It is never easy to follow an NFL legend.
Such was the task for Don Cockroft, who succeeded future Pro Football Hall of Famer Lou Groza after Groza kicked for the Cleveland Browns for over 20 years.
Leading the league in field goal percentage for three years, Cockroft successfully followed Groza as Cleveland’s placekicker for 13 seasons from 1968 to 1980.
He also created his own legacy by becoming the best combined placekicker-punter in Cleveland Browns history.
We take a look at the life of Don Cockroft – before, during, and after his NFL playing career.
— Adams State Football (@AdamsStateFB) April 26, 2017
The Early Years Through High School
Donald Lee Cockroft was born on February 6, 1945 in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Cockroft grew up in Delta, Colorado.
Delta is located in western Colorado.
In Delta, Cockroft worked on his family’s farm.
He wanted to play Little League and would ride his bicycle for four or five miles to reach the ballfield.
“The hill on the way back was a nightmare.”
However, Cockroft believed that the bicycle rides strengthened his right leg for his future kicking career.
In the seventh grade, he moved to Fountain, Colorado.
Fountain is a suburb of Colorado Springs in east central Colorado.
Cockroft attended Fountain-Fort Carson High School (graduating in 1963) in Fountain.
He was a three-sport star in high school, in football, basketball, and track.
In football, Cockroft was the team’s quarterback, middle linebacker, and kicker.
“I . . . played every minute of every game. . . . We had only 48 kids in our senior class and 35 of them were girls. So I always jokingly say it wasn’t hard for me to be the male athlete of the year at my high school.”
Cockroft hoped to attend Colorado State University, but the school was not interested in him.
Instead, Cockroft headed to Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado (in southern Colorado) to attend college.
At Adams State, Cockroft was a “walk-on” to the football team.
“I went to Adams State without a scholarship. I wanted to play quarterback but saw right away that there were two quarterbacks who were far better than I was. That’s when I decided to concentrate on kicking. The rest, as they say, is history.”
However, as a freshman, Cockcroft was not automatically selected as the Adams State kicker.
Adams State coach Don McKillip decided to have a kicking competition between Cockcroft and another player, John Horoma.
Whichever player would make the most extra points in 25 attempts would earn the starting kicker position.
Fortunately, for Cockroft’s future football career, he won the kicking competition and became Adams State’s kicker.
Cockcroft played for Adams State from 1963 to 1966 at kicker and strong safety.
Adams State is in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.
As a senior, Cockcroft led the nation in punting, setting an NAIA record with an average punt of 48.1 yards.
In 1966, Cockroft set an NAIA-record with a punting average of more than 48 yards per attempt. He was the Browns starting punter and kicker from 1968-1976. #EverythingElevated #RMACHOFThrowBack https://t.co/X9oFbRNr4N pic.twitter.com/ld9D0Hb0Oh
— RMAC Sports (@RMAC_SPORTS) July 15, 2020
He was an NAIA All-American in 1966.
Cockroft set a school record with an average punt of 45.3 yards over his four-year college career.
He graduated from Adams State in 1967.
He played in the 1967 College All-Star game, against the defending NFL champion Green Bay Packers, and then headed to the NFL.
The Pro Football Years
Cockroft was drafted in the third round of the 1967 NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns (with the 55th overall pick).
In his rookie season, in 1967, Cockroft saw no regular season action, spending the year on the Cleveland taxi squad.
Cleveland was content to continue to use its longstanding kicker Lou Groza and punter Gary Collins in 1967.
However, in 1968, Cockroft took over as both kicker and punter.
Although Groza was retired, his coaching helped Cockroft be successful.
“Lou was a great guy – and what a great guy to work with. The decision that [then Browns coach Blanton Collier] made to keep Lou as my coach so I learn the finer points of kicking helped me to lead the league in field goal percentage during my rookie season.”
In the opening game of the 1968 regular season, a 24-10 Cleveland victory over the New Orleans Saints on September 15, 1968, Cockroft both scored his first NFL regular-season point on an extra point and kicked his first NFL regular season field goal (for 22 yards).
Cockroft also kicked two other extra points and six punts for 252 yards.
On November 3, 1968, in a 33-21 Browns defeat of the San Francisco 49ers, Cockroft kicked four field goals (for 18 yards, 46 yards, 14 yards, and 16 yards).
He also kicked three extra points and one punt for 40 yards.
In the 1968 regular season, in addition to leading the NFL in field goal percentage (making 18 field goals in 24 attempts, including a 50-yard field goal), Cockroft ranked third in the NFL in extra points made (46).
