From Wembley hero to Super Bowl winner, Toni Fritsch enjoyed a career like no other. Having hit the heights in Vienna, he gave up European football for the American variety, but whether in Austria or the States, success followed Fritsch just the same.
The match that made ‘Wembley Toni’
Few truly memorable moments touch a country’s sporting consciousness. For Austrians, read skier Franz Klammer winning gold at Innsbruck in 1976, Niki Lauda surviving his horrifying accident at the Nürburgring, Hans Krankl’s late winner that knocked West Germany out of the 1978 FIFA World Cup, and Fritsch’s two goals at Wembley in 1965.
Sir Alf Ramsey’s England would win the World Cup nine months later, but that October night in London it was Austria that played like champions, and Fritsch in particular. Up against Nobby Stiles, the fast, diminutive right-winger scored twice as Austria battled back from 2-1 down to claim a historic 3-2 victory. The legend of ‘Wembley Toni’ was born.
One of those goals, a long-range screamer, helped set Fritsch aside in more ways than one. When Dallas Cowboys of the NFL came to Vienna looking for a specialist place-kicker in 1971, former Austria coach Leopold Šťastný put Fritsch’s name forward. Fritsch’s famous right foot had placed him on an unprecedented path that would lead to the Super Bowl.
Cowboys come calling
Fritsch had grown up in the small town of Petronell outside Vienna, but was only ever attached to one club, Rapid. After he was orphaned in his early teens, Rapid became home for the youngster and on occasion he slept at the training ground. His speed and powerful shot set him apart and he forced his way into the Rapid team while still a teenager in 1964. He won the title that year, then again in 1967 and 1968. ‘Wembley Toni’ played nine times for Austria, but as the 1970s dawned his pace had slowed.
When the Cowboys entourage arrived in Vienna in 1971 on the first stop of their novel search for a muscle-bound European kicker, Fritsch was ready for a new challenge. He could speak no English and had never seen an American football before, but he could kick.
The Cowboys took Fritsch to Hohe Warte in Vienna’s 19th district where American football posts still stood in a stadium which GIs had used after World War II. Fritsch booted the ball over the bar, then signed a contract on the spot. “They gave me a football and showed me how to kick it,” Fritsch recalled. “The next thing I knew they were offering me money to come to America to play this strange sport.”
Super Bowl winner
After the rookie’s crash course on gridiron’s finer points, success quickly followed. “We opened up against St Louis [Cardinals] for our first game of the season,” Gil Brandt, then the Cowboys personnel director who had signed Fritsch, told UEFA.com in 2005. “The scores were tied and it was near the end of the game. We took a time-out and decided to kick a field goal.
“Fritsch came on and one of the St Louis players started hollering at him, ‘Choke Fritsch, choke!’ Our guy Dave Edwards replied: ‘He can’t understand English.’ Fritsch kicked the field goal and we won the game.”
By 1972 Fritsch had become the Cowboys’ first-choice kicker and he was in their Super Bowl winning team that year. He is still the only Austrian Super Bowl champion, and would show off his winners’ ring with pride. He also played for the San Diego Chargers, Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints in an NFL career spanning 125 games and 11 years.
Fritsch died following a heart attack in 2005, at the age of 60, shortly after collecting tickets for a Rapid Wien UEFA Champions League game against Bayern. The next evening, Rapid fans rose as one before kick-off to give their hero a rousing send-off, then bowed their heads for a minute’s silence in honour of a man whose fame had travelled far beyond Vienna.
“He was a fun-loving, congenial guy who was accepted by everybody,” Brandt continued. “He was one of the guys from the day he got there. When he arrived, he spoke no English at all. It wasn’t an easy transformation, anyway, going from being top dog in Austria to fighting for a place on the roster, and he knew nothing about American football. He just knew how to kick the ball.”