The first person to know who the Patriots select in the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday, aside from the front office, will be a man who hasn’t had time to watch much football over the last year.
Don Cox, from West Barnstable, runs the USA Veterans & Military Support Foundation and has worked closely with Robert Kraft and the Patriots for years. This season, as part of its draft coverage, the NFL will host “Draft-a-Thon” — an effort to raise money for COVID-19 relief and highlight organizations that have made a difference in their communities.
The USA Veterans & Military Support Foundation is a perfect example. Cox will drive to Cleveland on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he will prepare for the draft, and on Thursday, he will announce whichever player the Patriots select.
“It’s a dream of a lifetime to go to the draft and be able to just see it, never mind to be part of it,” Cox told Boston.com on Sunday.
Cox got his start with a small nonprofit focused on veterans. He quickly realized that food insecurity was perhaps the biggest issue military families faced, and he began developing the concept of “empowerment centers.” The empowerment centers, which now have three Massachusetts locations, provide food, hygiene products and other essentials. They also have baby pantries and provide help connecting military families to services for mental health, substance abuse, and healthcare.
Six years ago, Cox and the organization were putting together a Christmas party for local children. A little over a month before the party, a fire destroyed the building and took all of the toys with it.
“We had 40 days to find enough stuff for the kids for their Christmas party, and we were struggling mightily,” Cox said.
When the Kraft family heard about the fire, they donated two truckloads of toys. Shortly afterward, Cox partnered with Kraft to help with the Patriots’ Coats4Vets program, as well as a food insecurity program. The two organizations have continued to work together closely, providing support for veterans and military families.
One of Cox’s biggest takeaways over the years has been how close so many families are to a dire situation.
“It only takes one or two little speed bumps to throw things into an uproar and cause problems,” Cox said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been much more than a little speed bump. The Massachusetts stay-at-home order — a necessary measure to bend the curve of infections and keep hospitalizations down — shut many people out of work.
That forced many veteran and military families to make impossible choices.
“We noticed that a lot of the veterans and military families rely on spousal income,” Cox said. “When we had those shutdowns, that spousal income went away and it became a choice of, ‘Do I pay my mortgage? Do I pay my rent? Do I pay my utilities? Do I pay my insurance? Do I feed my family?”
Cox spent the last 58 weeks doing what he could to combat the issues caused by the pandemic. In the early days, the foundation began packing 84 meals into a box — breakfast, lunch and dinner for two people for 14 days. Those numbers were meant to target the veterans over 60, who were particularly concerned about what would happen if they were infected at the grocery store.
“We had the boxes set up so that they could drive into a parking lot with their trunk open, we put the box in the back of their trunk, they can take it home, and they were COVID safe,” Cox said. “They didn’t have to go out into a situation where they could contract the disease.”
Initially, the operation started at the Joint Base on Cape Cod, but the base was soon converted into a field hospital. Cox contacted the Krafts, who opened up a building at Gillette where they could continue to distribute food.
Cox’s foundation had to deal with food shortages throughout the pandemic. Peanut butter was scarce at times. So was pasta. But in all, they distributed 42.7 million pounds of food over the last year — 600,000 boxes to families in need.
“It’s been a long grind with no time off,” Cox said.
So Cox can be excused if he isn’t familiar with the player whose name he calls on Thursday. As a lifelong Patriots fan, however, he’s thrilled. He hopes the NFL will let him keep the card with the player’s name written on it so he can frame it in his office.
“Finding out who the next great player for the new New England Patriots is gonna be. I’ll know about it before anybody else does,” he said. “That’s kind of fun.”
Like many others, Cox thought the pandemic would last two or three weeks. But the weeks turned into months, which turned into a year. Cox said his biggest realization during that time has been how much stronger the safety nets that hold up vulnerable populations need to be.
“The thing that amazed me in this in this pandemic was how a family could be on the edge within two weeks, and how many families were in that situation,” he said. “There weren’t savings to sustain people, there wasn’t food to sustain people. …
“Coming out of this thing, we need to take a good hard look at it and figure out a better way so that, God forbid this ever happens again, we’re better prepared for it.”
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