Fred Cox, a record-setting place kicker for the Minnesota Vikings and a co-inventor of the Nerf football, died Wednesday at 80, the team announced.

Cox recently told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that he was suffering from kidney and heart issues, and he had been in hospice care at his home in Monticello, Minn.

“I’ll be here until I’m gone, and I’m okay with that,” he said at the time. “ … Nobody’s going to live forever and nobody’s going to live more than I did.”

Cox holds the Vikings’ scoring record with 1,365 points, having made 282 field goals and 519 extra points over a 15-season career spent entirely with Minnesota. The straight-ahead kicker never missed a game and went to four Super Bowls during his tenure with the Vikings, which spanned from 1963 to 1977.

In 1971, Cox met a Minneapolis-area football coach, John Mattox, who was working on a kicking game for children. He wanted to use a heavier football for the game, so the balls wouldn’t travel far, but Cox suggested a lighter one to spare the kids’ legs, and they began to work on a prototype.

Their key innovation was to pour hot liquid foam into a mold, which not only created a denser product than the Nerf balls that existed at the time but which also left a skin on the ball once the product cooled. That solved a major problem for Parker Brothers, which had introduced round Nerf balls and discs a few years earlier to major success but had not been able to create one in the shape of a football that flew properly through the air.

“They were trying to make them the same way as their round balls, taking a block of foam and using a hot wire to cut balls out of the foam,” Cox said of Parker Brothers several years ago (via Vikings.com). “Their footballs had holes in them. They had tried everything except for injection molding them.”

Cox and Mattox initially brought their kicking game to the company, but approximately “halfway through the presentation,” as Cox recalled, “a guy from Parker Brothers told us he wasn’t interested in anything but the ball.”

“The Vikings mourn the loss of Fred Cox, one of our proudest legends and a member of the 50 Greatest Vikings,” the team said in a statement Thursday. “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.”

A native of Monongahela, Pa., Cox played running back at the University of Pittsburgh and was drafted as a fullback in 1961 by both the NFL’s Cleveland Browns and the AFL’s New York Titans, later renamed the Jets. A back injury derailed his plans to continue playing that position, and he began learning the placekicking trade under the tutelage of Browns legend Lou “The Toe” Groza before getting traded to Minnesota.

His background as an all-around football player proved useful to former Vikings coach Bud Grant, who used Cox as a scout-team member at various positions, including linebacker and center.

“Fred was the ultimate team player for us,” Grant once said. “He took part in all of our scout teams, playing running back or whatever we asked of him. He was a great asset to our team, a true credit to the team and his community. If you saw those games, he always stood right next to me on the sideline because he was such a big part of what we were doing with field position and knew the game so well.”

Former Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton also heaped praise on Cox, saying (via Vikings.com) he “had a great brain and was a great thinker.”

“He was an intellect that I spent every morning with before we played a game,” Tarkenton added. “I spent more time with him than any other player.

“Fred was a special, special human being who will be missed.”

Cox was one of 11 Vikings players to appear in the team’s four Super Bowls, all of which resulted in losses.

“The fans have never been able to live with the fact that we lost four times,” Cox said (via the AP). “But the bottom line is that for any team to get there four times is an amazing feat.”

After his football career ended, Cox set up a successful practice as a chiropractor. He is survived by his wife, Bonnie, and four children.

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