The casual visitor wandering into Cooke Hall, a vast red brick building which houses the athletic department at the University of Minnesota, may be pardoned if his first impulse is to turn and run. For there, glaring down from the walls, is a great host of distressingly muscular and determined-looking young men. Actually they are not dangerous at all—at least not any more. They are the Gopher athletic heroes of years gone by.
There is a scattering of discus throwers and forwards and infielders and goalies and even an occasional wrestler with his biceps flexed and his stomach sticking out. But most of the big portraits are of football players. Row after row, they extend toward infinity, the fullbacks, guards, centers, tackles, ends and halfbacks who have carved the tradition of mighty Minnesota on football fields across the land. Here you will find all the famous names: Herb Joesting, Pug Lund, George Franck, Bruce Smith, Paul Giel, and the great linemen, Widseth, Tonnemaker, Nomellini, Wildung, Munn, and a scowling giant named Nagurski.
If you walk far enough, around a corner and down a long hall on the second floor, and look at enough pictures, eventually you come to the portrait of a pleasant-faced fellow in a turtle-neck sweater, a beat-up pair of old cleated shoes and a ratty-looking set of moleskin pants. The name plate says John McGovern, All-America Quarterback, 1909. You may also discover standing in front of the picture a rather handsome young man with curly black hair, brown eyes, muscular shoulders and a determined look of his own. He has no name plate but he is Robert Lafayette Cox. He is very fond of the picture.
"That guy," he says, "was the last All-America quarterback Minnesota ever had. Maybe someday, if I'm lucky, they'll put me up there, too."
November 4, 1957
Perhaps they will. At the moment, however, it would appear that more than luck, in fact more even than the great individual skills of Bobby Cox will be needed if this rather dashing young man is to hang on the wall where he belongs. Instead of heading toward the Big Ten championship and the Rose Bowl, as a large segment of the nation's football audience thought likely several weeks ago, the ponderous Minnesota Gophers are now heading nowhere quite fast.
Before the season began, Cox was almost unanimously conceded to be the best—and certainly the most colorful—college quarterback in the land. There were quarterbacks who could pass better, perhaps even a few who could run better and others more talented on defense. But for all the things a good quarterback must do—run, pass and think while at the same time deceiving the opponent and lifting his own ball club—Cox appeared to stand alone.
Basically, nothing has changed. Minnesota's unexpected mediocrity may have hobbled Bobby on his way to becoming an All-America but he is still quite a football player. And, whatever happens, he will be the last to complain. A young man who grew up in a near slum, ran away from home when barely 14, worked at odd jobs for a living, survived a hasty teen-age marriage and divorce, and then verged upon tramp athleticism only to wind up as the hero of a great university with a beautiful wife, a host of friends and a rosy-hued future dead ahead does not complain of adversity.
"I think," says Bobby Cox, "that I'm the luckiest guy in the world."
Bobby was born in Olympia, Wash, on June 1, 1934, and before he was old enough to enter elementary school he had lived in Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., San Francisco, Waitsburg, Wash, and, finally, back at L.A.
"My father was Irish," says Bobby. "A big, tough mick, but a nice-looking guy and pretty intelligent. He had a good education. He tried a lot of things and I guess he tried hard but nothing seemed to work out.
"My mother was a Spaniard. Castilian. She moved to Mexico from the old country with her family when she was a little girl and I think she was about 24 when she came to the States. I know she couldn't speak much English, and that Spanish was the first language I learned to speak, too. She had a lot of musical talent, though, and she had a sister who was a concert pianist. They tried to make a musician out of me. They started me on the piano when I was 4, and I had to practice two hours every day. By the time I was 6 I was so sick of looking at a piano I couldn't stand it any more, so I quit. Sometimes, now," Bobby says softly, "I wish I hadn't."
By now the Cox family, including a younger brother and sister, were living in south Los Angeles, a tough lower-class neighborhood almost downtown. "We didn't live in the slums," says Bobby, "and we always had three squares a day—although I guess we had to push sometimes. But it was a pretty tough part of town. People keep writing stories now about how all the kids I grew up with ended up in the pen. I don't think that's right. Oh, I've heard about one who was sent up for peddling dope and another that got into some other trouble, but mostly I think they turned out all right.
