Toni Fritsch: The Austrian futbol star who helped change football as Cowboys’ kicker

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Todd Brock
·15 min read
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The true heroes of any revolution often go unremembered in the pages of time. Their contributions may have changed the world, but the details and the moments and the names are often reduced to mere trivia in the hindsight told by history books.

That’s a lot of buildup to tell the story of a placekicker.

But in the grand scheme of the evolution of the NFL, few parts of the game have changed as radically as kicking. As recently as the 1960s, a team’s kicker was often simply their best athlete. He generally starred at some other position and moonlighted at booting the ball only when the situation demanded.

Listed first as their squads’ most talented cornerbacks, quarterbacks, halfbacks, or linebackers, the kickers of yesteryear were often huge, physically speaking. The power required to drive the ball high and far into the air came from larger men, at least according to the traditional technique used for decades.

Actually splitting the uprights with any dependable accuracy, though, was largely still a crapshoot.

And then someone figured out a better way. Practically overnight, kickers looked different. They sounded different. They came from exotic places. They had entirely different athletic skills, because they had spent a lifetime playing an entirely different sport. And when they found the sport of football- or, rather, when football found them- they changed it forever.

This is the story of the unlikely little Austrian man who helped usher that revolution into Dallas.

The football rookie who was a seasoned futbol veteran

https://twitter.com/dfwsportspast/status/923715438575529984 With the score tied and under two minutes to play in Week 8 of the 1971 season, the Cowboys lined up for a game-winning field goal try. At just 26 yards, the kick wouldn't be one of unusual difficulty for any NFL kicker. But Dallas was fielding a brand-new placekicker that afternoon, brought up from the taxi squad just days prior. Looking for any edge he could find, St. Louis Cardinals linebacker Larry Stallings hoped to get in the rookie's head as the teams took the line of scrimmage. "You're gonna choke!" Stallings reportedly yelled. Cowboys special teamer Dave Edwards shot back, but it was more friendly advice than smack-talking retort in his kicker's defense. "Save your breath," Edwards hollered. "He can't understand a word of English!" Twenty-six-year-old Toni Fritsch, the first Austrian to ever play in the National Football League, drilled the attempt- the third field goal in his regular-season debut- to give the Cowboys a 16-13 victory. Even had he understood his opponent's taunts, it's doubtful that Fritsch would have felt any pressure at all about making the game-winning kick; he had already made an entire career of it on another continent and before crowds much larger than the 50,000 at Busch Memorial Stadium that day. Anton Fritsch was born in Austria just two months after the Axis powers in Europe surrendered in 1945 to mark the end of World War II's mainland theater. Like most European boys, "Toni" grew up playing futbol. By the time "Toni" was 13, he had joined the youth division of powerhouse Rapid Vienna. At 18, Fritsch made his debut for the first team in 1964. Rapid Vienna won the league title that same year. They would win it again in 1967 and 1968. Fritsch helped the squad win the Austrian Cup in 1968 and 1969. Fritsch also played for the Austrian national team nine times. In 1965, with his squad having failed to qualify for the World Cup, Austria was slated to play England in what was to be a warm-up match for the Brits. Fritch scored dramatic back-to-back goals (the only goals he ever scored for the national team) to defeat England- led by all-time soccer legend Bobby Moore- by a 3-2 count in London's cavernous Wembley Stadium. It was just the third time a continental team had ever defeated England on their own pitch; the stunning performance earned the 20-year-old Fritsch the nickname 'Wembley-Toni,' by which he was known to soccer fans for the rest of his life. By the time he had played 123 games and scored 15 goals for Rapid Vienna over eight seasons, Toni Fritsch's soccer career came to an end. Fritsch was just 26, but knew he was on borrowed time. "In soccer, you can play until you're about 32," he would say later of his decision to retire from the sport. Besides, a new sport was about to find Fritsch.

The Cowboys' search for soccer stars

Unknown date, 1973; Unknown location USA; FILE PHOTO; Dallas Cowboys kicker Toni Fritsch (15) in action. Mandatory Credit: Malcolm Emmons- USA TODAY Sports

The soccer-style kicking revolution had started in the AFL in 1964. Pete Gogolak, a native of Hungary, gave birth to it after a successful college career at Cornell got him drafted by the Buffalo Bills. Prior to that, pro kickers almost universally approached the ball straight-on and struck the ball with their toe. It was a dicey proposition; a conversion rate of 50% was generally good enough to land you in the top ten for an entire season. Gogolak introduced American football to the European soccer kick, where the kicker took two steps back from the ball, and then three more to the side. The approach was made at an angle, and the entire body rotated to swing the leg with far more power. Contact with the ball was made along the instep and the top of the foot, resulting in added control. Field goal percentages went up, and pro teams suddenly started looking for soccer players. Garo Yepremian from Cyprus, Jan Stenerud from Norway, Bobby Howfield from England, and Horst Muhlmann from Germany became the torch-bearers who brought futbol to football. The Cowboys, eager to capitalize on the trend, decided to travel the European continent in 1971 in search of soccer stars who could wear the star as kicking specialists in Dallas. Team staffers and scouts launched a touring series of tryouts they called the Kicking Karavan. According to Gil Brandt, "The first place we went was Vienna. And the first player we tried out was Toni Fritsch." Fritsch spoke no English. He had never watched an American football game. He'd never even seen the strange, oblong, pointed ball they used. But after the Cowboys saw him kick, a contract was offered. And after a translator looked it over for him, Fritsch signed. Wembley-Toni was coming to Texas Stadium.

