From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, November 4, 1957
CASUAL VISITOR WANDERING INTO COOKE HALL, a vast redbrick building that 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 anymore. They are the Gophers 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; the great linemen Widseth, Tonnemaker, Nomellini, Wildung, Munn; as well as a scowling giant named Nagurski.
If you walk far enough, around a corner and down a long hall, eventually you come to the portrait of a pleasant-faced fellow in a turtlenecked sweater, a beat-up pair of cleated shoes and a ratty-looking set of moleskin pants. The nameplate 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 nameplate, but he is Robert Lafayette Cox. He is very fond of the picture of McGovern. "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."
Perhaps they will. Before the season Cox was almost unanimously conceded to be the best—and certainly the most colorful—college quarterback in the land. There were those who could pass better and perhaps even a few who could run better. 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.
Now with the season almost two months gone, none of that has changed. The Gophers' surprising mediocrity—they were expected to contend for the Big Ten championship but appear headed nowhere fast—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 what was practically a slum, ran away from home when barely 14, worked at odd jobs for a living, survived a hasty teenage marriage and divorce only to wind up as the hero of a great university with a beautiful wife, a host of friends and a rosy-hued future 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, San Francisco, Waitsburg, Wash., and, finally, back in L.A.
"My father was Irish," says Bobby. "Big and tough, but a nice-looking guy and intelligent. He had a good education. He tried a lot of things, 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 she was about 24 when she came to the States.
"She couldn't speak much English—Spanish was the first language I learned. She had a lot of musical talent, and she had a sister who was a concert pianist. They started me on the piano when I was four, and I had to practice two hours every day. By the time I was six, I was so sick of looking at a piano that I quit. Sometimes, now," Bobby says softly, "I wish I hadn't."
By then the Cox family, including a younger brother and sister, was living in south Los Angeles, a rough lower-class neighborhood almost downtown. "We always had three squares a day—although I guess we had to push sometimes," says Bobby. "But it was a pretty tough part of town. Sure, I was picked up once for driving a car that didn't belong to me, but you know how boys are."