"Sure, I was picked up once for driving a car that didn't belong to me, but you know how boys are. And, pretty soon, all I could think about was sports. The Coliseum was only a few blocks away and I must have been over there three times a week. I used to watch UCLA and Southern Cal and the Rams. It was great. I don't guess there was ever a better place for a kid to see really good football."
If Bobby did not come from a broken home, there were times when it Was certainly badly bent. "I don't want to say anything against my folks," he says, "because, after all, they are my folks. They were good people who just had a lot of bad luck. But that Irish and Spanish blood—well, I don't know. Sometimes things around there got pretty hot." And he sadly shakes his Irish-Spanish head. "Anyway, when I was 14, right after I finished grade school, I headed out on my own."
That summer Bobby wandered back and forth up and down the West Coast. He stayed in San Francisco a few days and then went on to Portland, where he worked for a while in a cafe. "The Coney Island Café on Union Boulevard," he grins. "Boy, I'll never forget that place." Eventually he wound up in Walla Walla, Wash., in the home of a Dr. Hill, who was an old family friend.
His parents followed him to Walla Walla that fall and tried to get Bobby to come home. He said no, he wanted to stay there and go to school. And in the next four years he found more friends than he had ever expected to find in his entire life.
"I guess people felt sorry for me," Bobby says now. "Anyway, they were wonderful. I don't know what I might have turned out to be if they hadn't helped me so much, but I know that whatever I do for the rest of my life that's good, I'll owe it all to them."
After Dr. Hill died, there was Ben Flather, a farmer; Don Carlson, manager of a branch of the Northern Pacific Railroad in Walla Walla; Mrs. Robert Gallivan, who taught Bobby English; Murray Taggert, the district attorney; and his high school football coach, Felix Fletcher.
"Sometimes I lived with one of them and sometimes another," says Bobby. "It was just like having five homes. Oh, I had to work, all right. I worked on the farm and in an icehouse and a service station and I drove a truck and finally Mr. Carlson got me a job as a brakeman on the railroad. But I always had someplace to go.
"I had clothes at every one of the places and at Christmas I had five Christmases. I was part of the family, just like one of their own kids. I remember Mrs. Gallivan used to talk to me about books and art and music. She would tell me about a concert or an opera or an art show and I would go and see it. Sometimes I didn't know what it was all about, but I would sit there and listen or watch anyway, and I'm sure it didn't hurt me."
Richard Wooten, his high school basketball coach, just shakes his head when someone mentions "The Dead End Kid" tag which persists, even now, in following Bobby through life. "He was an average student who could have made better grades if he had tried," says Wooten, "but his conduct was always good."
"Poppycock," says Fletcher. "Maybe Bobby was a bit of a heller with the girls, but no worse than any of the other kids. I wish all the athletes I'd had were as good a boy as he was."
The one thing which harmed Bobby in those days was too much adulation. In his four years at Walla Walla High he became the greatest prep school athlete in the history of the state.
Walla Walla was undefeated in football his junior and senior years, and Bobby was named all-state quarterback both seasons. He was also twice all-state in basketball, once on a state championship team. And as a half-miler in track, Cox was state champion as a sophomore and again as a junior, the last time running the second-fastest high school 880 in the nation that year, a 1:57.6. As a senior he didn't compete in track because "honestly there just wasn't any competition. Also," he will add, "I didn't have very much time that spring. I was out visiting colleges."
The college that finally appeared to have Bobby wrapped up was Minnesota, primarily because Don Carlson was a Gopher alumnus. At the last minute Cox enrolled instead at the University of Washington.
"They say there was a lot of pressure put on me around the state to stay right there and play football," he says now, "and I'll admit that there was. But the real reason I went to Washington is that they made me the best offer. Like a lot of other guys, I was just looking out for myself. I went to the school where I could get the best deal."
As sometimes happens, even best deals blow up in peoples' faces. Bobby was just resilient enough to escape before Washington blew up in his.
His college football career started out well enough. In one of the first games of his sophomore season, Cox threw three touchdown passes and a UCLA team which was on the way to a No. 1 national ranking considered itself fortunate to escape with a 21-20 victory.