A catalyst's contributions that needed no translation

https://twitter.com/79_nfl/status/1191065512538755073 The soccer star began his Cowboys career on the taxi squad as he acclimated to life in America and learned the finer points of sport. "Seasoning" is what coach Tom Landry called it. "Fritsch could be a catalyst, a guy to get you rolling," Landry said. "One guy could get in a hot streak and you never know what effect it will have on your team." At first, though, Fritsch's effect on the team was one of comic relief. Assistant coach Ernie Stautner often used German to communicate with Toni. But Stautner couldn't always be by the kicker's side. As offensive lineman Ralph Neely relays in America's Team: The Official History of the Dallas Cowboys by Jeff Sullivan: "So our first exhibition game in 1971, we're playing the Rams. He [Fritsch] points at one of the officiating crew and asks his roommate, [offensive lineman] Don Talbert, 'Name? Name?'" Talbert gave Fritsch an answer. And then made sure he was waiting nearby for the official to hand Fritsch the ball at kickoff. "And he says, 'Thank you, Mr. Son of a [Expletive].'" Sometimes the language barrier worked to his teammates' detriment. Also per Sullivan's book: "Then there was the time in training camp Landry wanted to practice onside kicks. The team lines up in proper formation, Landry blows the whistle, and Fritsch launches the ball toward the end zone. Calmly, Landry says, 'No, no, no. Onside kick, Toni. Onside kick.' "Kickoff unit lines up again and sure enough, same result. This went on for about five minutes, with some of the veteran players convinced Landry was enjoying himself watching the rookies sprint like maniacs downfield with each kick." In Week 7 of the '71 season, starting kicker Mike Clark missed three field goals against Chicago. The 4-point loss dropped a talented Dallas team who had been to the previous Super Bowl to 4-3. The newcomer Fritsch was named the starter for Week 8 in St. Louis. And he went on to boot the game-winner, despite the aforementioned efforts of the Cardinals defense to rattle him. "I played soccer before over 100,000 fans in all the countries of the world for seven years as a pro," Fritsch said of the moment. "All shouts go in one ear and out the other." But Fritsch had finished just 3-of-4 on field goal attempts in his NFL debut. "I'm happy for the Cowboys, but not for me," Fritsch said afterward. "A professional should be 100 percent. I'm sorry I make a mistake. I get better. I just need the feel of the game." So did Fritsch turn out to be the catalyst that Landry had speculated he could be? It's hard to say; the Austrian went down with a hamstring injury in the team's next game, ceding kicking duties back to Clark. But after Fritsch's heroics, the Cowboys didn't lose again that season, going on to beat Miami 24-3 in Super Bowl VI to claim the franchise's first world title. Toni wasn't the kicker that took the team down the championship stretch, but he earned a Super Bowl ring for his contributions. Perhaps his most memorable moment in the NFL, though, was still to come.

Wrapping up a legendary comeback with a big, bright rabona

Jan 18, 1976; Miami, FL, USA; FILE PHOTO; Dallas Cowboys kicker Toni Fritsch (15) attempts a field goal against the Pittsburgh Steelers during Super Bowl X at the Orange Bowl. The Steelers defeated the Cowboys 21-17. Mandatory Credit: Dick Raphael-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys' defense of their 1971 Super Bowl win got off to a rocky start, as quarterback Roger Staubach suffered a preseason injury that kept him out of the entire 1972 regular campaign. The club went 10-4 and finished second in the NFC East. Fritsch, now the only kicker on the roster, converted 21 field goal tries (then a team record) and was a perfect 36-of-36 on extra points. Both players, though, would prove to be instrumental in the team's divisional playoff game against San Francisco. Down 28-13 near the end of the third quarter, Landry pulled quarterback Craig Morton in favor of a fully-recovered-and-waiting Staubach. A stalled drive and Fritsch's third field goal of the day quickly trimmed the margin to 12 points. A late Staubach touchdown pass made the score 28-23 with under two minutes to go. The Cowboys' only hope would be to recover an onside kick. At 5-foot-7 and 190 pounds, the pudgy and balding Fritsch certainly did not cut the profile of a gridiron hero. But what he did next is still part of NFL lore. The 49ers knew an onside kick was coming. They just had no idea it would look like this. Fritsch stutter-stepped as he neared the ball. His left plant foot, which should have landed immediately to the left of the ball, instead came down on the Candlestick Park grass on the other side of the football. For a stunning fraction of a second, it looked as if Fritsch had just missed the teed ball. His right kicking leg, rather than take its huge arcing swing forward, whipped awkwardly behind his rigid left leg. With his legs basically crossed at the ankles, Fritsch punched the ball with his trailing right foot. A behind-the-back tap. The ball skittered to Fritsch's right... the opposite of where the 49ers thought it was headed. https://twitter.com/CowboysOld/status/1341752677651390467 Dallas recovered. Staubach led the offense to the end zone. The Cowboys won, 30-28. Fourteen points in the final two minutes to advance in the playoffs. It remains one of Roger Staubach's most legendary wins. But Toni Fritsch had made it possible. "Once we got that onside kick, the momentum definitely turned," Staubach said. Fritsch had used a trick soccer kick called a rabona. The name translates to "hooky" in Spanish. The misdirectional squib shot has a long history in futbol, but thankfully for Dallas, the 49ers had never seen anything like it. "I have worked on this for many years in soccer," the unlikely hero remarked. "I have used it in warmups to help me relax. I showed it to [kicking coach] Bobby Franklin, and he said he would try it some time. I think it was important, no? I think it was the game." The rabona is exceedingly difficult to pull off. Pittsburgh's Chris Boswell went viral in 2016 when one he tried versus Baltimore failed in spectacular fashion. (He had executed it once to perfection while playing college ball at Rice.) Even today, as kickers employ more and more trick-shot techniques in their onside arsenals, the rabona remains the ultimate rarity. But for that one shining moment in December 1972, Toni Fritsch turned the entire American football world on its head with a foot fake-out he learned as a soccer-playing boy in Austria.

