not the least that Eagles recruiter Trevor Woodhouse's invitation for him to audition for a rookie spot doubled as his first proper pre-season.
He hadn't arrived from Dampier to play for East Perth's Colts until late January that year, so his AFL trial months later – under then-West Coast coach Ken Judge – was a baptism of fire.
Cox somehow survived and thrived enough to become an Eagle with the No.28 pick in the rookie draft but he started fifth in line on the ruck depth chart.
By season's end, at age 19, he accepted the Simpson Medal as the best player afield in East Perth's WAFL premiership and was promoted to West Coast's senior list for the next year.
"That was a pivotal stage in my career; getting through that season and playing consistent football at East Perth," Cox said.
"Once that was done, it was, 'OK, you've got a spot on the senior list now' and I didn't want to come back unprepared ever again."
Cox's famed work ethic was borne – and combined with his ultra-competitiveness and rare skillset and agility for a man of 204cm, he became an all-time great.
The end result was no accident.
He remembers drawing an oval on a notepad and, from the Subiaco stands, fastidiously jotting down everywhere ex-Carlton ruckman Matthew Allan ran, quarter by quarter, one day against Fremantle.
One decade on, it was others marvelling as Cox routinely ran 14km in games.
The physicality of Allan, Luke Darcy, Steven King and Matthew Primus taught Cox invaluable early lessons, while training with and against Michael Gardiner was arguably the making of him.
The likes of Brendon Lade, Paddy Ryder and, perhaps, his greatest rival, Aaron Sandilands, effectively forced him to take his game to another level.
Cox always ran in groups where he was the chaser, and admits now he would train on his days off – ignoring the sports scientists' strict orders – to try and gain "a competitive advantage".
"I went into games knowing I could probably outrun my opponents, and that was a confidence I built over a period of time," he said.
"I wanted to expose my opponent, firstly in the ruck contest and then once that ball hit the ground, I was out of there."
His off-field influences were many and varied but included Brendan Bell (Dampier Sharks), his parents Norm and Mary, his brother Jason, his uncles George and Charlie, and Tony Micale, John Worsfold and Adam Simpson (West Coast).
Cox's one regret from his career was he played in only one flag, beating Sydney in a one-point thriller in 2006, and he is certain the West Coast sides in that era were capable of winning more.
However, the 38-year-old father-of-two – Charlotte, 7, and Isabella, 4 – thinks more about what he does have, which is plenty.
"This is something I didn't expect," Cox said of being a Hall of Famer.
"You probably don't think you're going to get there or belong there until it happens, and then it's still a bit of a shock. It's a great honour."
Dean Cox on…
Growing up in Dampier
"The best thing about Dampier was it was a small, country town and everyone knew everyone. You'd go to school, finish, then you'd just play sport – whatever it was. We played multiple sports in winter, then come summer you'd play the complete opposite and everything you could possibly do, you did with all your mates."
"I credit a lot of the way I played to Michael Gardiner. I was a young kid who came to a footy club, he was in his prime, you got to train and experience and test yourself against someone who was an All-Australian in 2003. Unfortunately for Michael, he got injured. From there, I was probably ready from the battles and everything I'd learned throughout the training program from him."
"The best thing about Nic is the way he can impact a game. He does it in bursts, and he can really inspire and turn a team around, and I think the good thing about when you train with Nic, obviously his jump and everything was so elite that you'd have to try and do things differently to try and combat it. That helped when you were playing on a Paddy Ryder or those types. He's just a freak of an athlete and he works really hard on his game as well."
The Sydney rivalry
"The battles we had with Sydney; in the end we probably deserved one (premiership) each, with what we did over a long period of time. When you're talking from qualifying finals, to Grand Finals, to home and away season games – they were just neck and neck every time. Certainly speaking to some Sydney people now; both sides had so much respect for each other – it was phenomenal. You knew if one side was up, the other one was coming."
Leo Barry's mark to win Sydney the 2005 Grand Final
"Could I have kicked it a little bit differently? I don't know. But I'd hate to have got stuck with the ball there. I knew there wasn't long, so I got it, wheeled onto my left boot and kicked it, then Leo did what Leo did, and from there the reflection part comes. To have the '05 year we had and end up in a Grand Final, when a lot of us were still pretty young, and to get the experience of battling as hard as you can and falling just short – it was gut-wrenching."
West Coast's 2006 premiership side
"We'd played a lot of footy together and started to build chemistry and symmetry and then the belief came. Some of those games we were behind, away from home, got us ready for when we were challenged in big moments. We had players who were, if you look across, probably destined to play in Grand Finals, from their personalities."
The iconic celebration after winning the 2006 flag
"It was just a reaction to the moment. I copped a bit of flak, saying I pushed a few teammates away to do it (laughing). It's just something that happened at that particular time. I was in the same area of the ground a year later than when I was sitting there on all fours losing a Grand Final, so it's an unbelievable feeling. The emotion comes, and relief is one of them."
His best teammates
"I think the best ones I played with were the ones I played with the longest. If you're talking the era before me, or as I was just starting and they were finishing, you think of (Dean) Kemp, (Guy) McKenna, (Ashley) McIntosh, (Glen) Jakovich and (Peter) Matera. One of the questions I get asked the most is, 'Who was the best out of (Chris) Judd, (Ben) Cousins or (Daniel) Kerr?'. They all have different strengths and shaped me along the way, so those three are right up there. I have a huge opinion for Darren Glass as well."
Being a six-time All-Australian
"I suppose being consistent is the first thing, when you say that number. I wanted to be the best ruck in the competition, so being able to do that for a period was really rewarding for the hard work you put in. But once one season finished, it was about how you could change a part of your game, or maintain the level you're at. You were forever trying to keep ahead of the game as much as possible."
Retiring 10 games short of 300
"One thing I listened to people about when I was younger was them saying some people kept playing longer than they should have. I wanted to finish knowing I probably could have kept going – and I didn't want to tarnish what I'd created. I knew what I wanted to do post-footy (coaching) and, at West Coast, there was an opportunity for Scott Lycett to sign up again, and he turned out to be a premiership player. Just to play a certain number of games never really appealed to me."
Being a dad
"You talk about the experience you get winning Grand Finals but being a dad is better than anything you can experience personally. It's unreal, it's challenging and forever changing but you wouldn't change it for the world."
Dean Cox by the numbers
Played 290 games and scored 169 goals for West Coast: 2001-2014
AFL Premiership player: 2006
Club Best & Fairest: 2008
All Australian: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011, 2012
Represented the Dream Team in the Hall of Fame Tribute Match: 2008
East Perth Premiership Player: 2000
Simpson Medallist: 2000
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