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.
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 Nurburgring, Hans Krankl's late winner that knocked the Federal Republic of 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 diminutive, pacy 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 the Dallas Cowboys came to Vienna looking for a specialist place-kicker in 1971, former Austria coach Leopold Stastny put Fritsch's name forward. Fritsch's famous right foot had set him on an unprecedented path that would lead to the Super Bowl.
Last week, SK Rapid Wien supporters had reason to reflect on Fritsch's remarkable life - 'Wembley Toni' had suffered a heart attack and died, aged 60, shortly after collecting his tickets on the eve of Rapid's UEFA Champions League tie with FC Bayern München. Rapid’s triumphant return to the competition for the first time in nine seasons would be tinged by sadness.
Rapid fans rose as one prior to 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 person without enemies, everybody liked him," journalist Heinz Prüller recalled. "
He was a champion of both worlds, European football and American football."
Fritsch grew up in the small town of Petronell outside Vienna, but was only ever attached to one club, Rapid. Orphaned in his early teens, Rapid became home for the youngster and on occasion he would even sleep at the training ground. His pace 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 Seventies 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 GIs had used after the War. 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."
After a crash course on the game'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 in Vienna, told uefa.com. "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."
Super Bowl winner
By 1972 Fritsch had become the Cowboys' first-choice kicker and was in their Super Bowl winning team that year. He is still the only Austrian Super Bowl champion, and would show off his winner's ring with pride. He also played for the San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints and Houston Oilers in an NFL career spanning 125 games and eleven years. His record of having kicked a field goal in 13 straight play-off games still stands.
"He was a fun-loving, congenial guy who was accepted by everybody," Brandt says. "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." Wembley Toni's Austrian fans, and particularly those of Rapid Vienna, will second that.
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