How 20,000 Rabid Fans Gave a Referee His Million-Dollar Idea

Ron Foxcroft thought he was a dead man walking. He would have preferred to run, but that’s not his style.

It was May 17, 1984, and he was refereeing a pre-Olympic basketball game in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The stadium was rocking with 20,000 rabid fans. Brazil was playing Uruguay, and a place in the Los Angeles Olympics was at stake.

“The score was tied, nine seconds left on the clock,” recalls Foxcroft. “I emptied my lungs into my whistle to call a foul on Brazil. The pea in the whistle stuck. Nothing, not even a peep.”

Brazil scored on the play and the crowd erupted in jubilation. But the basket didn’t count. Suddenly, fans were screaming for Foxcroft’s head. Fortunately for the beleaguered ref, Uruguay missed the free throw. Brazil went on to win the game and Foxcroft escaped with his life. He vowed right then he would develop a pealess whistle that wouldn’t fail him.

He bounced the idea off a friend who told him he must have spent too much time in the hot Brazilian sun. Over dinner, he shared his idea with his wife, and she literally threw up. He’s still not sure if it was the food or his idea—he was too afraid to ask. Instead, he went straight to work on his pealess whistle.

He hated losing. Tell him he couldn’t do something and he was determined to prove you wrong. This whistle would be his greatest challenge. The name Fox 40 was easy—a combination of his nickname, “Fox,” and his age when he applied for his first patent protection. Getting a pealess whistle manufactured to meet his rigid standards proved to be much more difficult.

The mold alone cost $15,000. They produced numerous prototypes before Foxcroft was ready to take it to the marketplace. He went to a sporting goods store in his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, and pitched his Fox 40 whistle, asking the store owner to take 12 on consignment. But the owner thought a pealess whistle was a pea-brained idea.

“You’re such a good friend, I’m going to be honest with you,” said the store owner. “Your whistle won’t sell and I’m not going to take any, not even on consignment.”

After investing three years and $150,000 of his money—his entire life savings—Foxcroft still hadn’t sold a single whistle. He hit rock bottom on Friday night of Thanksgiving weekend. Foxcroft was sitting in his office looking at a pile of unpaid bills, and everyone was saying his Fox 40 was an amateurish Mickey Mouse idea. Foxcroft felt he had nothing to be thankful for and decided to throw in the towel on his pealess whistle.

Later that weekend, though, he remembered something Walt Disney had said: “’Never give up!’ I must have been 5 years old when I first heard that,” says Foxcroft. “I understood from listening to him on TV that he’d been kicked down a hundred times in life, but he said he always got up, brushed himself off and never gave up.”

Walt Disney didn’t give up on his Mickey Mouse idea, and Ron Foxcroft wasn’t going to give up on his.

If he was going to prove that store owner wrong, Foxcroft knew he had to improve the sound of his Fox 40 by fixing its little imperfections. His engineer took him to a small plastics shop in town.

There, “a little old Italian guy who didn’t speak a word of English but clearly understood compassion came out from the back and gave me some plastic used in phones for free. I was completely broke, so it was the best money I never spent,” Foxcroft says.

The new plastic worked perfectly. Although the technical flaws had been eliminated, Foxcroft still couldn’t sell his Fox 40 pealess whistle in Canada. He heard every excuse: it was too black, too white, too loud, too soft.

But in the United States, Foxcroft got a positively different response. He was assigned to officiate at the 1987 Pan-Am Games in Indianapolis and took with him the only two Fox 40 prototypes, hoping he could convince his fellow officials to buy into them.

The officials were staying in a dormitory, and Foxcroft slept with his two whistles tucked under his pillow.

“You’d do the same thing if you had two prototypes worth $150,000,” Foxcroft jokes.

At 2 a.m. he ventured into the hallway and blew his pealess whistle. The officials poured out of their rooms. They wanted to know what that sound was.

“It’s a Fox 40,” Foxcroft proudly proclaimed. “I’m selling them downstairs in the morning.”

Although he only had the two prototypes, that didn’t phase Foxcroft, who boasted it was so popular in Canada that it was on back order. Now they really wanted it. That week in Indianapolis, Foxcroft sold 20,000 whistles at $6 each.

The first whistles rolled off the production line in October 1987, nearly four years after his Mickey Mouse idea was hatched. Even Walt Disney would have been proud.

Today, the Fox 40 is sold in more than 140 countries. It’s used at the Olympics and in the NFL, NBA, NCAA and NHL, and can be heard at virtually all the major sporting events around the world.

The Fox 40 has also played a prominent role during many disaster rescue efforts, including Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City, the 1989 San Francisco earthquake and following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

That’s the ultimate tribute to a man who refused to give up.

“It makes me feel heartfelt, emotionally numb,” says Foxcroft when he hears his Fox 40 pealess whistle has been used to save lives.

So, would he do it all over again?

“Absolutely! The journey is the fun,” says Foxcroft. “All the people who said it couldn’t be done motivated me. Anybody can be a critic. Winners just do it.”

Read the entrepreneurial stories of three modern business titans who embraced self-determinism to get to success and prosperity.

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