Soccer-to-Football: The Story of Tony Fritsch, the Austrian Who Became the Cowboys’ First Soccer-Style Kicker
“It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen,” Brandt recalled. “A linebacker for the Cardinals was hollering, ‘Choke, Fristch, choke!’ and Dave Edwards, our back-up on the protection team, said, ‘HE CAN’T UNDERSTAND ENGLISH!”
Are you watching games and/or highlights from the World Cup and wondering how a soccer star’s skills would translate to the kicking game in American football? Beginning in the late-1960’s, soccer-style kickers entered the NFL. Several years later, the Cowboys would sign their first European-born soccer-style kicker: Toni Fritsch, a star player for Austria’s national soccer team.
Known as “Wembley Toni” by Austrian soccer fans, Fritsch earned the nickname by scoring two goals versus England at London’s Wembley Stadium during his debut for the Austrian national soccer team in October, 1965.
Fritsch was born in the small Austrian town of Petronell-Carnuntum where he starred as a striker in youth soccer. By age 18, he was playing professional soccer in Vienna for the popular club, Rapid Vienna. While playing for Rapid Vienna (1963-71), he played concurrently for Austria’s national team from 1965-68.
While Fritsch was on the pitch in Europe, soccer-style kickers were making their NFL debuts in America. A soccer-style kicker approaches the football at an angle and kicks the ball with his in-step. Previously, ‘conventional kickers’ approached the ball directly, straight-on, and kicked the ball with their toes.
Fritsch was not the first soccer-style kicker to play in the NFL. That distinction goes to Pete Gogolak, a Hungarian whose family fled their homeland in the late 1950’s following the Hungarian Revolution. The Gogolak family settled in upstate New York. Pete played college football for Colgate and was later drafted by the AFL’s Buffalo Bills in 1965. After two years with the Bills, Gogolak signed with the New York Giants where he kicked 9 seasons.
Pete Gogolak’s brother, Charlie, was drafted in the 1stround by the Washington Redskins in 1966. The brothers competed against each other when the division rival Giants and Redskins squared-off. In one of those contests in 1966, the Gogolaks combined for 14 extra points in the Redskins’ 72-41 victory over the Giants.
Other foreign soccer-style kickers came along, including Garo Yepremian, a native of Cyprus, with the Detroit Lions in 1966. Jan Stenerud, a Scandinavian from Norway, joined the Chiefs in 1967. Bobby Howfield, an Englishman, signed with the Broncos in 1968. Horst Muhlmann, from Germany, joined the Bengals in 1969.
The success of the Gogolak’s as well as Yepremian, Stenerud, et al, led other NFL teams to scout Europe for soccer players who may be able to convert to American football.
The Cowboys’ personnel department traveled to Europe in the spring of 1971 to scout soccer stars.
“The first place we went was Vienna, and the first player we tried out was Toni Fritsch,” Gil Brandt, former Cowboys’ personnel director, told the Associated Press. “He had a hard time speaking English at first, but he did master it.”
At the time of his signing with the Cowboys in 1971, Fritsch had never seen an American football game, nor did he know any of the rules.
In a story about Fritsch for AustrianInformation.org, Julian Steiner and Walter Reiterer wrote the following:
“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.”
Fritsch was popular with teammates, even though he had trouble communicating when he first arrived in Dallas. Of course, it was difficult for opponents to communicate with Fritsch, too.
Brandt shared the following story with the Associated Press about the time that Frisch kicked the game-winning field goal in his Cowboys’ debut.
“It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen,” Brandt recalled. “A linebacker for the Cardinals was hollering, ‘Choke, Fristch, choke!’ and Dave Edwards, our back-up on the protection team, said, ‘He can’t understand English!”
Not only would Fritsch quickly assimilate with his Dallas teammates, he would become one of the more players on the team. He played five seasons for the Cowboys (1971-75) and won a Super Bowl ring. In his final season, he led the NFC in field goals (22).
In 1976, Fritsch kicked for the San Diego Chargers. In 1977 he moved to Houston and was a key player for the Oilers’ “Luv Ya Blue” era under Bum Phillips. He spent five seasons in Houston before moving to New Orleans for one year (1982) to kick once again for Phillips who was then the coach of the Saints.
Fritsch set an NFL record for kicking a successful field goal in 13 straight playoff games. He was named an All Pro and Pro Bowl selection following his 1979 season with the Oilers.
After 12 seasons (1971-1982), Fritsch retired from the NFL. He settled in Houston and thought he was through with American football. But in 1984 a new league called the USFL formed a team in Houston, the Houston Gamblers, which played in the same place as the Oilers: The Astrodome. Fritsch signed with the Gamblers and kicked two seasons until the team folded after the 1985 season. He earned All-League honors with the Gamblers.
Following his stint in the short-lived USFL, Fritsch retired…for good this time…from American football. He remained in Houston and worked in finance. He also did some sports commentating in Europe, including time working for a season with his old club in Vienna, Rapid Vienna, from 1992-93.
Fritsch would often travel back to Europe for the purpose of watching soccer or visiting family and friends. On a trip to Austria in September, 2005, he died of heart failure at age 60.
In Vienna, you can find a street named after him, the former soccer star who became the first Austrian to play in the NFL. The man who scored twice at Wembley to beat England. And the man who was beloved by fans in Texas of both the Cowboys and the Oilers.
Fritsch is the only player to win professional titles in both association football (soccer) and American football: Austrian League titles 1964, 1967, and 1968; and Super Bowl VI in 1972.