An athlete with Down syndrome made history. Then the abuse began, the suit says.
Caden Cox ran out to the 13-yard line with 3:22 left in the third quarter as his Hocking College Hawks battled the Sussex County Community College Skylanders on Sept. 11, 2021.
With Cox ready, the center snapped the football to the holder, who caught it and put it on the turf. Wearing No. 21, Cox trotted forward, pulled back his right leg, and swept it forward, lifting the ball through the uprights.
The extra point was good.
With that, Cox made history as the first known player with Down syndrome to score during a college football game. The feat earned him a spot in the history books and a 5½-minute segment on ESPN.
People talked to me and said, ‘Wow, it was an awesome kick
“People talked to me and said, ‘Wow, it was an awesome kick,’” he told a reporter at the time.
Less than two years later, Cox is suing his alma mater, alleging that the very thing that made his kick historic also made him a target for discrimination. In a lawsuit filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for Southern Ohio, Cox alleges that college officials in Nelsonville, Ohio, discriminated against him because he has Down syndrome and then retaliated against him when he reported it to administrators. In one incident, a supervisor at the college’s student center threatened him with a knife and was later convicted in the incident.
President Betty Young declined to comment on Cox’s allegations but, in a statement to The Washington Post, said that she’s “happy Hocking College could provide opportunities for Caden to receive a college education and to participate in college athletics.”
“We remain committed to provide such to all our students,” she added.
Cox alleges that the discrimination started soon after June 2021 when the college hired Matthew Kmosko, a former professional soccer player, as a soccer coach and a supervisor at the college’s student center. In the latter role, Kmosko oversaw Cox, who worked at the center as a student-employee. As Cox’s boss, Kmosko consistently used “derogatory slurs” about people with Down syndrome and repeatedly berated him in front of his co-workers, the suit alleges.
Court records do not yet list an attorney for Kmosko. The public defender who represented Kmosko in the criminal trial declined to comment on Cox’s allegations in the civil suit.
In July 2021, Cox’s mother, Mari, who works at the college, filed a written complaint about Kmosko’s behavior with the college’s human resources department, according to the suit.
The misbehavior not only continued but also escalated, it alleges.
In January 2022, Mari emailed another complaint about Kmosko, asking that he be replaced as her son’s supervisor, the suit says. In the message, she accused Kmosko of calling her son the r-word, taking his phone without permission, and “putting his hands on [her son] inappropriately.”
Then, on May 12, when Cox went into a men’s bathroom to change the garbage bags, Kmosko allegedly followed him, blocked the exit and screamed at Cox while preventing him from leaving. As Kmosko did, he pointed a knife at Cox’s chest, the suit states.
Cox told investigators he feared that Kmosko would stab him, according to a police report.
Surveillance cameras captured Kmosko walking into and out of the bathroom with the knife, the suit states. Shaken and scared, Cox returned to the front desk, where he said he received a call from Kmosko. He allegedly told Cox that he could see him sitting there and ordered him to “get up and do something” before hanging up.
Cox “was terrified and traumatized and called his mother immediately,” according to the suit.
In July, Kmosko, who resigned from the college, was charged with aggravated menacing, a misdemeanor, in connection with the incident, and an Athens County jury found him guilty in January of menacing, a lesser charge. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
This past October, the college sent an email to employees calling for nominations for awards at the fall graduation ceremony, the suit states, and Cox “was nominated for nearly every award” by several staff members, including his coaches. Once the votes were tallied on Nov. 11, Cox had won three honors: the Inspirational Award, the Scholar Athlete Award, and the Hocking College Trustee Award, which was to be bestowed at a graduation ceremony on Dec. 10.
On Dec. 2, lawyers representing the Cox family delivered a letter to Young, laying out their allegations of discrimination, harassment, and assault.
On Dec. 9, a day before the ceremony, Cox’s father, Kevin, who worked at the college as a football coach until he resigned in February, arrived at the school to set up for the next day’s festivities. Reviewing the ceremony program, he noticed it listed his son as having won only one award, although a QR code on posters around the school routed to a digital version showing all three.
“Retaliation is the only plausible reason for the surreptitious and punitive removal of [Cox’s] graduation awards days before the graduation ceremony was to take place,” the suit alleges.
For people with Down syndrome, a longer life, but under a cloud
After graduating, Cox completed a football-related internship at Texas A&M University, where his older brother works as a strength coach, his lawyer, Mark Weiker, told The Post. He’s back in Ohio and, in June, plans to go to orientation at an Ohio State University program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
But a year later, the knife incident still haunts Cox, according to his lawsuit. He continues to suffer from nightmares and anxiety. When he visits Hocking’s campus, he gets especially scared when he sees a red car like the one Kmosko used to drive to school.
“The distress that [Caden] suffered and continues to suffer from as a result of the trauma he endured,” the suit states, “will affect him emotionally and psychologically for the rest of this life.”