Fred Cox, the Vikings' all-time career scoring leader and the inventor of the highly popular NERF football, passed away Wednesday night at his Minnesota home. He was 80 years old.
The Vikings issued a statement regarding Cox's death on Thursday.
"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."
A native of Monangahela, Pennsylvania, Cox played running back in high school and at the University of Pittsburgh before being taken by the Browns in the eighth round of the 1961 draft. Cox was drafted by Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown to serve as future Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown's blocking back. But a back injury forced Cox to change positions. He was traded from Cleveland to Minnesota in 1963 after failing to beat out future Hall of Fame kicker Lou Groza.
Cox flourished with the Vikings, as he led the NFL in field goal attempts and conversions in 1965. In 1969, he earned All-Pro honors after leading the league in made field goals and field goal accuracy while helping Minnesota capture the NFL title over the Browns. Playing against his former team, Cox made two field goals and three extra points in Minnesota's 27-7 victory.
After the 1970 season, Cox was approached by John Maddox, a local entrepreneur who had an idea about creating a backyard football game for kids that included a football and an adjustable field goal post. When asked by Cox while kind of a football he wanted to create, Maddox said that he wanted to make a hard football so that it would stay in the yard.
"You're gonna have a bunch of sore-legged kids running around," Cox recalled telling Maddox during an interview with NFL Films earlier this year. "You really should be thinking about something made out of foam rubber."
From there, Cox contacted a colleague in the injecting molding business, who created what would later be known as the first NERF football. After field testing their new invention with neighborhood kids, Cox and Maddox pitched their idea to Parker Brothers.
"When the man at Parker Brothers saw that football with the skin on it looking exactly like a regular football," Cox recalled, "I could just look at his eyes and knew he was sold."
And with that, the NERF (which stands for Non Expanding Recreational Foam) football was born. Since that time, NERF footballs have become the best selling football of all-time.
"It really never dawned on me until they were selling six or eight million of them a year exactly what happened," Cox said of his invention. "Of course, I wasn't going to turn it down because they kept sending checks."
The NERF football became a regular household item in homes across America.
"I thought it was pretty cool because you could throw it in the house and you wouldn't break things," said Jerry Rice, the NFL's all-time leader in receptions, yards, and receiving touchdowns, in the NFL Films piece.
"We had so many NERFs, we just played with them constantly," added Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. "It was inside, it was outside, it was at the beach, it was nonstop."
Cox, who also became a licensed chiropractor after retiring from the NFL following the 1977 season, told NFL Films that, despite his success with the NERF football, he was still more remembered as an NFL player, having played in four Super Bowls and being part of one of the greatest teams in pro football history.
"My life has always been one of very good fortune," Cox said. "Things just seem to have come my way."