To the longtime locals in Monticello, Fred Cox was known as the kindly man they would see at the grocery store or at his chiropractic office in Buffalo. At some point or another, someone would point him out to a stranger or a young football fan and explain the sports legacy of Cox.
Fred died at his home in Monticello Nov. 20 at the age of 80. Comparatively speaking, his life playing professional football was just a sliver of his life, but he became the part of the family to generations of Minnesota Vikings fans during his 15-year NFL career and became a beloved piece of that sporting lore.
Not just an acclaimed kicker who retired from the NFL as the second-highest scorer in league history, he was the co-inventor of the Nerf football, which Parker Brothers would sell in the tens of millions.
Two days after his death, a pre-planned get-together of former Viking players and their wives took place at the home of Hall of Fame safety Paul Krause. A good portion of that time was spent reminiscing about Cox.
He was a beloved teammate that Krause said didn’t have a teammate or Vikings employee that knew him that didn’t consider him to be a friend.
“He had great character,” Krause said. “He was a true blue guy – just a great guy. And I’m not talking about kicking. His records stand alone for that. He was great at that, obviously. He was just a great person inside and out and was a friend to everybody he met along the way.”
Cox was raised in the Pittsburgh suburb of Monongahela and played fullback and kicker at the University of Pittsburgh. Kickers at that time were starting to get a reputation of being “flakes” as soccer players with little working knowledge of the NFL were taking over the position because of their ability to boom kicks with a sidewinding motion.
He was a classic straight-on style kicker and his immersion into the team was based on his ability – both as a kicker and as a player willing to help the team wherever he could because he wasn’t a 150-pound kicker. He was a football player.
“Fred was an athlete and earned the respect of the rest of the guys,” former teammate Stu Voigt said. “On a lot of teams, kickers were kind of outsiders. Some had the reputation of being a little squirrelly and they were smaller guys who didn’t look like football players. Fred played fullback with Mike Ditka at (the University of) Pittsburgh and would play defense on the scout team when we needed him. He became one of the veteran leaders on that team and had the respect of every player in that locker room.”
It didn’t take Cox long to start earning the admiration and respect of his teammates when he arrived in Minnesota in 1963, but it was in 1967 when he met the man who had the ultimate respect for him – new head coach Bud Grant. Grant was a demanding coach, but was known for his loyalty to his players. If you were a Vikings player in the Grant era, if you stayed healthy and did your job at a high level, you had a job for a long time. Cox quickly became one of those guys.
“Bud Grant loved Freddy,” Voigt said. “What Bud looked for in his teams back in ‘60s and ‘70s was continuity and consistency. When you look at the number of games played in the NFL, there are Vikings all over the top of that list. We almost took it for granted that Fred would be out there when we needed him. When you look back on it now and how kickers come and go from teams, his longevity and consistency was amazing.”
Cox earned a nickname from his teammates back in the day based upon his ability to make clutch field goals. He doesn’t rank anywhere near the top in league in terms of field goal percentage, but, at a time his position was being taken over by soccer players, what kept Cox as the fixture at kicker for the Vikings was his ability to deliver when the pressure was at its highest.
“We called him Steady Freddy because we all knew we could count on him when we needed him,” former teammate Bob Lurtsema said. “He was one of the boys who led by example. He survived at a time when the straight-on kickers were being replaced by soccer players and teams were finding their kickers in Europe. By the time he retired, he was one of the last straight-on kickers there was in the league. We knew if we needed a big kick to win a game, Fred would deliver.”
It was that spirit of camaraderie and friendship that maintained the bond between so many of the players. When Cox announced his retirement after the 1977 season, he made Buffalo his new workplace and Monticello his permanent home.
For many athletes who achieve some level of fame, going away from the game was a difficult transition. Not for Cox. He got his chiropractic license in 1972 and, when he retired, he had no remorse and didn’t look back.
“When Fred left the game, he was satisfied with what he had accomplished over his career and walked away on his own terms,” Lurtsema said. “Most players don’t get that. Fred had a lot of interests outside of football and was always thinking. By now, I think most people know that he was part of inventing the Nerf football, but he spent the rest of his working career as a chiropractor. I know a lot of the players and their wives from that era would come see Freddy if they had some aches and pains and, as good of a kicker as he was, he was a better chiropractor. If he fixed you up, you stayed fixed.”
In many ways, Cox was a self-made man. He was ahead of the curve with spending extra time on special teams work back at a time when teams didn’t have special teams coaches. It was his work ethic that Krause respected and felt compelled to join given that he was Cox’s holder on field goals and extra points. They would work before and after practice with center Mick Tingelhoff to try to perfect the snap, hold and kick to make it look like it was second nature, despite requiring a lot of repetition to look easy.
That the work Cox put into being a consummate professional. As Krause and his former toasted his memory two days after his passing, they had mixed emotions because they lost a friend, but had the last impact he on them to hang to and appreciate.
“When we started talking about Freddy, we all got a little choked up remembering the man he was, but we also had smiles on our faces,” Krause said. “He was that kind of guy. He made everyone feel like they were his dear friend and that went both ways. Fred was a heck of guy and those of us who got to know him well will be happy for the memories we had with him and will miss him.”