A long phone conversation with Fred Cox reminiscing about his myriad experiences both on and off the gridiron leads to an obvious question: What hasn’t the man done? The answer to that query is anything but apparent.
Patriarch of a loving family. Licensed pilot capable of building his own planes. Successful businessman. Dedicated medical professional. Inventor of a toy responsible for countless smiles. And in his spare time, one of the 50 greatest Minnesota Vikings.
“Good fortune seems to play into everything in my life to the point where when I was a young man, my dad said about me, ‘You’re so lucky you’d fall into an outhouse and come out with a new suit,’” Cox says with a laugh.
Cox, 72, hasn’t needed a new suit in decades. He’s been retired from his many professional ventures for more than 20 years. As he and his wife Bonnie shuffle between their winter residence in Surprise, Ariz. and their homestead in Monticello, Minn., there is no clock to punch but plenty of time to enjoy four adult children, 13 grandkids and various hobbies.
“Basically, my time is consumed by hunting, doing a little fishing, working on airplanes and playing golf. It’s not too shabby,” Cox says. “I retired when I was 50. Retired from everything. The Nerf football had a lot to do with that.”
The former Viking invented the ever-popular cushy football when he was still kicking field goals in a purple jersey. Much to Cox’s surprise, his creation from the early 1970s remains the top-selling football of all time.
“It’s safe to say that I don’t know how much money I’ve made over the years from it, but I can tell you that it’s been considerable,” says Cox, who receives quarterly checks from Hasbro, which today owns the Nerf line of products. “Three years ago, I know they sold over eight million of them. They sell them all over the world.”
The Nerf football became a reality in 1972, shortly after John Mattox introduced himself to Cox and solicited his opinion on the idea of a movable goal post that kids could position in their backyard to practice kicking. When told by Mattox that he intended to use a heavy ball so kids wouldn’t kick it out of their yard, Cox suggested a lighter alternative, something made of foam, to prevent, as he says, “a bunch of sore-legged kids.”
Inspired by the idea, the duo had a mold made of a full-sized football and employed an injection molder in the Twin Cities region to produce a prototype of the lightweight ball. The process resulted in a thick-skinned football that was denser than the existing round Nerf balls intended for indoor play that entered the marketplace in 1970.
“The weight was right,” Cox says. “When you threw it, it flew like a football.”
Assuming young kids would be the primary consumers of the product, Cox and Mattox had the size reduced to about three-quarters of a regulation-sized football and took some samples to Parker Brothers, which at the time was selling the round Nerf balls. With the help of an agent, they pitched the backyard goal post idea and displayed the new ball that the kids would kick.
“About halfway through the presentation, a guy from Parker Brothers told us he wasn’t interested in anything but the ball,” Cox says. “They had been trying to make a Nerf football for three years. They were trying to make them the same way as their round balls, taking a block of foam and using a hot wire to cut balls out of the foam. Their footballs had holes in them. They had tried everything except for injection molding them. The man said, ‘I want that ball.’”
Thanks to Cox and Mattox, Parker Brothers finally had a lightweight ball that was shaped and reacted like a real football. And approximately six months after Mattox visited him at his Edina, Minn. home, Cox possessed a “huge, two-page contract” from Parker Brothers guaranteeing him a cut of every Nerf football sold.
“The satisfaction of it was the simplicity of the process,” Cox says. “It was such a simple idea.”
Asked why Mattox invited his advice in the first place, Cox says he assumes it was because Mattox knew he was a kicker. But in truth, Cox was more than just another kicker. He was one of the best in the game. He is the Vikings’ leading scorer, 695 points ahead of the second person on the list, all-time great wide receiver Cris Carter.
Raised in Monongahela, Pa., a tiny town just south of Pittsburgh, Cox punted and kicked in high school and throughout his college years at the University of Pittsburgh, where he played with future Vikings teammate Ed Sharockman and Hall of Fame tight end Mike Ditka. But the pre-med major at Pitt was also an outstanding running back and defensive back. In fact, the Cleveland Browns drafted Cox in the eighth round to compete for the job of blocking back for arguably the greatest running back in history, Jim Brown.
