Fred Cox, Vikings Kicker and an Inventor of Nerf Football, Dies at 80

Fred Cox, a place-kicker for the Minnesota Vikings who scored the most points in the team’s history and, while still playing, helped conceive the Nerf Football, a squishy faux pigskin that sold in the millions, died on Wednesday at his home in Monticello, Minn. He was 80.

The Vikings announced his death but provided no details. He been treated recently for kidney problems.

Cox, a straight-on kicker who used a square-toed shoe, was one of the Vikings’ most valuable players since the team was founded in 1961. He scored 1,365 points, the second most in N.F.L. history at the time of his retirement (he is now ranked No. 34); appeared in 210 games, the third most for a Viking; and played in each of the franchise’s Super Bowl appearances, in 1970, ’74, ’75 and ’77, all of them losses.

“All the players wanted to win,” Cox told The Star Tribune of Minneapolis in 1992. “Yet it might have been easier for the players to accept what happened than the fans. The fans have never been able to live with the fact that we lost four times. But the bottom line is that for any team to get there four times is an amazing feat.”

Cox had led the National Football League in scoring the previous two seasons when, in 1971, his off-the-field career took an unexpected turn. A local entrepreneur, John Mattox, approached him with an idea for a backyard field- goal kicking game for youngsters.

“I asked him, ‘What kind of ball are you going to use?’” Cox recalled in a feature produced by NFL Films and televised last month on Fox Sports 1.

Mattox said he envisioned a ball heavy enough to keep boys and girls from booting it out of their yards. But Cox, knowing what it took physically to kick a traditional football, told him, “You’re going to have a lot of sore-legged kids running around.”

Cox suggested that they use a light material, like foam rubber. They hired an injection-molding company to create a prototype, which met their expectations: It was light, safe and squeezable, and aerodynamic when tossed and kicked.

After trying to sell the rights to the ball to a toy company in Minnesota, they found a buyer at Parker Brothers, in Beverly, Mass. Parker had been making Nerf balls since 1970 and trying to develop a companion football. During the first meeting with Parker executives at the company’s headquarters, Cox recalled, one of them made a call.

“And a guy brings in a toilet tissue box — and toilet tissue boxes in the old days were huge — and this thing’s full of foam rubber footballs,” Cox told The Indiana Gazette in 1979. All were duds.

So Parker quickly signed Cox and Mattox to a licensing deal and brought out the first Nerf Footballs in 1972. Over the years it has sold in the tens of millions, first for Parker and then for Hasbro, which acquired it in 1991, bringing the inventors decades of generous royalties.

“How can you fathom that something’s lasted 50 years and came into being in about 10 minutes?” Cox asked in the NFL Films interview. “I’m really proud of the fact that I invented that thing.”

Frederick William Cox was born on Dec. 11, 1938, in Monongahela, in southwestern Pennsylvania. He was a fullback and kicker at the University of Pittsburgh and selected as a junior-eligible player by the Cleveland Browns in the eighth round of the 1961 N.F.L. draft. He never played for Cleveland, where Lou Groza, known as The Toe, reigned as their kicker; after completing his senior year at Pitt, he was traded to the Vikings in 1962. He did not make the cut for the team that season but did so in 1963.

Cox soon became an essential part of a team that was coached by Bud Grant and had stars like the receiver Gene Washington, the quarterback Joe Kapp and Alan Page and Carl Eller, who anchored the famed Purple People Eaters defensive line.

Cox played in his only Pro Bowl in 1970, one week after Super Bowl IV, when the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Vikings, 23-7.

In comments posted on the Vikings’ website after Cox’s death, Grant called him the ultimate team player — high praise, given that kickers, though critical, are not on the field very much

“He took part in all of our scout teams, playing running back or whatever we asked of him,” Grant said, adding that 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.”

Cox retired in 1977 and became a practicing chiropractor, having earned a degree in the field five years earlier at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Minnesota.

Cox’s first wife, Elayne (Darrell) Cox, died. His survivors include his second wife, Bonnie Cox, and four children from his first marriage.

On Sept. 22, Cox appeared at U.S. Bank Stadium, the Vikings’ home, when the team paid tribute to its first Super Bowl team with the approach of the 50th anniversary of Super Bowl IV. In declining health from his kidney problems, Cox sat with his former teammates at halftime, wearing his No. 14.

“The next day I was in the hospital,” he told The St. Paul Pioneer Press last week, recalling how tiring the celebration was. “The event was great, though; the Vikings did a spectacular job of treating the players nice.”