BY DAN WILLIAMSON
Follow sport at any level and you will be acutely aware of the difficulties of making it to the top. The talent, dedication, and luck required rules out the majority, leaving just a fortunate few. Criticism of the English academy system in recent years has been accompanied by a damning statistic: less than 0.5 per cent of children who enter an academy aged nine will “make it” to become professionals and earn a living out of the game.
Imagine, therefore, the odds of succeeding at the highest level in more than one sport. It is surely less likely than being struck by lightning on the way to buying the winning lottery ticket. Of course, famous sportsmen and women share many similar personality traits: high levels of professionalism, a certain physicality, and, particularly pertinent in American sports, dexterity. What makes them a master in one field will no doubt make them superb in other fields. Just like the classmate at school who frustrated his or her peers by excelling at every sport.
There are famous examples of men and women who have excelled in more than one sport, although they are few and far between. However, in the 1960s and 1970s an Austrian man did just that. Toni Fritsch won five major honours with capital club Rapid Vienna, and represented his country at international level, the highlight of which was downing England with a brace at Wembley in 1965. He then crossed the Atlantic and switched sports, becoming a kicker for the Dallas Cowboys in the National Football League (NFL), winning a Super Bowl championship ring, and breaking numerous records along the way.
Anton Fritsch was born in Petronell-Carnuntum, a town on the Danube approximately 50 kilometres downstream from the Austrian capital, in July 1945. His arrival to the world came just a few short months after the Vienna Offensive, in which control of the city was won by the Soviet Union who defeated the Nazis and their sympathisers.
In 1957, two years after Austria declared its independence from Allied rule, Fritsch joined the youth ranks of Rapid Vienna. He made his first team debut at the age of 18, just two years after the club had reached the semi-final of the European Cup. Austria’s most successful club, Die Grün-Weißen won three league titles and two domestic cups during Fritsch’s eight-year spell. The side peaked in 1968, winning a domestic league and cup double.
International recognition for Fritsch came in 1965 when he was just 20 and had been featuring for Rapid’s first team for two years. Although he only won nine caps, the highlight of his time with Die Burschen came at Wembley, on 20 October 1965. He was part of a young Austrian side that had failed to qualify for the upcoming World Cup, the match forming part of hosts England’s warm-up campaign.
Alf Ramsey’s England team on the night was somewhat experimental, but still included six players who would start the final of the 1966 World Cup against West Germany: George Cohen, the Charlton brothers, captain Bobby Moore, Ray Wilson, and Nobby Stiles. Austria must therefore be given sufficient credit and praise for becoming only the third non-Home Nation or Ireland team – behind Hungary (1953) and Sweden (1959) – to defeat the Three Lions on home soil.
England took the lead after just four minutes through Manchester United’s Bobby Charlton. Rudolf Flogel equalised for Austria early in the second half, a goal which was cancelled out by another Manchester United player, John Connelly. With 75 minutes on the clock, it appeared England were heading for a routine and expected victory.
Austria were awarded a free-kick, which was fiercely struck and only parried by England goalkeeper Ron Springett. A grateful Fritsch, wearing the number seven shirt, turned in the rebound from close range. Six minutes later Fritsch put the game to bed, in altogether more emphatic fashion, lashing in a fierce shot from outside the box, giving Springett no chance. They would be his only two goals for Austria but couldn’t have been scored in any more memorable circumstances. His exploits that night earned him the sobriquet “Wembley Toni” which would stick with him for the rest of his life.
By the relatively young age of 26, the “soccer” portion of Fritsch’s life was over. It wasn’t, however, the typical tale of injury curtailing a career, something that was much more prevalent in the twentieth century before medical advances transformed football. Despite his silverware with Rapid Vienna, and international exploits with Austria, the player himself knew he was on borrowed time. Even in the run-up to his famous Wembley exploits, Fritsch’s position in the national team had been criticised. By the time of his retirement his form wasn’t great, and throughout his career he was far from prolific in front of goal despite the famous brace. Provincial press believed his inclusion in the national team was simply down to a pro-Vienna bias.