However, that plan became moot after Cox suffered a back injury shortly after his rookie training camp began in 1962. Paul Brown, the team’s Hall of Fame head coach, asked Cox to try to make it as a kicker.
“Now anybody with any real common sense would have known the odds were stacked against me because they had a guy named Lou Groza there,” Cox says. In addition to being an All-Pro offensive tackle, Groza was a Hall of Fame kicker. “But he’s the reason I eventually made it as a kicker. I spent all of training camp up until the last exhibition game with him, and I learned more from Lou Groza in that period of time than I learned in all my years of kicking before and after that.
“I think the biggest thing I learned is that placekicking is like golf. It’s very simple. Keep your head down and follow through. Keep your head down just long enough to make good contact with the ball and then whip your body to give you your distance.”
Before the last exhibition game, Cleveland traded Cox to the fledgling Vikings, about to enter their second season of play. The rookie kicked well in his one game for Minnesota, but the team released him the following day.
“Norm Van Brocklin made no bones about it,” Cox says about the Vikings’ head coach. “He told me that he wanted to keep me, but we could only have 36 players and we were too young a team to be able to keep a guy who just kicked.”
Instead Minnesota decided to keep veteran Mike Mercer to handle the punting and kicking duties. Cox returned home to Pennsylvania, where he taught school. By the next season, Mercer was gone and the Vikings invited Cox back for another tryout. This time they picked Cox to be the team’s kicker and punter and he wound up sticking around for the next 15 seasons.
In his first season (1963), Cox made 12 field goals, a single-season record for the young franchise, but he wasn’t too pleased with his 38.7-yard punting average.
“Norm Van Brocklin would never let me change my shoe,” Cox says. “I was trying to punt with a placekicking shoe on, which made it very difficult. I was a straight-on kicker so the front of my shoe was flat straight across and came up almost two inches high. When I went to punt, it was difficult not to catch the ball on the front of the shoe.”
By 1964, the rosters had expanded enough to allow the team the luxury of adding a punter so Cox could concentrate solely on placekicking. He responded by scoring 103 points, just 12 behind his old mentor Lou Groza in Cleveland. That season was a microcosm of Cox’s career. He didn’t display the strongest leg but had a knack for successfully converting makeable kicks.
“If you are going to be a good kicker and help the team, you have to make the kicks that you should make,” says Cox, who is 21st in NFL history with 282 field goals. “In other words, from 40 yards in, you make a high percentage of those kicks. I made every field goal attempt from 35 yards in for something like five years in a row. You want to see a team take a nose dive? Miss a 25-yard field goal.”
For his career, Cox made 62 percent of his 455 field goal attempts. In today’s NFL, that percentage would get a kicker cut. The top 20 kickers in 2010 all hit on at least 80 percent of their kicks. The 70.27 percent conversion rate that Cox had in 1969 to lead the league would have placed him 30th among placekickers this past season.
“It was such a different game when I played,” he says. “We didn’t really practice special teams and kicking. All the games were outdoors. You take all the kickers today and take them to Minnesota and have them kick outside from November through January and you are not going to see 85-percent guys anymore.”
To this day, Cox takes great pride in his success rate with the game on the line.
“If you brought me in at the end of the game and it was win or lose, for some reason I was blessed with the ability to have phenomenal focus,” he says. “Basically my longevity came from the fact that I made the big kicks. In 15 years, I missed two kicks to win a game. I missed one against the Bears to the left and against the Cardinals I hit the upright and it bounced out. I have no idea of how many game-winning kicks I made. I just remember the two I didn’t make.”
Cox also credits center Mick Tingelhoff and Hall of Fame safety/holder Paul Krause for his long career, which resulted in 215 games played, third in Vikings history.
“Mick snapped for every field goal and extra point that I ever kicked in the NFL. That’s an unbelievable statistic,” Cox says. “And Paul Krause held every ball for me for the last 10 years I played. Paul was a phenomenal holder.”
