Fred Cox, 1938–2019
The NFL kicker who helped invent the Nerf football
For 15 seasons, Fred Cox was one of the Minnesota Vikings’ most valuable players. The placekicker scored 1,365 points—the second most in NFL history at the time of his retirement in 1977—and was on the gridiron for all of the team’s four Super Bowl appearances. But perhaps his greatest play came in 1971, when entrepreneur John Mattox approached him with an idea for a backyard field goal–kicking game for kids. Mattox initially wanted to use a heavy football that couldn’t be booted far. “You’re gonna have a bunch of sore-legged kids,” Cox told him and suggested instead that the ball be made of foam rubber. Cox asked a friend in the injection molding business to create a prototype, and the resulting foam pigskin was light, aerodynamic, and a hit with neighborhood kids. Toy maker Parker Bros. licensed the Nerf (Non-Expanding Recreational Foam) football, which has since sold in the tens of millions and been used in countless backyard, beach, and living-room catch sessions.
“A native of Monongahela, Pa., Cox played running back at the University of Pittsburgh and was drafted as a fullback in 1961” by the Cleveland Browns, said The Washington Post. A back injury derailed his plans to play that position and he began practicing placekicking. Traded to the Vikings in 1962, he became a star member of a team that included legendary players such as defensive linemen Alan Page and Carl Eller and the quarterback Joe Kapp.
After retiring, Cox set up a successful practice as a chiropractor, said CBSSports.com, and supplemented his income with generous royalties from the Nerf football. “My life has always been one of very good fortune,” Cox said. “Things just seem to have come my way."