One hundred and twenty club appearances, and nine international caps, in eight years point to a solid career, but are perhaps not the statistics of a player considered vital to the fortunes of either club or country.
Fritsch also looked at the longevity of players in the NFL: “In soccer, you can play until you’re about 32.” He viewed the NFL as “good security,” noting that players often operate into their late 30s, dependent on position. That’s not to say it would prove an easy transition for Fritsch. The treatment of kickers – the position for which he was ultimately recruited – can be physically brutal and requires an enormous amount of mental strength. Often, the outcome of a game is literally all on the last kick.
Developments in the NFL also paved the way for Fritsch to head to the United States and try his hand at a new sport. In 1964 Pete Gogolak was drafted by the Buffalo Bills after graduating from Cornell University. The Hungarian, who had grown up playing with a round ball just like Fritsch, became the pioneer of the “soccer-style” kick. Previously, kickers would approach the American football in a straight line before striking it with their toe, typically producing a conversion rate of less than 60 per cent. Gogolak, on the other hand, took two steps backwards and three to the side, approaching the ball from an angle and striking it with a much larger portion of his foot. This gave Gogolak, and future adopters of the style, more control of the ball and as a result the success rate using this method skyrocketed to over 80 per cent.
This development also meant that technique could now trump sheer brawn, and the average size of specialist kickers – who usually only enter the field for a short time to complete their kick before exiting – decreased. This was perfect for someone of Fritsch’s stature, with the Austrian standing at five feet seven inches tall and weighing a little over 13 stone.
In order to capitalise on the new phenomenon of soccer-style kickers, several NFL outfits expanded their scouting operations and scoured Europe. In 1971 the first port of call for the Dallas Cowboys, and coach Tom Landry, was the Austrian capital Vienna. “The first place we went was Vienna, and the first player we tried out was Toni Fritsch,” then Cowboys personnel director Gil Brandt later recalled.
Fritsch had never seen an American football before this encounter, had no idea about the sport and didn’t speak a single word of English. Still, a lucrative contract offer was placed on the table and – after an interpreter had run the rule over it – the Austrian signed on the dotted line and took the plunge, later declaring it the best decision he ever made.
Far from the glitz and glamour typical of American sports, Fritsch began life as a Dallas Cowboy on the reserve list, where he had to learn the rules and tactics of Gridiron before being let loose on the field. Coach Tom Landry called it “seasoning”, a sensible suggestion for someone being introduced to an alien discipline.
One man’s opportunity is another’s misfortune, and that was certainly the case for Fritsch’s NFL career. After a period in the shadows, the poor performance of a colleague – who missed three kicks in one game – opened the door for the Austrian. His debut came in November 1971, against the St. Louis Cardinals. With less than two minutes remaining, the game was tied at 13-13 and Fritsch stepped up to attempt what he hoped would be his third successful conversion of the game. The opposition players heckled him, encouraging him to “choke” his kick, but Fritsch’s poor command of English came to his rescue, the taunts failing to have the desired psychological impact. The kick was converted from 26 yards and the Cowboys ran out 16-13 winners.
Just two months later the Dallas Cowboys won Super Bowl VI – which by then had become a monstrous event that transcended sport – after trouncing the Miami Dolphins 24-3 in New Orleans. Fritsch himself didn’t appear in the game – missing parts of the season with a hamstring injury – but he did receive a championship ring for being part of the team roster. He also set a Cowboys record of 21 field goal conversions.
Two days before Christmas 1972 Dallas travelled to face the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park in the Divisional Play-off – effectively the Super Bowl quarter-finals. The Cowboys were 28-23 down with just a minute remaining when Fritsch stepped up to take a kick. Rather than kicking conventionally, Fritsch planted his left foot before wrapping his right foot around his standing leg to strike the ball – a move that has now entered the modern-day football lexicon as a rabona. San Francisco’s players were unable to control the wildly bouncing squib kick, allowing the Cowboys to swoop in, take possession, and score the match winning touchdown.
