Nerf…Nerf… Nerf…Nerf is all you need.

Rob Hoffman
8 min readNov 25, 2019


Hats off to Fred Cox who allowed children to play football without getting hurt.

As a history teacher, the idea of inventors and their inventions comes up a lot in class. Sometimes students will ask me how come we don’t hear about famous inventors or inventions anymore. My answer to that is Nerf. You see, while you were getting yourself all charged up over all matters great and small such as football, the holidays, and impeachment, right under your very noses a tragic happenstance has taken place. The inventor of the Nerf ball, Dr. Fred Cox, and one of the last of the so-called “straight-ahead” kickers in the NFL, died this past week at the age of 80.

Before we can discuss the impact of the Nerf ball upon our collective consciousness, let us first take a look at the man who made all things Nerf possible, Dr. Fred Cox. Fred Cox was raised in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, a small town outside of Pittsburgh in that part of Pennsylvania known to many affectionately as “Alabama.” Fred Cox would go on to have a marvelous career in the NFL as a place-kicker for the “Purple People Eaters,” a.k.a., the Minnesota Vikings. For much of Fred Cox’s career with the Vikes, his kicking made up the majority of their offense. A great defensive team in their day, the Vikings, at least before the arrival of Fran Tarkenton, were offensively challenged. Their ultra conservative coach, a man who para-trooped into Normandy by the name of Bud Grant, could walk away most satisfied with a 6–3 victory courtesy of Freddie Cox’s big toe. Unlike every kicker in the NFL today, as well as college and high school, Cox kicked straight away, not “soccer style.”

This was the last time football was truly great. A straight ahead kicker trying to boot one from the ungodly distance of 35 yards with a single bar facemask in the freezing cold of Metropolitan Stadium. (Getty Images)

While I could wax poetic, or at least semi-poetic all day long about the accolades and lost magic of Fred Cox the placekicker, there’s far more to the story than that. Fred Cox’s contribution to football such as it was is dwarfed by his real contribution to mankind, and that is the part of the story that you really need to Nerf. You see, this throwback football player from a more rugged age, a time when the NFL’s version of the concussion protocol was, “How many fingers do I have up?” would end up affecting the childhoods of millions of Americans with one simple idea, one simple experience, one simple word…Nerf.

1972 was a watershed year in these United States. The Oakland A’s won the first of their three straight World Series titles. The Miami Dolphins would embark on their perfect season. The 1972 Summer Olympics would feature the awful attacks on the Israeli Olympic team by Palestinian terrorists. Bobby Fischer would battle Soviet chess champion Boris Spassky for cold war supremacy in the “sport,” before realizing his inner anti-semite. The Watergate break-in would take place in order to placate Richard Nixon’s paranoia that he might not win every state in the 1972 presidential election, (Which he almost did anyway) and the Nerf football was invented. While practically everybody’s life in America would be touched in one way or another by this auspicious innovation, for one not-so-athletically oriented eight year old, it would be a game changer.

The Nerf football, in its modern incarnation. Grips, stripes, color enhanced, these kids today, heaven forbid they have to grab a foam football armed with only their limited physical skills and low muscle tone, and have to actually drive their “team” down field with a Nerf football that has a chunk taken out by a dog or some other obstacle. (Getty Images)

Cox’s genesis as an inventor began with a meeting with a local Minneapolis football coach by the name of John Mattox who was looking to develop a kicking game for kids. Mattox had proposed using a heavier football so the ball wouldn’t travel so far, but Cox however, a man who knew something about keeping his legs healthy since he never missed a game due to injury during his illustrious 15-season career suggested a lighter football so as to alleviate any stress on the children’s legs. Thus, the lab work had begun. They came up with the innovation of pouring hot liquid foam into a mold which solved the problem that Parker Brothers was having in their attempts at developing a soft rubber football. They had already succeeded in their design of a “puff” basketball, but they couldn’t get a “skin” to stay on the football which would allow it to travel through the air. Cox and Mattox’s design cured all of that, and a generation of backyard Tarkentons and Bradshaws were born.