He also punted for 2,297 yards on 61 punts.
The Browns, with a 10-4 record, won the NFL Century Division title in 1968.
Cleveland advanced to a playoff game on December 21, 1968 against the Dallas Cowboys.
In a 31-20 Browns victory, Cockroft scored his first NFL playoff points on a 38-yard field goal.
He also kicked four extra points and punted for 253 yards on seven punts.
The following week. on December 29, 1968, in the NFL championship game, Cleveland was shutout by the Baltimore Colts 34-0.
In the game, Cockroft punted for 167 yards on five punts.
In the 1969 regular season-opening game, on September 21, 1969, Cockroft kicked two field goals (for 22 yards and 37 yards) and three extra points, as the Browns defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 27-20.
He also punted for 145 yards on three punts (an average of 48.3 yards per punt).
On October 12, 1969, Cockroft again kicked two field goals (in this game, for 28 yards and 30 yards), as well as three extra points, in a 27-17 Cleveland win over the New Orleans Saints.
He also punted twice for 100 yards (an average of 50 yards per punt).
Cockroft, in the 1969 regular season, led the NFL in extra points made (45) and did not miss a single extra point attempt.
He also kicked 12 field goals in 23 attempts and punted for 2,138 yards on 57 punts.
With a 10-3-1 record, Cleveland again won the NFL Century Division title in 1969.
In their first playoff game in 1969, the Browns defeated the Dallas Cowboys 38-14 on December 28, 1969.
Cockroft kicked a 29-yard field goal, five extra points, and one punt for 34 yards, in the game.
The following week, in the NFL championship game, on January 4, 1970, Cockroft kicked an extra point and three punts for 99 yards, as the Browns lost to the Minnesota Vikings 27-7.
On November 22, 1970, Cockroft kicked four punts for 186 yards (an average of 46.5 yards per punt), as Cleveland defeated the Houston Oilers 28-14.
In the 1970 regular season, Cockroft kicked 12 field goals in 22 attempts and 34 extra points in 35 attempts.
He also punted for 3,023 yards on 71 punts (including a 71-yard punt).
The Browns failed to make the playoffs with a 7-7 record in 1970.
In the 1971 regular season, Cockroft was perfect in his extra points, making all 34 extra point attempts.
He also kicked 15 field goals in 28 attempts and punted for 2,508 yards on 62 punts.
Cleveland won the AFC Central Division title in 1971, with a 9-5 record.
The Browns then played the Baltimore Colts in a divisional-round playoff game on December 26, 1971.
Cockroft kicked a 14-yard field goal for Cleveland’s only points in the game, as the Colts defeated the Browns 20-3.
He also punted for 204 yards on five punts.
On November 19, 1972, Cockroft’s fourth field goal of the game (he had previously kicked field goals for 26 yards, 38 yards, and 12 yards), from 26 yards, with eight seconds left in the game, gave Cleveland a 26-24 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Rookie @francoharrishof has a big day in the mud going 12-136-1 including a 75 yard run at the start of this clip.
Mike Phipps leads the #Browns down the field and sets up Don Cockroft for the winning 26 yard field goal with :13 seconds remaining.#Browns win 26-24 pic.twitter.com/Bwy5X2kRw9
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) February 17, 2019
Cockroft (who also kicked two extra points and three punts for 99 yards) said about his winning field goal:
“I kicked it true. If the goal posts had been only two feet wide it would have gone through. When I looked up I saw the ball and the scoreboard with eight seconds left. I have never had a feeling like it.”
Cockroft kicked another game-winning field goal (for 27 yards, with four minutes and 18 seconds left to play) in a 27-24 Browns victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on December 9, 1972.
He also kicked another 27-yard field goal, three extra points, and five punts for 208 yards.
For the 1972 regular season, Cockroft led the NFL in field goal percentage for the second time (making 22 field goals in 27 attempts, including a 57-yard field goal).
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) August 5, 2019
He also made 28 extra points in 29 attempts.
In addition, Cockroft led the NFL in punting yards (3,498 yards in 81 punts) in 1972.
Cockroft in 1972 was voted first-team All-Pro by the Newspaper Enterprise Association.
He also won the Golden Toe Award in 1972 given by Pro Football Weekly to the best kicker in the NFL.
Cleveland made the playoffs in 1972 as a wild card team, with a 10-4 record.
It was Cockroft’s fourth playoff year in five seasons with the Browns.