A unique place in the histories of two sports

https://twitter.com/PrescottCoop/status/1295075222895435778 Despite the onside kick and fantastic finish in that divisional round contest, things didn't bounce Dallas's way the rest of the postseason. They lost the NFC Championship to Washington the next week. The following season, they won the East, but were beaten in the conference championship by Minnesota; Fritsch made just 18 field goals that year. He missed the 1974 season with a knee injury. And for the first time in nine seasons, the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs. 1975 was a productive comeback year for Toni. He led the league with 22 field goals (tied with Stenerud) as well as total points and helped Dallas reach Super Bowl X. But he had grown maddeningly inconsistent, at least for Landry's tastes. Fritsch finished the '75 campaign making just 63% of his field goal tries. "Toni is having trouble in the 30- to 40-yard area," Landry had said during the season, "and that's where you must make at least 75 percent of your attempts." During the season against the Eagles, with three seconds left and the score tied, the normally unflappable Landry couldn't even watch his kicker make the 42-yard attempt. Fritsch connected, but Landry had lost faith. The Cowboys traded Fritsch to San Diego before the 1976 season. But soccer-style kicking had taken root in Dallas; the team replaced Fritsch with Efren Herrera, who played soccer growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico. After him came Rafael Septien and then Luis Zendejas, a string of two decades' worth of Cowboys kickers born in soccer-playing nations. Fritsch played just five games for the Chargers before being waived for inconsistency. In 1977, he kicked for Houston and got his mojo back. He led the AFC in field goals, earning All-Pro honors and a Pro Bowl trip. He played four more years for the Oilers, even posting a field-goal percentage of 84 percent in 1979, then joined the Saints for their 1982 season. He retired from the NFL at the end of '82, having led the league in field goal percentage three times, and owning a record of kicking a field goal in 13 straight playoff games, a mark that was only tied by Adam Vinatieri in 2007. During his rookie season in Dallas, Fritsch had acknowledged that part of the allure of American football was longevity. He had already been entering the twilight of his soccer career when he retired in Austria at 26; kickers like George Blanda were still playing in the NFL well past 40. So perhaps unsurprisingly, Fritsch came out of retirement in 1984 to kick for the Houston Gamblers of the USFL. And while he was credited with one of the most ridiculous two-point conversions in football history, he also went All-League at the age of 39. https://youtu.be/eYKReWwmU6w After the USFL's final season of 1985, Fritsch turned to sports commentating and remained something of a celebrity in his native Austria. He lived in Houston, but visited his homeland often, working with businessmen there who were looking to relocate to America and also promoting American football to his countrymen. He died of a heart attack during a visit to Vienna in 2005. He was 60. Toni Fritsch is best remembered in Austria as a local "footballer" who made good conquering a new sport in the United States. To American football fans, he is remembered for the new kicking style he brought from his home country, helping to forever revolutionize a part of the NFL with it. He remains the only man to win professional titles in both soccer and football. "So you can see," Fritsch once said in an interview after his playing days had ended, "I had it all." This offseason, Cowboys Wire is reaching back into the archives in a series called Stars of the Cowboys' Past. We'll re-acquaint readers with the stories of some of the franchise's players who have shone brightly during the 60-year history of America's Team. 1/13: Larry Cole 1/28: Eddie LeBaron 2/10: Rayfield Wright 2/25: Dat Nguyen 3/18: Everson Walls You can suggest future Stars of the Cowboys' Past by following Todd on Twitter at @ToddBrock24f7.

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