TAMPA — Before taking on another purgatorial morning, the Bucs will gather Monday to observe and celebrate a different kind of heat.
Specifically, heat three, women’s 400-meter hurdles semifinals. All eyes inside the AdventHealth Training Center will be fixed to this race, pulling for former USC standout Anna Cockrell. Bruce Arians will make sure of it.
“Every TV in the building at (7:55) will be on her running,” the Bucs coach said, “so we’re excited about that.”
In an ideal setting, Ross Cockrell would be in Tokyo with his folks — Serena and Kieth — and younger sister Ciera (a law student), watching the baby of the brood pursue a gold medal. But the pandemic, and professional obligations, have kept them a world away.
So Cockrell, veteran Bucs defensive back, will watch the race with his teammates just prior to Monday’s practice.
“Obviously we’re here, we’re in camp, it’s a very nice distraction,” Cockrell said following Sunday’s workout. “But I know that she’s worked hard her entire life for this, I’m just super excited for her.”
Call it another 400-meter stretch of a surreal parallel odyssey for these siblings.
Six months after winning a Super Bowl ring on a team that signed him to its practice squad two weeks into the regular season, Cockrell —on his fifth NFL team since being a fourth-round draft pick out of Duke in 2014 — is watching a younger sibling attempt to reach the apex of her own sport.
Roughly two years after contemplating quitting track, Anna, 23, ran a personal-best 53.70 seconds in the 400 hurdles at the Olympic trials in late June, passing two others down the stretch for a third-place finish and the final spot on the Olympic team.
“I don’t know, it’s hard to explain, all these things happening at once,” said Cockrell, who turns 30 on Friday and appears a lock to again make the Bucs roster as a corner who can double at safety.
“My middle sister’s going to law school, my dad is doing a great job at his job (bank president in Charlotte, N.C.), my mom is the mother of all mothers. And Anna and I are doing this thing in sports to be where everybody can see it. We’re just tremendously thankful people, and we’ve just got to keep working hard.”
Working too hard nearly ended Anna’s career. In a poignant essay she recently wrote for the Players’ Tribune, Anna described how self-inflicted pressure to excel — in track and in the classroom — led to self-isolation and depression. A dropped baton in the 4x400-meter relay at the 2019 NCAA Championships (where Anna won the 400 hurdles) didn’t help matters.
But strangely, the ensuing pandemic allowed her to decompress, spend quality time with her family and rediscover her passion for running.
In early June, Anna — a Dean’s List student at USC who graduated in 2019 — again won the NCAA women’s 400 hurdles title, as well as the 100 hurdles.
“She had the chance actually to repeat the senior year, the season that she missed,” said Cockrell, who appeared in 12 regular-season games and all four playoff contests last season.
“And the conversations that we had — Ciera, Anna and I — Anna really actually enjoyed that time. She had time to kind of mentally take a break and then gear back up for what she knew was going to be the longest year of her life, which it has been so far.”
As that year reaches its culmination, Anna finds herself with a prominent, pewter-and-red support group, which includes a former Trojans track teammate.
“I’m not surprised at all,” said Bucs fourth-year tailback Ronald Jones II, who ran for USC as a freshman. “She was a champion in college. You go to USC for those moments.”
As moments go, Cockrell believes his sister will embrace the one before her.
“She was a five-star recruit coming out of high school, so I just tell her, ‘Be a five-star, just breathe and do it,’” Cockrell said. “She’s very talented, she’s a very beautiful person inside and out, so I don’t tell her too much — just breathe, just do it and let your light shine.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.
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