But from this point, the situation deteriorated rapidly. There was dissension on the squad and the notorious slush fund case (SI, Feb. 20, 1956) was about to break wide open. By season's end, Cox was ready to get out. He decided the place to go was Minnesota. With Carlson's help, he went.
"I have come," said Bobby, upon arriving at the Minneapolis campus, "to lead you to the Rose Bowl."
"Go home," said Minnesota.
Gopher athletic officials shudder even now when someone suggests that they had a hand in Bobby's eastward migration. "Maybe he was a great football player," says a member of the coaching staff, "but he was poison. Any school that touched him with a 10-foot pole would have been in so much hot water with the NCAA they might never have gotten out.
"We told him we couldn't give him a scholarship, couldn't help him with a job and, in fact, would be only too happy if he just quietly went away. If he stayed, it was going to be his own business. Not ours."
"I went to Minnesota because I wanted to," he says. "I wanted to play pro football and I knew the Big Ten was the best league there was, the best jumping-off place for a pro career.
"I enrolled in school and hit the books and the only football I played was with the meat squad, the other in-eligibles and nubs, every day against the varsity on the practice field. I played defense and ran opponents' plays and helped coach the freshmen.
"After the season ended I went back to railroading, switching out in the yards from midnight till 8, and sometimes it would get down to 30 below and me out there in my West Coast clothes. When I got off work, I had an 8 o'clock class. What a year."
But when the 1956 season began, Bobby Cox was a regular, certified member of the University of Minnesota football team with all rights and privileges thereof. The only trouble was that with all his ability and fame he couldn't get on the first team. Ahead of him was a home-town boy named Dick Larson.
So Bobby sat on the bench and stewed, even when the Gophers went to Seattle to open the season against Cox's old teammates at the University of Washington. With the score tied at 7-7, Murray Warmath finally got tired of the hand tugging at his sleeve and sent Bobby in. Except for the weak cheers of 2,000 Walla Walla people who had traveled almost 275 miles to see the game, the stands booed. So Bobby, who is not fond of boos, ran with the ball twice, threw three passes and Minnesota had the touchdown which put them ahead to stay. Warmath took Cox out.
"Why did you pass on first down?" Bobby was asked later.
"I figured I had to do it quick," he grinned. "I knew I wouldn't be in there long enough to do it the slow way."
But Bobby, who is constitutionally unfit for bench-sitting, couldn't grin very long, and within a week there were reports that he was thinking of quitting, of trying still another school.
"I didn't really blame the coach," says Bobby now. "He has always treated me real good. And Dick is a really fine football player and he had been around longer and knew the system better than I did. It was just that I wanted to play."
Against Illinois, in the fourth game of the season, Cox got his chance, and caught on fire. He scored two touchdowns, and his passing set up the winning field goal in the late seconds of a game which Minnesota won 16-13. And the next week, in the Little Brown Jug game against Michigan, Bobby ran for two more touchdowns and put on the most spectacular one-man show of the 1956 Big Ten season as the Gophers bowled over their traditional foe 20-7.
Minnesota finally lost one game, to Iowa by 7-0 (they were tied by Northwestern and Wisconsin), and with it both the Big Ten title, which has eluded the Gophers since 1941, and a trip to the Rose Bowl. But it was still a wonderful year for Bobby Cox. He led Minnesota in scoring and was one of the conference standouts in total offense with 793 yards. Perhaps even better, his teammates and coaches discovered that this very confident, sometimes even brash young man was actually not so unbearable after all.
"As a football player," says Dick Larson, who rooms with Bobby when the team plays away from home, "he is great. As a friend, he is even better. A lot of people said he was cocky when he first came here, and maybe to them he still is. But we know him now and we understand him."
As a football player, Cox has several great assets and also a couple of weaknesses, at least one of which is no fault of his own. He is a particularly outstanding runner for a quarterback, and the split-T offense which Warmath, an old Tennessee single-wing man, has installed at Minnesota fits Cox's ball-carrying ability like a glove. He has good speed and balance, follows blockers very well and picks his way nicely through a broken field. And when the going gets tough, Bobby doesn't mind ducking his head and driving.
"He's got guts," says Bill Murphy, who coaches the Gopher backfleld. "He may not be as quick as Larson but he is bigger [190 pounds to 175] and stronger."
