With the news of a recent death, I learned a lot about what was a big part of my childhood years.
Fred Cox wasn’t just an effective old-school, straight-ahead place-kicker for the Minnesota Vikings in the 1960s and 70s, he was a Western Pennsylvania native and former Pitt standout. More important actually, Cox invented the NERF football.
NERF stands for Non-Expanding Recreational Foam, which was being used as a safety material in drag racing in the 1960s before inventor Reyn Guyer figured out how to make an indoor ball with the foam material.
It’s hard for me to choose which item — the NERF basketball or football — had a bigger impact on my childhood. Because it involved many more friends in a variety of venues around the neighborhoods in my native Brookville, I’m going with Fred Cox’s invention.
As was the case back in the day, the inspiration of going outside, figuring out the dimensions of a field limited by your own property lines or finding somewhere else better equipped to host a NERF football game started by watching football games on TV. Usually it was on Sunday. Watch an NFL game at 1 p.m. and head outside after that to play 2-on-2, or 3-on-3, with those numbers easier to achieve nearby.
Find a sidewalk and that’s the out-of-bounds line. If it was just two of us, we’d just throw passes and practice footwork or diving for passes on routes, or whatever. Even kick field goals or something like that.
As we got older, the NERF ball went with us. We walked down Euclid Avenue to what we called the field at Memorial Home. It was long enough back then and we were able to go 4-on-4 or 5-on-five, playing two-hand touch.
With driving licenses, it was still NERF ball in the fall for those of us who didn’t play real football. John Oberlin’s yard along Maplevale Road had some of the best games. We still played two-hand touch and “CFL” rules, meaning three downs and you could achieve a first down by getting by the “50” yard-line.
We ran our butts off, played hard, threw hard and argued enough, I’m pretty sure. The NERF ball allowed us those great times and there was nothing better than making a leaping or diving catch or just plain outrunning a buddy to the end zone for a touchdown. And yes, we spiked the ball and may or may not have done some clowning with TD celebrations.
Cox, a Monongahela native, eventually landed in Minnesota where he kicked and punted for the Vikings. He was a two-time All-Pro kicker in 1969 and 1970 when he led the league in scoring. When he retired in 1977, Cox was the second-leading scorer in NFL history behind another Western Pa. native George Blanda.
But his idea in the early 1970s continues to live on through the NERF football, something we absolutely could not have done without in those neighborhood football seasons in the late 70s and 80s.
So speaking for my fellow Brookville NERF Hall of Famers Dave Osborne, Dalton Park, Bill Mineweaser, JR Ananea, Doug Park, John Oberlin, Dave Winkworth, Jeff Chapa, Tom and Mike Bower — those are the ones with the most reps in my years, but others could have a legitimate resume for induction — we’d like to thank Mr. Cox for his invaluable idea.
And I’m sure we’re not alone on this one.
Rich Rhoades is the sports editor of the Jeffersonian Democrat and the Leader-Vindicator in New Bethlehem. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on twitter @TheSkinny1969.