Fit to be fried

Idaho's potato king accuses a dead Dallas oilman and his sons of a multimillion-dollar scam

When Cloyce Box was alive, three things seemed destined to come his way: money, notoriety, and lawsuits.

Box may have left behind his millions--and his reputation as a freewheeling businessman--when he died in 1993. But the lawsuits just keep on coming.

The former football star's estate is on the hook for a $28 million judgment won by investors who say Box cheated them on a pipeline deal. That case is being appealed.

And in early March, the same investors sued Box's four sons and the family oil company for somewhere between $50 million and $100 million, saying the Boxes--including Cloyce, before he died--tried to shuffle assets to avoid paying the judgment.

Now, to top it all off, the four Box brothers--Don, Gary, Doug, and Tom--are suing each other for control of the company left them by their father.

Cloyce Box, who played with legends Doak Walker and Bobby Layne on two championship Detroit Lions football teams in the early 1950s, went on to become a storied Dallas oilman before dying at age 70. He was known, among other things, for not letting the law get in the way of a lucrative deal.

It is taking legions of lawyers to untangle the old man's legacy.
Hanging in the balance is the future of Box Energy Corp.--a modest but successful oil and gas company that still brings in respectable amounts of money--and the personal aims of the four Box sons and all of the company's shareholders.

Looming over all of the legal wrangles, however, is one man, an opponent who is proving to be Cloyce Box's nemesis in death as well as life. The newest lawsuits are merely the latest chapters in a tenacious battle between Box and J.R. Simplot, a man known as the Potato King of Idaho.

Box and Simplot, two stubborn, self-made millionaires, got crossways nearly a decade ago, and their fight has been going ever since. Simplot leads the group of irate investors who contend that Cloyce Box gypped them out of millions of dollars. They have pursued Box, his sons, and various family-controlled companies in court for more than seven years.

The Box family has fought back with equal vigor--matching Simplot attorney for attorney--and has so far avoided paying Simplot and his allies a nickel. So heated is the battle that, if the charges contained in the newest lawsuit prove true, Box took steps to ensure that his estate would continue to thwart Simplot even after Box died.

Box and Simplot are alike in many ways, two men raised in rural poverty who amassed fortunes through wit and sweat. Both built sizable legacies to pass along to their children. And neither would walk away from a fight.

Cloyce Box was born a Texan, and knew how to feud like one. But J.R. Simplot has tangled pretty well himself for an Idaho boy.

Cloyce Box earned his riches and fame through hard work. He and his twin brother, Boyce, were raised poor as foster children in West Texas. Box and his brother enrolled in West Texas State College in Canyon in 1942, but Cloyce left college to serve in the Marines during World War II.

After returning to college, he played basketball and football, the latter well enough to be drafted by the Washington Redskins as a quarterback after graduation in 1949.

The Redskins promptly traded Box to the Detroit Lions, where he was converted into a receiver to take advantage of his height and speed. Before his pro career could get started, Box was again called for military service in Korea. He rejoined the Lions in 1952, playing on one of the sport's most fabled teams.

Box joined SMU great Doak Walker and former University of Texas quarterback Bobby Layne on a team that won consecutive NFL championships in 1952 and 1953. The team lost the 1954 championship game to Cleveland.

Box played in two Pro Bowl games, and still holds team records for the most touchdown catches in a season with 15, the most receiving yards in a game with 302, and the most touchdown catches in a game with 4.

But Box injured his leg, and in 1954 hung up his spikes and set out in the world of business, armed with a law degree he earned from Baylor University in between football seasons.

He would carry with him the knack for fast moves and wily thinking that made him such a threat on the football field. During his business career, he earned a reputation for his freewheeling style--which periodically landed him in court facing the government or one-time business partners.

Box started in the concrete business but eventually drifted into oil and gas--the true calling of any ambitious Texas entrepreneur. He rode the curve of the Texas oil and gas industry, and by the 1980s had made himself a bona fide millionaire. His various companies and partnerships were by no means the largest in a state chock-full of high rollers, but they were successful, in part, because Box fought as hard in business as he once did in sports.

In the early 1980s, for instance, Box signed a lucrative long-term contract to provide natural gas to a Houston pipeline company at a time when gas prices were astronomically high. Several unlucky gas companies were locked into such contracts--some with terms lasting for decades--thinking they were protecting themselves against certain increases in natural gas prices.

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