Nerf football inventor, ex-Vikings kicker Fred Cox dies at age 80

Millions of childhood backyard football memories can be credited to a former NFL kicker who helped create one of the most lasting and beloved toys ever invented.

Fred Cox, who kicked 15 years for the Minnesota Vikings in the 1960s and 1970s and is the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, died on Wednesday just a few weeks before his 81st birthday.

Cox also brought the idea of a softer backyard football for kids to play with to Parker Brothers while he was still with the Vikings in 1969. Eventually, the toy football became known as Nerf, and the rest is history. It would go on to become one of the most popular toys of all time and gain international recognition, with annual revenues still in the hundreds of millions to this day.

Fred Cox kicking for the Vikings against the Detroit Lions on November 27, 1969 at Tiger Stadium in Detroit, Minnesota. (Photo by Martin Mills/Getty Images)

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. 

Fred Cox’s legacy is wide-reaching

At the time of his retirement from the NFL in 1977, Cox had scored 1,365 points — at the time he was the second-leading scorer in NFL history behind only George Blanda. Cox now sits 34th on the all-time scoring list.

Cox is third on the Vikings’ all-time games played list at 210. He was named All-Pro in 1969, made the Pro Bowl in 1970, led the NFL in field goals made in three different seasons and kicked in all four of the Vikings’ Super Bowl appearances. In his career, Cox hit on 282 of his 455 field-goal attempts and 519 of 539 extra-point tries.

Those numbers appear low by today’s standards, but Cox used a straight-ahead kicking style that’s now become outdated and was challenged by kicking in far poorer field conditions of the day. The Vikings did not move indoors to the Metrodome until 1982, playing on the occasionally frozen grass surface of Metropolitan Stadium when the weather turned cold.

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Named one of the 50 best Vikings of all time in 2010, Cox is best known for his kicking exploits. He actually entered the league as a fullback, drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the eighth round (110th overall) to be a lead blocker for Jim Brown.

A back injury that Cox suffered led to Browns head coach Paul Brown asking Cox to switch to kicker. Although he couldn’t beat out the great Lou Groza, Cox had shown enough to pique the interest of the Vikings, who traded for him.

Peyton Manning, Archie Manning and Eli Manning at the NERF Father's Day Football Throwdown on June 14, 2008 at Chelsea Piers in New York. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

Most people were unaware that he also played such a big role in inventing Nerf after a neighbor knocked on his door and asked him to workshop an idea for a safer backyard football than the leather versions typically used.

After his football career, Cox also became a licensed chiropractor who opened a practice in the suburbs of Minneapolis.

But if you polled millions of Nerf-wielding children who grew up diving for the toy all over backyards around the world about the invention’s impact, Cox should go down as one of the all-time legends in football history.

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