“I have worked on this for many years in soccer,” Fritsch said of his improvised piece of trickery. As well as the memorable rabona, the Austrian converted three field goals to underline his big match temperament and importance to the Dallas Cowboys, who were seeking a second successive Super Bowl. However, they bowed out in the following round, the Conference Championship game, trounced 26-3 by the Washington Redskins.
Fritsch missed the entire 1974 season due to a serious knee injury but was back with a bang the following year, racking up 104 points to lead the NFL scoring charts, as well as breaking his own club record by successfully converting 22 field goals. The Cowboys reached another Super Bowl final in 1975 but succumbed to a 21-17 defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In 1976 Fritsch’s performance level declined. His conversion rate dropped to 58 per cent, with his coach insisting the figure should be closer to 75 per cent. “He just doesn’t seem to have the touch,” remarked Landry. “We know we have to pick up production in our kicking game.” This decline in form led to his departure, ending his improbable five-year stay with one of the NFL’s most storied franchises. “I always had the feeling he never liked me,” Fritsch later said of his former coach who gave him his opportunity to play professionally in the United States.
In September 1976 Fritsch was traded to the San Diego Chargers, although a brief and fruitless stay on the West Coast saw him return to the Lone Star State, signing for the Houston Oilers. The Austrian enjoyed a new lease of life in Houston under coach “Bum” Phillips, as the Oilers enjoyed one of the best spells of their history. Fritsch’s individual statistics dramatically improved, ironically reaching levels his former coach could only dream of. During his time with Dallas his best conversion rate was 64.3 per cent, a figure which he topped in all five seasons with the Oilers. He hit a jaw-dropping 84 per cent of his field goals in 1979, making All Pro and being selected for the Pro Bowl during this season. He also topped the NFL charts in 1980 with a similarly impressive 79.2 per cent.
Fritsch’s numbers subsequently dipped in 1981, and he was one of the casualties when the Oilers looked to trim their roster in September 1982. Phillips, who was sacked by Oilers at the end of the 1980 season, was now in charge of the New Orleans Saints, so Fritsch headed to the Big Easy to be reunited with his old coach. Fritsch only managed five appearances for the Saints, his skills obviously waning. To rub salt in the wounds, he even missed two field goals against former employers Dallas Cowboys.
Unhappy with his performances, Fritsch called it a day in December 1982, aged 37. He briefly came out of retirement in 1984 to represent the Houston Gamblers, participating in the now-defunct United States Football League (USFL) and earning a spot on the All-Star team.
The popular Fritsch finished his NFL career with a record of 758 points in 125 appearances, the majority of which came with Dallas. However, his best form came post-Dallas. Between 1977 and 1980 he led the NFL field goal percentage charts in three out of the four seasons, solely holding the record of consecutive successful field goal conversions in play-off games until 2007. Looking back on his career, Fritsch was quite rightly proud. “So you can see I had it all. For every young player, I hope at the end they can look back on the same thing, because the Super Bowl is every American kid’s dream.”
The Austrian retained his nationality but had found his spiritual home in Houston, where he remained a resident until his untimely death in September 2005. Aged 60, and on a return visit to Vienna, he died of a heart attack shortly after leaving a restaurant.
In his later years, on return visits to his homeland, Fritsch was keen to promote American football in Austria, regularly watching the Vienna Vikings. Interviewed two days before his death by Walter Reiterer, media manager of the Austrian American Football Association, Fritsch proudly proclaimed: “Today, whenever I walk into some place somewhere with my ring on, I get applauded. Money could never outweigh this kind of recognition.”
After his death Fritsch was honoured by the naming of a street close to Vienna’s Ernst Happel Stadion – previously known as the Praterstadion. “Toni-Fritsch-Weg” provides a permanent reminder in recognition of a man who, whilst perhaps won’t be remembered in the pantheon of greats in Austrian sports, excelled at the highest possible levels of two disciplines. He had the courage to give up what he knew, at a perfectly opportune moment, to forge a new life and career on the other side of the Atlantic. He became an early pioneer of a new kicking style and created more of a legacy in the American version of football than he perhaps did with soccer. Whilst playing soccer may have been his childhood dream, it was on the other side of the Atlantic where he would find his true calling and passion.