WHEELING - It may seem difficult to fathom this morning, but there was a time when Magnolia's Justin Fox didn't roam the defensive backfield. But once he took his spot in the Blue Eagles secondary, it didn't take opposing quarterbacks long to figure out throwing to his side of the field was the closest thing to a guaranteed self-inflicted wound as there is.
Fox garnered such a reputation as a ball hawk that his interception total depreciated with each passing season. But in Friday night's West Virginia Class AA title game at Wheeling Island Stadium, Ravenswood quarterback Cole Starcher must have saw something he liked.
It was a mirage.
''Justin's sophomore year, that's how far I'll go back with you on that one,'' Blue Eagles coach Mark Batton said following his team's 28-13 victory that earned the school's first football championship since 1964. ''First game of the year River beat us 31-6 and Justin wasn't playing any defense - he never played defense his freshman year.
''(Defensive coordinator Bob) Ripley said 'let's put him at corner and see how things go.'
''Against Williamstown the next week he had a couple picks and his game just really picked up from there. He gets into the flow of the game quicker.''
Known now as arguably the best pocket passer in the state, Fox's defense did the talking Friday. He intercepted Starcher's first pass after a Red Devils receiver had fallen down, and then delivered the death knell with 29 seconds remaining in the first half.
Fox stepped in front of a Starcher pass near the sideline and raced untouched 35 yards for what proved to be an insurmountable 28-0 bulge.
''I was surprised,'' the unassuming Fox said. ''I didn't think many teams would come at me but I'm glad they did, because going into halftime we got that interception and it was the greatest feeling.''
The Blue Eagles gathered in five interceptions total, and truthfully it could have been a lot more. Fox himself had one knocked out of his hands in the end zone, and another slipped through his fingers late in the fourth quarter.
''Probably not, no,'' Fox said when asked if he has ever had a bigger play than the touchdown return. ''The state championship is all you've got.
''It gave our team momentum.''
And so, one of the most illustrious careers in W.Va. history regardless of class, ends the same way it started - with well-deserved fanfare. Magnolia will have more great players come along, because the school produces them the way the Hershey factory turns out chocolate.
But there will never be another 'Tank' Fox, a kid who combined outstanding athletic ability and the humility to match. As great of a legacy as he's left on the field, there will be a forever-unfillable void off it.
Shawn Rine can be reached via e-mail at Rine@theintelligencer.net