The Browns played the undefeated Miami Dolphins in the playoffs on December 24, 1972.
Cockroft kicked two extra points and six punts for 208 yards in the game, as Cleveland lost to Miami 20-14.
In a 12-10 Cleveland win over the New York Giants on September 30, 1973, Cockroft kicked field goals for 11 yards, 27 yards, 30 yards, and, to win the game with two minutes and 54 seconds left to play, 10 yards.
He also punted for 127 yards on three punts.
Cockroft, in the 1973 regular season, ranked third in the NFL in field goal percentage, as he made 22 field goals in 31 attempts.
He also was perfect in his extra points in 24 attempts and kicked 82 punts for 3,321 yards (including another 71-yard punt).
Cleveland had a 7-5-2 record in 1973 and failed to make the playoffs.
In a 23-21 Browns defeat of the Denver Broncos on October 27, 1974, Cockroft kicked three field goals (for 27 yards, 30 yards, and 25 yards) and two extra points.
He also punted for 249 yards on six punts.
Cockroft also kicked three field goals (for 44 yards, 35 yards, and 18 yards) in a 26-16 Cleveland loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 17, 1974.
In addition, he kicked an extra point and six punts for 259 yards.
In the 1974 regular season, Cockroft, for the third time, led the NFL in field goal percentage, with the highest percentage of his career – 87.5% (making 14 field goals in 16 attempts).
He also made 29 extra points in 30 attempts.
Cockroft’s kicking accuracy was especially impressive given the conditions surrounding his kicking.
“Things have definitely changed over the years when it comes to kicking. Now, you’ve got a center whose only job is to snap on field goals and punts. You don’t have someone who is just coming in and snapping the ball haphazardly anymore. You’ve got someone who will get the snap perfect 99 percent of the time. Now, the kicker probably never has to kick a lace. The conditions on the field itself have also changed for the better. Phil [Dawson], as great as he was and as nasty as the winds are in Cleveland, he never had to kick in the mud. . . . [Lou] Groza and I did. I remember [contemporary kickers] Jan Stenerud and Garo Yepremian saying almost identical things to me before games in Cleveland in late November, asking me, ‘Don, how do you kick in this place?’. I also believe the ball has changed. My last year with the Browns, they said they actually put two bladders in it to help the moisture situation. The softer the ball is, the more it’s going to spring off your foot. I kicked the new ball. and I said, ‘This ball’s going five yards further than the other ball. I really believe the ball has changed; it’s softer today. When Dawson pushed on that ball, it really caved in. The old ball that we had, the one inflated with 13 pounds of pressure, you could have stood on that ball, and it wouldn’t have indented as much as the new one did when Dawson just pushed on it!”
In addition, in 1974, Cockroft’s 3,643 punting yards (on 90 punts) ranked third in the NFL.
The Browns posted a 4-10 record in 1974.
Cockroft kicked five field goals (for 24 yards, for 49 yards, for 43 yards, for 20 yards, and 42 yards), constituting all of Cleveland’s points, in a 16-15 Browns loss to the Denver Broncos on October 19, 1975.
He also punted for 190 yards on four punts (an average of 47.5 yards per punt).
On November 30, 1975, Cockroft’s extra point was the winning point, as Cleveland defeated the New Orleans Saints 17-16.
In addition, Cockroft kicked a 28-yard field goal, another extra point, and four punts for 152 yards.
For the 1975 regular season, Cockroft made 17 field goals in 23 attempts and 21 extra points in 24 attempts.
He also punted for 3,317 yards on 82 punts.
Cleveland had a 3-11 record in 1975.
Cockroft kicked four field goals for 43 yards, 28 yards, 50 yards, and 40 yards, in a Browns 18-16 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on October 10, 1976.
He also punted for 188 yards on five punts.
In the 1976 regular season, Cockroft made 15 of 28 field goal attempts and 27 of 30 extra point attempts.
He also punted for 2,487 yards on 64 punts.
The Browns improved to a 9-5 record in 1976, but failed to make the playoffs.
Cockroft’s role with the Browns changed in 1977, as he gave up punting duties (only punting once for 30 yards) and solely was the placekicker for Cleveland.
On September 26, 1977, Cockroft kicked the game-winning field goal (for 35 yards) in overtime, as the Browns defeated the New England Patriots 30-27.
In addition, he kicked two other field goals (each for 37 yards) and three extra points.
Cockroft also kicked the game-winning field goal, for 30 yards as time ran out in the game, in a 24-23 Browns victory over the Houston Oilers on October 16, 1977.
