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Vikings Mourn Passing of Legendary Kicker, NERF Football Inventor Fred Cox

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The Vikings are mourning the death of legendary kicker Fred Cox and sending condolences to the family and friends of the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.

Cox, a native of Monangahela, Pennsylvania, passed away Wednesday night in Minnesota, three weeks shy of his 81st birthday.

The Vikings released the following statement:

The Vikings mourn the loss of Fred Cox, one of our proudest legends and a member of the 50 Greatest Vikings. A respected teammate and friend, Fred’s football career as the Vikings all-time leading scorer set the stage for a life where he went on to achieve great things in business and in his community. Fred’s positive energy, strength in his faith and passion for life will be missed.

Cox’s 15 seasons are tied for the third-longest tenure in franchise history. He never missed a game, playing in 210 regular-season contests, which ranks third behind defensive end Jim Marshall (270) and 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Mick Tingelhoff (240).

The franchise leader in scoring with 1,365 points (more than double Hall of Famer Cris Carter’s 670), Cox led the Vikings in points for 11 consecutive seasons (1963-73).

He also played middle linebacker on the scout-team defense and running back for the offense before lining up at center, which was appreciated by Hall of Fame Head Coach Bud Grant, who described Cox as a great kicker and great athlete.

“Fred was the ultimate team player for us,” Grant said. “He took part in all of our scout teams, playing running back or whatever we asked of him. He was a great asset to our team, a true credit to the team and his community. If you saw those games, he always stood right next to me on the sideline because he was such a big part of what we were doing with field position and knew the game so well.”

During an interview in which he was asked to reflect on his career, Cox said one of the things Grant appreciated about him was that he “was a football player,” citing his work on the scout team.

Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton teamed with Cox from 1963-66 and 1972-77. Tarkenton said Cox’s impact went well beyond being “damn good kicker.”

“He had a great brain and was a great thinker,” Tarkenton said. “Fred was a great businessman and invented the Nerf football. He was an intellect that I spent every morning with before we played a game. I spent more time with him than any other player. Fred was a special, special human being who will be missed.”

The journey that led Cox to Minnesota was interesting. Selected in 1961 by Cleveland in the eighth round of the NFL Draft and by the New York Titans in the 28th round of the American Football League Draft, Cox joined the Browns, who were interested in having him block out of the backfield for Hall of Famer Jim Brown.

A back injury, however, shifted Cox’s focus to kicking, and he seized the opportunity to learn from Hall of Fame multitasker Lou Groza. Cox was traded to Minnesota before the final preseason game of the 1962 season. After not making the roster in 1962, Cox returned to Pennsylvania and worked as a teacher until the Vikings invited him back for a tryout in 1963. Two years later, he led the NFL with 23 field goals made.

In 1969, Cox led the NFL with 26 field goals made, a 70.3 percent accuracy rate and 121 points, earning All-Pro recognition and helping Minnesota advance to Super Bowl IV. He was recognized on the field during a halftime ceremony in September for the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Vikings that won the NFL Championship.

Cox again topped the NFL with 30 field goals made and 125 points in 1970, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl.

He is one of 11 players who were on the rosters of Vikings teams that advanced to Super Bowls IV, VIII, IX and XI.

Cox opened Super Bowl XI with a kickoff and recorded the final point with a boot through the uprights at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 9, 1977.

Five years prior, Cox and Minneapolis’ John Mattox teamed together to invent the NERF football, enabling young people everywhere to play with a soft and safe ball that behaves similar to the ones that Cox kicked all those seasons. He also became a chiropractor, operating a successful practice in Minnesota before retiring at age 50.

Cox mused that the success of the NERF football, for which he received quarterly checks, had an impact on his early retirement.

The following is excerpted from a “Where Are They Now?” segment that was previously published on Vikings.com several years ago:

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.’ ”

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