The good people at Parker Brothers already had the Nerf basketball, and the hippie inspired, psychedelic Nerf frisbee, but it was the hard work and due diligence of Fred Cox and John Mattox that made the Nerf football legendary. (flickr, labeled for reuse)

Because Cox sold his “invention” to Parker Brothers, he never had the opportunity to be able to gloat about having his product named after him. I’m not sure that would have been a good idea since parents may not have wished to hear their pre-teen children say things such as…

  • “Who wants to throw around the Cox?”
  • “Anybody seen my Cox?”
  • “Mom, Timmy kicked my Cox?”
  • “Tinmy, get your hands off of my Cox!”
  • “Dad, my Cox got stuck in the tree!”

I could go on, but you get the picture. Still, it would have been nice for the now very recently deceased Fred Cox to enjoy having his greatest, and to the best of my knowledge only invention named after him. He could have then joined such other luminaries who had their inventions named after them such as the….

  1. Heimlich Maneuver — Named after Henry Judah Heimlich who only named it after himself since he didn’t know what to call it. I can’t help but wonder how many poor souls have been lost as their friends and families searched in vain to find their choking friend or family member’s “Heimlich” in order to save their lives.
  2. Mason Jar — John Landis Mason invented the large mouthed jar in 1858 after working as a tinsmith. Its success is all in the hermetic seal. Think of all of the hillbillies who wouldn’t have anywhere to store their moonshine if it weren’t for John Mason, and his jar.
  3. Saxophone — Adolphe Sax changed music forever with his famous woodwind, and would have made the name “Adolphe,” or “Adolf” a popular name if it weren’t for that Hitler fellow who couldn’t even play a damned glockenspiel or even an Alpine horn. (Actually, this is a good thing since nobody would have ever wanted to say, “I’m going to go blow on the old “Hitler.”)
  4. Salisbury Steak — James Salisbury was actually a physician from the 19th century, and he believed that vegetables and starches were unhealthy for the human body, and that meat was the only true sustenance that people needed. Over 100 hundred years later, cafeteria ladies across the country have done their best to make sure that Dr. Salisbury’s “meat” and gravy combo makes its way into as many school children as possible.
  5. Apple Computer — Tim Apple has changed the way we live our lives thanks to his inventions and innovations. Oh wait, never mind, that’s what Trump called him, his name is Tim Cook. I’m so used to believing that everything the president says is true. My bad.

You know what I loved about Fred Cox?He didn’t even pretend to try and look like a football player like these modern punk kickers who workout and make their arms look all muscular. Cox looked like a guy dressing up for Halloween as a football player. Would it have been so terrible to name his balls, “Cox” in his honor? (Wikimedia Commons, Labeled for reuse.)

It’s funny how something that somebody does whom you’ve never met could have such a profound influence on your life. I spent literally countless hours in my backyard growing up in North Massapequa on Long Island throwing and kicking around the Nerf football. I used to punt it back and forth, practice my “field goal” kicking as well as throw it, and then try to catch up to it and make the grab. (Not too far, I was pretty slow.) I even invented my own tackle football game when nobody was around. I have fond memories of playing tackle football not only in the snow, but on the frozen ground with my neighbors using the Nerf. Sometimes the cold wet ball would hit you in the face, but you could always recover quickly, unlike if you had been hit with a real football, which would have been followed by crying and a trip into the house, where hopefully my mother would be around to comfort me since my father would have yelled at me and said, “You’re supposed to have things like this happen when your mother is around!”

The Nerf football was only one-half of the grand Nerf experiment. The Nerf basketball, or Puff ball, or Puff basketball allowed the joys of the Nerf to be enjoyed indoors. The Puff ball was made for inside use. It literally couldn’t break anything, and believe me, when you grow up in a house where the furniture in the living room is covered in plastic, you have a lot of breakables. I would play Puff basketball for hours, whether I was alone, or with my brothers. You could dunk, do reverses, play H-O-R-S-E, and if your friends were over, you could play what essentially became “tackle basketball,” or at least that’s what the Puff ball game would devolve into.

Sure it’s all fancy and realistic looking today, but it worked just fine when it was a little puffy ball that came with a backboard that didn’t work nearly as well as the door it was attached to by masking tape, and a net that trapped the ball half the time. (You Tube)

Thanks to the Nerf football and basketball I could be Joe Namath, Fran Tarkenton, Norm Snead, Bob Lanier, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, John Gianelli, Hawthorne Wingo, Lew Alcindor, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Like the offensively challenged Minnesota Vikings of the early 1970s, so much of my enjoyment and success could be traced to Fred Cox. Let’s see Pete Gogolak invent something as awesome as the Nerf ball.