Detroit Lions punter Jack Fox honors fallen friend’s legacy through football

Detroit Free Press

It didn’t register at first.

Jack Fox was back home in Missouri, studying for an upcoming exam at the local library, the day after his grandfather’s funeral, when one of his college teammates, Trey Martin, called with tragic news.

Rice defensive lineman Blain Padgett had not shown up for that morning’s workout, something totally out of character for one of the team’s most beloved players.

One teammate texted Fox asking if he knew where Padgett was. Fox replied he had no idea, and went back to his books.

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An hour or so later, after Rice coach Mike Bloomgren sent a group text message calling for a team meeting, Fox texted Padgett and asked, “Dude, what’s going on? Why are we having a team meeting?”

No response.

Then Martin called and broke the news: Padgett, their good friend and roommate, was dead. Martin had found him cold to the touch in his bedroom.

Dead like exhausted from that morning’s workout, Fox thought? Or still hungover from drinking too much the night before?

“Not like that ever happened to him, just that, that registered to me quicker then him being dead, dead,” Fox said.

When Martin’s words finally sunk in, Fox sat there numb as a stone.

“My uncles were in town, I remember they took me out to lunch or dinner or whatever,” Fox said. “It was really bizarre. It was definitely a numb feeing, sitting there, not knowing what to say, what to do.”

Three years after Padgett’s death from the toxic effects of a painkiller laced with the synthetic opioid carfentanil, Fox still is coming to grips with the tragedy.

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He honored his friend by writing Padgett’s No. 90 on the back of his cleats for every game last year. He thinks of him often before games, and returns to Houston every offseason to spend time with Padgett’s family. And he decided to share his story now, coming off a Pro Bowl season and with the Detroit Lions set to open their 2021 preseason Friday against the Buffalo Bills. It’s both a way to keep Padgett’s memory alive and to warn others about the dangers of taking unprescribed pills, a cause that has become a crusade for the Padgett family.

“When you lose a kid, I mean, me and my wife and my daughters and our family, we think about him every day,” said Mical Padgett, Blain’s father. “We hurt and we miss him and it’s kind of a hopeless feeling. You’re going to feel like that forever and you’re never going to see him until hopefully the end and you go to heaven and all that works out like you want.

“So to have someone like Jack or any of his friends, my friends, that anytime they talk about Blain or honor him in any way, or his memory, it’s kind of what we — that’s the fuel that we burn to kind of get through the day and get through the year. It means a lot, especially coming from Jack, cause Jack is, he’s a pretty quiet guy. And he’s really quiet and probably doesn’t share a lot of his inside, so that’s great. But for him to still hang onto that memory of Blain and for Blain to have made an impact on him, like I said it’s probably the most meaningful thing that I could think of right now and it just makes us very proud.”

An inseparable bond

Fox, from suburban St. Louis, and Padgett, from rural Texas, clicked almost instantly as members of Rice’s 2015 recruiting class.

They played Fortnite and Call of Duty together on Xbox. They learned to play guitar together, buying cheap guitars from a local music store and watching YouTube videos trying to master the Oasis song “Wonderwall.” They grilled pork butt and burgers and steaks when they weren’t hanging out at the nearby Twin Peaks. And they bonded over football.

Fox was an all-conference catcher in baseball and played quarterback in high school, something that endeared him to Padgett, a big defensive lineman whose father played football at Texas.

“I think he’s, it’s cliché but like ‘work hard, play hard’-type thing,” Fox said. “He’s really fun to be around outside the facility, fun to hang out with on the weekends, but at the same time he’s the hardest worker in the weight room. If someone isn’t doing their thing in the weight room, someone’s mouthing off to a coach or if they’re not finishing sets, he’s the guy that’s going to get in their face.”

Fox handled kickoffs as a true freshman, while Padgett played as a backup defensive lineman. As a sophomore, Padgett made 41 tackles as a starter and doubled as Fox’s long snapper on punts.

One time, when the two were watching a Dallas Cowboys game together, Padgett told Fox he had a better leg than the Cowboys punter and would one day kick in the NFL.

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“Our first game, this was against Western Kentucky, and first punt we go out there, dude snaps it like eight feet over my head,” Fox said. “It goes through the back of the end zone. All these little kid baseball players are out there watching the game, they’re all talking shit to me. We’re at Western Kentucky. And I go back to the sideline, and most long snappers are like so heady, and their only job is to snap so they get so frustrated about it. He literally laughed at how bad his snap was. He probably felt bad that we gave up points, but he’s like, ‘I (expletive) suck.’”

