Top photo: Ernst Kainerstorfer/ picturedesk.com
"Wembley Toni" reinventing the Kick in the NFL
By Julian Steiner & Walter Reiterer
Toni Fritsch became both an Austrian national team soccer player as well as the first Austrian Super Bowl champion with theDallas Cowboys. His remarkable life tells the story of passion for football – European and American.
Toni Fritsch was born in 1945 in the small town of Petronell-Carnuntum in Lower Austria, founded by the Romans 2,000 years ago. He started his career with the local youth team. In 1957, he moved to the youth squad of then-Austrian champion Rapid Vienna, where he would spend his entire soccer career.
At age 18, Fritsch played his professional debut for Rapid and became the rising star of Austrian soccer. His nickname “Wembley Toni” originated from his debut for the Austrian national team on October 20, 1965: With two goals against England in the legendary Wembley Stadium, Fritsch became the hero of Austrian soccer fans.Despite not qualifying for the World Cup in 1966, Austria won against the host nation 3:2 and became only the third nation to beat England at home (following Hungary in 1953 and Sweden in 1959).
Although these two goals would surprisingly remain the only national team goals for Fritsch, his nine national team caps were all won. Altogether, he played 123 games for Rapid, winning the Austrian championship three times (1964, 1967, 1968) and the Austrian Cup twice (1968, 1969).
At age 26, he made a decision that would change his life as well as the history of American football in Austria. At the time, football teams in the U.S. were on the lookout for specialist kickers, who could safely convert field goals. During a scouting trip to Vienna, Tom Landry, then-manager of the Dallas Cowboys, noticed Fritsch and promptly offered him a lucrative NFL contract. Due to his lack of English at the time, Fritsch needed an interpreter to understand the paperwork, but nonetheless packed his bags and moved to Dallas to join the Cowboys in 1971.
After a crash course in rules and tactics of American football, he joined the training camp. Despite his limited knowledge of English or the game, it did not take Fritsch long to assimilate. He made his debut for the Cowboys against the St. Louis Cardinals, scoring the winning field-goal with less than two minutes on the clock. In his first season, he scored a club record of 21 field goals and won Super Bowl VI in New Orleans, LA against the Miami Dolphins. Fritsch would later compete in another Super Bowl in 1976, but his Cowboys lost against Pittsburgh 17:21, despite Fritsch scoring one field goal and two extra points.
During his NFL career, he also played for the Cowboys, the San Diego Chargers, the Houston Oilers, and the New Orleans Saints, totalling 125 games, 137/231 field goals and 287/300 extra points. In 1984, he even came out of retirement to sign with the Houston Gamblers in the U.S. Football League for two seasons, receiving All-League honors in 1984.
After his retirement, Fritsch lived in Houston with his wife and two children, often visiting Vienna to see games in Rapid’s Hanappi Stadium, as well as games of Vienna’s American football team, the Vienna Vikings. Toni Fritsch died suddenly on September 13, 2005 after a dinner with friends in Vienna. He was mourned by the Austrian soccer and football communities and honored by the City of Vienna, which named a street after him in 2011.
Toni Fritsch - The Last Interview
Austrian Information is happy to print a translated transcript of the last interview with Toni Fritsch, conducted by Walter Reiterer, media manager of the Austrian American Football Association before a football game in Vienna on September 11, 2005 only two days before his sudden death:
Reiterer: Toni Fritsch, you are a twotime NFC and one-time Super Bowl Champion, is that correct?
Fritsch: Yes, that was my best achievement. Earlier in my career, I played soccer at Rapid Vienna and was also part of Austria’s national team. Then I played for the Dallas Cowboys for six years before spending time in San Diego and Houston for seven years; plus, one year in New Orleans. I made “All Pro”- that is what you call it in America. Back then, I was one of the first players to introduce the “soccer style kick” to American football.
Before that, they kicked differently with a success rate of about 40%. By using soccer style, this rate rose up to 75% or even 80%. Nowadays, all young players use this particular style. Back then, I was with the Cowboys, which was one of the most aspiring teams in the National Football League. I attracted a lot of attention. We were on national television all the time. There are many kickers in the U.S. nowadays who learned from me.
We are at the “Schmelz”[Nota: A football field in Vienna’s 15th District] today. What brought you here?
Well, this is where it all begins. Everyone here is dreaming of playing American football in front of millions of viewers all around the world. And this is where it starts, at student level. This is very similar to soccer and other kinds of sports. You have to start out young for it to become like a second nature to you. The entire style of play, the focus; all of this is important. And I am here today to watch the players and to see how American football has progressed in the last couple of years.
And I have to say, the Vienna Vikings and the other teams, they did a great job organizing this event. It is great to see how the youngsters make great efforts and how much they are supported and assisted. Well done!
You also played for the New Orleans Saints for one year, right?
Yes, that was back in 1982, for one year. It is shocking what I had to see on television about the things happening in and around the Superdome: [Nota: the interview was conducted two weeks after Hurricane Katrina] I still remember how big of a deal it was when it was first opened. Before that, I also played in Houston in the Astrodome [alsohousing Katrina survivors] which has also been on television again tragically. I am so deeply sorry! I just called friends in the States and the Saints will be playing in New York now and their home stadium will be in San Antonio, Texas. You know, the show must go on.
You are a Super Bowl Champion. Why aren’t you wearing your ring today?
I don’t have it with me all the time. I was already halfway here when I noticed. I don’t always wear it.
Are you living both in Vienna and America?
Yes, I live in Houston, Texas. I go back and forth a lot. I’ve been living in the U.S. since 1971, but I also love Austria. I really enjoy being here. It is a wonderful country. But what is most important to me is to get more people, especially young people, interested in American football. I started with the Dallas Cowboys in 1971. Back then, the offense or defense line men were about 6 foot 4 (195 cm). Now they are 6 foot 8 (207 cm).
American football has changed a lot since then. The speed, the strength, even the style of play has changed since I was an active player. American football has become more athletic, more professional and of course money plays a more important role now (chuckles).
You are now a NFL retiree. What is that like?
One has to understand one thing about the NFL. When you sign a national football contract, you don’t sign up for a picnic, you know. It is war out there on the field. The game is taken very seriously, at any sacrifice. You need to be in perfect shape physically and need to stay focused every minute, every second of the game. If you lose focus, you can get hurt badly.
What does it feel like to win the Super Bowl?
Well, back then, I didn’t really understand (chuckles). Even the game was strange to me back then. But today, whenever I walk into some place somewhere with my ring on, I get applauded. Money could never outweigh this kind of recognition.
Thank you for the interview.