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If Bobby did not come from a broken home, there were times when it was certainly badly bent. "My folks were good people who just had a lot of bad luck," he says. "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. "When I was 14, right after I finished grade school, I headed out on my own."
That summer Bobby wandered 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 café. Eventually he wound up in Walla Walla, Wash., at the home of a Dr. Hill, an old family friend. His parents tried to get Bobby to come home, but he said he wanted to stay there and go to school. And in the next four years he found more friends than he had expected to find in his entire life. "I guess people felt sorry for me," Bobby says. "Anyway, they were wonderful. I don't know what I might have turned out to be if they hadn't helped me so much."
After 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 Felix Fletcher, his high school football coach.
"Sometimes I lived with one of them and sometimes another," says Bobby. "It was like having five homes. I was part of the family, just like one of their own kids. 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."
In his four years at Walla Walla High, Bobby became the greatest high school athlete in the history of the state. Walla Walla was undefeated in football in his junior and senior years, and Bobby was named all-state quarterback in both seasons. He was 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. Colleges pursued him, and Minnesota appeared to have Bobby wrapped up until at the last minute Cox enrolled instead at Washington. "There was a lot of pressure put on me around the state to stay right there and play football," he says.
His college football career started out well enough. In one of the first games of his sophomore season, in 1954, Cox threw three touchdown passes, and a UCLA team that was on the way to a No. 1 national ranking considered itself fortunate to escape with a 21-20 victory. But the situation deteriorated rapidly. There was dissension on the squad, and a notorious slush-fund case in which boosters were accused of paying players (including Cox) was about to break wide open. By season's end Cox was ready to get out. He decided the place to go was Minnesota. "I have come," said Bobby upon arriving at the Minneapolis campus, "to lead you to the Rose Bowl."
"I WENT TO MINNESOTA BECAUSE I wanted to," Cox is saying now. "I wanted to play pro football, and I knew the Big Ten 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 ineligibles [Cox sat out a season as a transfer student] 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 I [worked for the railroad] switching out in the yards from midnight till eight, and sometimes it would get down to 30 below. When I got off work, I had an eight o'clock class. What a year."
But when the 1956 season began, Bobby Cox was a regular, certified member of the Minnesota football team. The only trouble was that with all his ability and fame, he couldn't get on the first team. Ahead of him was a hometown 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 Washington. With the score tied 7-7, coach 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 and threw three passes, and Minnesota had the touchdown that put them ahead to stay. Warmath took Cox out. "Why did you pass on first down?" Bobby was asked later.