As nonchalant as he was about long-snapping, Padgett lived and breathed football.

As a freshman, Padgett once slugged a prominent older teammate in the weight room for mouthing off to a coach.

Padgett suffered a back injury in high school that cost him part of one season, and as a junior at Rice he tore the labrum in his shoulder and missed the final nine games of the year.

Padgett was cleared to return for spring practice in February of 2018, and Mical said his son “was on Cloud 9” about getting back on the field when the two spoke for about an hour the night before Blain’s death.

“I remember thinking in my head like, ‘Man, that’s kind of weird, we talked a long time and not really about much,’” Mical said. “We were just talking and sitting there kind of like you used to talk to a girlfriend in like high school, junior high. Not really saying much. Just talking life, talking ball. He was jacked up about the next day.”

As jacked up as Padgett was, he still was dealing with pain in his surgically-repaired shoulder.

Mical said he advised his son earlier that winter to ask Rice trainers for a prescription of ibuprofen, and Fox recalls Padgett taking an occasional painkiller at their off-campus home.

“It never felt like a big deal,” Fox said. “It was never like I came home and he’s like passed out on the couch. It didn’t feel like that at all. It just felt like an every-once-in-a-while (thing).”

Seven months after Padgett’s death, authorities charged another former Rice player, Stuart Mouchantaf, with delivery of a controlled substance causing death. Federal prosecutors alleged Mouchantaf supplied Padgett with five pills pressed to look like hydrocodone but laced with carfentanil, an opioid typically used for tranquilizing elephants and other large animals that the Drug Enforcement Administration says is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl.

Padgett took two of the pills and died in his sleep March 2, 2018.

Mouchantaf pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute, causing death, and possession with the intent to distribute, causing death, in February. He faces 20 years to life in prison.

‘If he can, he is’

A couple weeks after Mouchantaf’s plea, Mical Padgett hosted a few dozen friends and family members for a weekend at his Sour Lake, Texas, home.

The group, which consisted of 10 to 15 former Rice players, plus some of Blain’s high school friends and relatives, spent the weekend shooting clays, playing cornhole and drinking beer by a bonfire.

They went to the cemetery and took a group picture by Blain’s grave, and Fox gave the Padgetts a special gift — one of the two jerseys he got for making the Pro Bowl.

Mical Padgett said Fox inscribed the jersey with a heartfelt message he prefers to keep private, and that the jersey now hangs in the family’s trophy room.

“Fall football has always been that time of year, even when (Blain) played, like, little league football, I guess you can say I kind of lived through him,” Mical Padgett said. “Just I enjoy watching him play, his passion. I’ve always looked forward to fall. I kind of lost that a little bit. I tried to kind of re-do those thoughts and those feelings by going to Rice games the year after Blain died, two years after, but it never really was the same. But now that I can watch Jack play, it really does give me a reason to look forward to NFL football season. And I’ve got a new favorite team.”

The Padgetts have worked to raise awareness about the dangers of opioids and taking unprescribed pills since Blain’s death.

They help fund scholarships in Blain’s name given annually to students at his alma matter, Hardin Jefferson High in Sour Lake, and they inspired a “One Pill Can Kill” campaign that the school’s student council took statewide.

This year, that campaign could get even more exposure; Fox said he is looking for a way to honor Blain through the NFL’s My Cause, My Cleats program.

“When I remember Blain, I just remember how he lived with a lot of passion, like whatever he did,” Fox said. “He had a really good time off the field, he worked really hard on the field and, yeah, he just treated people well and lived with passion. And that’s just what I’m trying to do out here.”

In the months after Blain’s death, as he coped with the loss, Fox said Blain’s mother, Wyndi, told him Blain always would be with him on the field.

Last year, when Fox set Lions franchise records for average and net punting in his first NFL season, with Blain’s number on the back of his cleats, her words felt prophetic.

Mical, who plans to take his family to their first Lions game this fall, has embraced that thought, too.

“If he can, he is,” Mical said. “I always wonder what the rules are up there. It’s a little frustrating sometimes, but I always ask him for a little help every now and then, if you’re listening.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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