By Tom Speicher, special to Plastics News
Monticello, Minnesota -- Unlike the millions who will be glued to their televisions on Super Bowl Sunday, Fred Cox knows what it's like to play in the big game. The former place kicker for the Minnesota Vikings appeared in four of the first 11 Super Bowls with his beloved team.
But when the 25th all-time leading scorer in NFL (America's National Football League) history speaks to groups today, his lasting link to injection moulding generates more excitement than memories of gridiron glory.
"They are way more impressed with the Nerf football than the fact I played 15 years in the NFL," said Cox, 72, during a recent phone interview. "When people are told, 'This is the man who invented the Nerf football,' everybody perks up because the Nerf never got old. I got old, but the ball didn't. The ball keeps getting younger."
The Nerf football is the biggest-selling football of all time, according to Tim Walsh, author of the book Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them.
The original version, introduced in 1972, begot numerous variations, from size to grip to colour, that continue to consume prime shelf space in stores. Hasbro, which today owns the Nerf line of products, declines to provide specific sales figures, but enough have been sold to fill up cavernous Cowboys Stadium, where the Packers and Steelers will be vying for the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XLV.
"Three years ago, I know they sold over 8 million of them," said Cox, who kicked for the Vikings from 1963-77 and is the team's all-time leading scorer, with 1364 points. "They sell them all over the world. I don't know how much money I've made over the years from it, but I can tell you that it's been considerable.
"The amazing part of it is not that we invented the Nerf football; the [way] it came about is what fascinates me. It was scary easy for us to do this."
The simple idea became a reality shortly after John Mattox, a would-be entrepreneur in Minnesota, introduced himself to Cox and solicited his opinion on the viability of a movable goal post that kids could position in their backyard to practice kicking. When told by Mattox that he envisioned a heavy ball so kids wouldn't kick it out of their yard, Cox suggested a lighter alternative, "something made of foam," to prevent "a bunch of sore-legged kids."
The duo had a mould made of a full-sized football and employed an injection moulder in the Twin Cities region that used liquid polyurethane ingredients to produce a prototype of the lightweight foam ball. The process resulted in a thick-skinned football that was much denser than the existing round Nerf balls intended for indoor play that entered the marketplace in 1970.
"The weight was right," said Cox, who at the time was a successful chiropractor in the off-season. "When you threw it, it flew like a football."
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PIC: Former Vikings place kicker Fred Cox displays a boxed Nerf football, and a non-Nerf autograph ball commemorating his career. (Photo by Bonnie Cox)