Unlike today’s kicking specialists, who are notorious for conducting their drills separate from their teammates, Cox was a fully integrated member of the Vikings during their Purple Power Years, which included four Super Bowl trips in eight seasons. During practices, he actually ran the scout team, mimicking the upcoming opponent’s offensive and defensive tendencies.
“I think one of the things that Bud Grant appreciated about me was that I was a football player,” Cox says about the Vikings’ Hall of Fame coach. “He would give me the cards (containing the opponent’s predominant formations and plays) and I would run the scout-team offense and the scout-team defense. Very few kickers even today probably understand defense. If you told them to put everybody in a 5-2 under, they would look at you like you had something to drink. I knew where to put everybody.
“I played middle linebacker on the scout-team defense. On offense, in the early years, I played running back. Later on, I lined up at center.”
Of course on Sundays, Cox only kicked. Statistically, his best years were 1969 and 1970, when he led the league in scoring. In fact, his 121 points in 1969 were at that time the most ever by a kicker in a single season. He bested that mark the following season with 125 points. Despite the impressive numbers, Cox never felt that he had foolproof job security.
“Let’s put it this way: They brought kickers to camp every year. That doesn’t lend to great security,” he says. “Security is when you have the job and they don’t bring in other people to try to beat you out. That’s not the way it was. The bottom line was you had to make a lot of kicks.”
By the time he retired following the 1977 season, Cox made enough kicks to become just the third man in NFL history to top 1,300 points. His 1,364 career points rank 25th today on the all-time scoring list.
Cox’s legacy in team history was recently cemented when he was named one of the 50 greatest Vikings during a December ceremony that culminated the year-long celebration of the franchise’s golden anniversary.
“I was very honored,” he says. “There were no other kickers, no other punters named. As a kicker, for me to be named one of the 50 greatest players was unbelievable. I would rank it third in terms of my football career after leading the league in scoring two different times.”
The top-50 honor provided a rare prompt for Cox to look back upon his career. He readily admits that once he stopped playing, he easily moved on with his life.
“I just went and did a bunch of other things,” he says.
Long before his final game, Cox was a very successful chiropractor. He also had his pilot’s license and owned his own airplane. Following his retirement from the Vikings, he continued as a chiropractor and moved into a mentorship role, teaching young chiropractors how to grow their practice. Cox also became a successful active investor in various companies. And being free of football also gave Cox the time to restore airplanes, including two that he bought in pieces and rebuilt for both of his sons.
“I did a lot more than invent the Nerf football,” Cox says with a chuckle.
However, he remains proud of that cushy creation that is generally regarded as one of the most enduring toys of the past half century.
“If I go out and do anything where there are younger people and the Nerf football comes up, they are way more impressed with the Nerf than the fact that I played for 15 years in the NFL,” he says.
As for that opening question on what Cox hasn’t done in life, he does offer a closing playful challenge: “Let me know when you find out.”
It’s safe to say the search is ongoing.
EXTRA POINTS WITH FRED COX
On his most memorable kick …
“In my rookie year, I beat the Packers on a field goal in Milwaukee.”
On the best kickers he ever saw …
“Pretty much a tie between Jan Stenerud and Lou Groza.”
On why he kicked straight-on instead of soccer style despite playing soccer as a youth …
“I grew up kicking straight-on. I didn’t want to mess with the way I did it.”
On the need for more kickers in the Hall of Fame …
“You only have one pure kicker (Jan Stenerud) in the Hall of Fame, yet I would say that for 90 percent of all the teams, the leading scorer in their history is a kicker. That’s like saying Fran Tarkenton doesn’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame even though he completed a million passes. It’s craziness.”
On ex-teammates he remains in contact with …
“I roomed with Jim Lindsey for seven years. We are extremely close to this day. After Jim, I roomed with Jeff Siemon until I retired. Jeff and I are close. I’m still close with (Bill) Brown, Ozzie (Dave Osborn), (Mick) Tingelhoff and (Paul) Krause.”