He also kicked three extra points.
One of Cockroft’s key attributes was his ability to make clutch kicks to win games for the Browns.
“The big trivia question on the radio right at the time I retired was ‘How many kicks did Cockroft miss to win games?’ I went back and checked it. I was 17-for-17 with the game on the line during my career – most were field goals, but a few were extra points late in the game. I felt confident that I wouldn’t have been 17-for-18.”
Cockcroft also was not intimidated if the opposing team would call a timeout to try and “ice” him to miss a kick.
“Fortunately, I tended to make kicks in those situations, and I almost looked forward to them.”
Cockroft, in the 1977 regular season, ranked second in the NFL in field goal percentage, making 17 field goals in 23 attempts.
He also missed only one extra point in 31 attempts.
Cleveland had a 6-8 record in 1977.
In a 13-10 Browns win over the Cincinnati Bengals in overtime on September 10, 1978, Cockroft kicked the game-winning field goal from 27 yards.
He also kicked a 32-yard field goal and an extra point.
Cockroft again had the game-winning field goal in overtime on December 10, 1978 (this time, for 22 yards), as the Browns defeated the New York Jets 37-34.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) July 12, 2019
He also kicked two other field goals (for 26 yards and 22 yards) and four extra points.
For the 1978 regular season, Cockroft kicked 19 field goals out of 28 attempts and 37 extra points out of 40 attempts.
Cockroft in 1978 was voted second-team All-Conference by United Press International.
The Browns finished the 1978 season with an 8-8 record.
In the opening game of the 1979 regular season, on September 2, 1979, Cockroft’s fourth field goal (for 27 yards) won the game in overtime for Cleveland – 25-22 over the New York Jets.
In addition, he had field goals of 31 yards, 36 yards, and 35 yards and kicked an extra point.
On October 28, 1979, Cockroft kicked a 51-yard field goal (the fourth 50-yard or longer field goal in his regular season NFL career), as Cleveland defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 38-20.
He also kicked five extra points.
Cockroft, in the 1979 regular season, made 17 field goals in 29 attempts and 38 extra points in 43 attempts.
In 1979, Cleveland had a 9-7 record, but missed the playoffs.
On September 28, 1980, Cockroft kicked two field goals (for 35 yards and 36 yards) and four extra points, as the Browns defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 34-27.
Cockroft’s 22-yard field goal with one minute and 25 seconds left in the game provided the winning points on December 21, 1980, as the Browns defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 27-24.
He also kicked a 26-yard field goal and three extra points.
In the 1980 regular season, Cockroft kicked 16 field goals in 26 attempts and 39 extra points in 44 attempts.
Cockroft’s December 21, 1980 game-winning field goal against the Bengals was one of the more significant ones in his NFL career, as it gave Cleveland (with an 11-5 record) its first AFC Central Division title since 1971.
The Browns advanced to the playoffs to play the Oakland Raiders on January 4, 1981.
Cockroft kicked two field goals (both for 30 yards), but Cleveland lost to the Raiders 14-12.
After the 1980 season, Cockroft retired from the NFL.
The Years After the NFL
Cockroft was married to Barbara Jo. He had two daughters, Michelle and Melinda, and a son, Matt.
After his retirement, Cockroft lived in Colorado for some 30 years.
He worked in the oil and gas business, primarily in marketing and sales.
He later lived in Hills and Dales, Ohio, a suburb of Canton.
Cockroft was inducted into the Adams State Hall of Fame in 2000. In addition, his number “0” was retired by Adams State.
In 2007, he was inducted into the Cleveland Browns Legends Program.
Cockroft was inducted into the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Hall of Fame in 2008.
In 2013, Cockroft was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.
He was inducted into the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame in 2014.
Cockroft ranks high in many Cleveland Browns career regular season statistical kicking and scoring categories.
He is third in Cleveland career regular season field goals made (216), fourth (among kickers with at least 100 attempts) in Cleveland career regular season field goal percentage (65.9%), second in Cleveland career regular season extra points made (432), first in Cleveland career regular season punting yards (26,262), and third in Cleveland career regular season scoring (1,080 points).
In reflecting on his NFL career, Cockroft stated:
“It still amazes me. To look back, coming from a small town, small everything and go to the NFL from Adams State was pretty special. It was an absolutely unbelievable experience.”
For his many game-winning kicks, as one of the best kickers in Cleveland Browns history, Don Cockroft was also “pretty special” for the Browns.