Cox is also a fine passer, poised and accurate up to 30 yards and undoubtedly one of the best long passers in the country. The only trouble is that Minnesota, which has slow ends, does not pass deep very often.
"I like the split-T," says Bobby, "but you have to admit it isn't the best passing formation anyone ever invented. You almost never get to go back and set and look around and throw. You're always moving."
As a play selector—and Warmath lets his quarterbacks run the ball club when they are on the field—Bobby has gained a reputation as a gambler.
"O.K.," says Cox, "maybe I do throw once in a while when I'm supposed to run and run when I should kick. But I never called a play in my life that I didn't think was going to work. In fact," he grins, "I know they are going to work when I call them."
"I won't complain," says Warmath a little grimly, "as long as he is successful."
But if there is one thing which sometimes places Bobby Cox above every other quarterback in the land, it is his amazing ability to lift his ball club, to inspire it and shake it up and get it moving under the most disheartening conditions.
"I don't know what it is exactly," says Bobby. "It's just that football, to me, is about the most wonderful thing there is. I can't think of any place in the world I'd rather be than out there playing before 65,000 people."
"It's his enthusiasm," says Larson, who has been called a steadier quarterback and sometimes even a smarter one but who knows that he will never have Bobby's dynamic and spectacular flair. "He gets all excited and then the team gets excited and first thing you know the people in the stands are all excited, too."
Unfortunately, the 1957 Gophers, who went into the season with 27 lettermen and were considered virtual co-favorites with Michigan State in the Big Ten, frequently appear incapable of getting very excited about anything. They outclassed Washington and Northwestern, but had to struggle to nose out Purdue. Then, before a national television audience of some 30 million two weeks ago, they suffered humiliation at the hands of an Illinois team they were favored to beat by two to three touchdowns. Finally, against Michigan last weekend, they seemed to have collapsed completely.
With that defeat almost certainly went Minnesota's last chance at the Rose Bowl. The Gophers must still play Iowa, Michigan State and Wisconsin on consecutive weekends after a breather against weak Indiana, a schedule which would indicate that only a highly improbable mathematical hope is left.
Few feel, however, that the fault lies with Cox. An ankle injured in practice just before the season began has undoubtedly slowed him down but he has still been brilliant. Bobby led the way past Washington and Northwestern, although it was Larson, probably the best second-string quarterback in the nation, who saved the game with Purdue. And against Illinois, after his backfleld had fumbled and stumbled for three quarters and the mammoth but slow-footed Gopher line turned out to be full of holes, Bobby finally averted a shutout by waving the others aside and in five plays moved the ball 74 yards to a touchdown all by himself.
Even should Bobby Cox fail to become Minnesota's first All-America quarterback since John McGovern in 1909, he will still consider himself a very fortunate young man. His beautiful blonde wife, Sue, an ex-model and a very talented girl with a degree in art education whom he married last March, is expecting a baby this winter. They have friends and a family—Sue is a Minneapolis girl—a new car, a nice apartment and Bobby is making good grades in school. He will graduate in June with a degree in speech.
"I started out studying dramatics at Washington," he says. "Then, when I was a sophomore, I changed my major to radio broadcasting. Now I've decided on speech.
"I don't really think it makes much difference. I'll have a degree and I'll probably play pro ball with either the Los Angeles Rams or Winnipeg in the Canadian League. They've both drafted me. And when that's over—or even if I don't play pro ball at all—at least I'll have a name and people will know me. Even if I go to work selling toothpicks I'll be able to get my foot in the door. I guess that's what we're all after.
"You know, a lot of people think I've had a pretty rough life. Well, I don't agree with that. I think I've had a lot of fun, don't you?"
"When I was a little kid," says Bobby, "I liked to play baseball. I was a pretty flashy shortstop—but I never could hit."
"I won the lead in a school play," says Bobby, "but it was basketball season and the coach came and took me away."
"Bobby is a very good railroad man," says Don Carlson. "He could make his living at it—but I hope he never has to."
"I was the Minnesota state quarter-mile champ in high school," says Larson, "but in a race, Bobby can beat me any day."
"In my book," says Cox, "Larson is my toughest competition for All-America. I just hope I can stay on the first team."