By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Before getting to the nostalgia, a fond farewell is in order.
Fred Cox was the kicker for the Minnesota Vikings from 1963-1977. He played in four Super Bowls and retired as the NFL’s second leading scorer. My introduction to Cox came only upon his passing last week at the age of 80; I, like many others of my vintage, owe him a tremendous debt.
Beyond his football accomplishments, Cox was a chiropractor and, most significantly, an inventor. In the early 1970s, Cox and collaborator John Maddox developed a kid-friendly football. The prototype, made of foam, was adopted by Parker Brothers and, voila, the NERF football was born.
When you are 10, there isn’t much you can do with a regulation football. It’s too big to throw, too hard to kick and catching it can be painful. But a NERF football makes a kid an instant NFL quarterback. I had one my entire childhood (who didn’t?). It was at the center of epic backyard football battles and begrudgingly accepted indoor games of catch with my dad (mom rejected outright a real football being thrown inside, but a NERF offered a reasonable compromise). The NERF football evolved into NERF basketball, another staple of my childhood. I had a hoop in my parents’ rec room, in my college dorm and my son has one on his bedroom door now. Simple foam sports balls created many great memories and I…we…owe them all to Fred Cox – kicker, chiropractor and contributor to happier childhoods. Thank you, sir.
Onward, then, to unfortunate breakups and squandered futures…
In the four seasons from 2014-2017, the Pittsburgh Steelers ripped off 45 regular season wins and made four playoff appearances. How good is that? Context (you know where this is going): Over the same period, the Fightin’ Snyder’s of Washington won 28 games, made one brief playoff appearance and never tallied more than nine wins in a season. Further, those 2014-17 Steelers won more than 10 games three times, something Washington hasn’t done since…1991.
At the root of the Steelers’ success was a dynamic “Killer B’s” offense – QB Ben Roethlisberger, WR Antonio Brown and RB Le’Veon Bell. During the stretch, Roethlisberger put up gaudy numbers, Bell was arguably the best dual-threat running back in football and Brown was simply the NFL’s best wide receiver. Together, they seemed destined to be the newest additions to a long line of Steelers immortals and to ultimately share busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Just two years off that high, two of the B’s – Bell and Brown - are gone and the third, Roethlisberger, is on injured reserve. How did it happen? Well, it’s complicated…too complicated for this space. Suffice to say, those tried-and-true culprits of greed, ego and selfishness were involved. So too were the harsh realities of the business side of the NFL. Brown’s saga is a soap opera. Something personal happened between him and Roethlisberger and the Steelers organization. In under a year, Brown’s gone from being the best wide receiver in football, to traded (to the Raiders), released twice (by the Raiders and Patriots) and now out of football altogether. Bell, meanwhile, was mired in a contract dispute – understandable for running backs with short earning widows - that saw him miss a season and ultimately sign with the moribund Jets. And while Roethlisberger’s still in Pittsburgh, he’s hurt, the team is 5-5, the future is uncertain and it’s hard not to wonder why the face of the franchise couldn’t broker a deal and make this all work. There was much to lose and, ultimately, all involved did.
Look, life is messy – professional athlete or not. It is filled with forks in the road and there is no natural inclination toward happy endings. But these three…sheesh…they botched it. They had long-lasting legacy stuff in their hands and let it slip away. The greenest of grass was beneath their feet in Pittsburgh. Not one of them will be as great apart as they were together.
Penny for their wrapped-in-Wonder-Woman’s-truth-lasso thoughts now. Do they long for the way they were? As a football fan, I sure do.
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