Triumph And Tragedy: The Soccer Stars That Chased Football Glory In Texas

Written by Ian Thomson

Austrian soccer star Toni Fritsch became a vital cog in the “Luv Ya Blue” heyday of the Houston Oilers in the late 1970s.

The former Rapid Vienna forward and Dallas Cowboys placekicker converted the highest percentage of field goals in the NFL during the 1977, 1979 and 1980 seasons as Oilers head coach Bum Phillips transformed the Houston franchise from no-hopers into serial playoff contenders.

Topps football card of Toni Fritsch from 1979.
Topps football card of Toni Fritsch from 1979.

It could all have turned out so differently for Fritsch had a Norwegian soccer player named Finn Seemann been able to adapt to the American game. Seemann had also represented a Dallas sports team before joining the Oilers as a placekicker in the 1970s. The two players shared similar career paths that never quite crossed and tragic coincidences in their personal lives.

* * * * *

Soccer-style kickers were in demand among NFL teams in the early 1970s after the success of Hungarian-born Pete Gogolak with the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants. Gogolak’s younger brother, Charlie, had also kicked for the Washington Redskins and New England Patriots.

In 1971, Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm and chief scout Gil Brandt pondered recruiting a soccer player that could also grow the team’s brand in Europe. Head coach Tom Landry took a scouting trip to Vienna after being tipped off about Austrian national team player Toni Fritsch.

Fritsch had been nicknamed “Wembley Toni” after his two late goals fired Austria to a famous 3-2 win over England at Wembley Stadium in October 1965. The diminutive forward had won three domestic league titles and two cups with Rapid Vienna when Landry and his assistants crossed the Atlantic in search of a specialist kicker.

The Cowboys entourage took Fritsch to a field in the Austrian capital where American soldiers had played football during World War II. They asked the soccer player to boot a foreign, oval-shaped ball through the goal posts. A lucrative offer to sign for the Cowboys quickly followed. Fritsch made his NFL debut against the St. Louis Cardinals in November 1971, at 26 years old, and he kicked the decisive fourth-quarter field goal in a 16-13 win at Busch Memorial Stadium.

Dallas had recovered from losing the first Super Bowl after the 1970 merger between the NFL and the rival American Football League to win its first crown in January 1972. Fritsch could not have changed career at a better time and his fortunes kept rising when he earned the starting role for the 1972 season.

Things were not so rosy 240 miles southward down the I-45 freeway. Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams had been an instrumental backer of Lamar Hunt’s AFL organization upon its founding in 1959. The oil magnate, like his Dallas-based peer, had been rebuffed in his attempts to secure an NFL franchise in Texas. Adams gladly signed up to join Hunt’s rival league and the Oilers were born.

Success arrived instantly as Houston defeated the Chargers of Los Angeles and then San Diego in the AFL’s first two championship games before Hunt’s Dallas Texans prevented a three-peat in the 1962 final. Houston’s performances tapered off throughout the 1960s and the Oilers toiled after the NFL-AFL merger, clocking up eight wins in 42 games as the 1973 season approached.

Adams now hankered for the on- and off-field boost that a European soccer-style kicker could bring.

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Lamar Hunt had appointed Yugoslavian-born Bob Kap as head coach of his Dallas Tornado soccer franchise for the inaugural North American Soccer League season in 1968. Scottish club Dundee United had represented the Tornado during a truncated summer season in 1967 when Hunt and his fellow investors created the short-lived United Soccer Association tournament to compete against the newly launched National Professional Soccer League.

Differences between the two nascent organizations were resolved by the end of the year to establish the merged NASL with 17 founding franchises.

The Tornado arranged a bamboozling seven-month world tour to prepare Kap’s team for the NASL’s debut season. They played 32 exhibition games in 26 countries across five continents before returning to the United States to post a 2-26-4 record that was the worst in the league. Fewer than 3,000 fans turned up to the Cotton Bowl on average. Kap was promptly dismissed.

Yet Kap’s reputation as a soccer expert remained intact among sports executives in the staunch football heartland of North Texas. Cowboys’ general manager Tex Schramm and chief scout Gil Brandt sought his advice on potential soccer-style kickers, and Tom Landry traveled to Austria based on Kap’s recommendations.

By 1973, Bud Adams had brought Kap on board as a kicking coach for the Houston Oilers. It was time for Kap to unearth the next Toni Fritsch.

Kap, crouched in the middle, with his 1968 Dallas Tornado team. Franchise owner Lamar Hunt is standing on the far left.
Kap, crouched in the middle, with his 1968 Dallas Tornado team. Franchise owner Lamar Hunt is standing on the far left.

* * * * *

Norwegian soccer player Finn Seemann had proven to be an adaptable amateur sportsman in his homeland. He opened the scoring for Norway in a famous 3-0 win over Yugoslavia in June 1965 during the qualifying rounds for the following summer’s FIFA World Cup. He also represented his country in bandy, an 11-a-side version of ice hockey played on a soccer-sized area.

Two single-goal losses against France ended Norway’s hopes of reaching the 1966 World Cup, and Seemann opted to leave his local amateur club Lyn Oslo to become the fifth Scandinavian player at Dundee United.

Electrifying pace and set-piece expertise were among the qualities that attracted United’s head coach Jerry Kerr to the rangy winger. Seemann’s coolness in dead ball situations shone through when the Scottish club made its debut in European competition at holders Barcelona during the 1966-67 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a forerunner to the UEFA Cup and Europa League.

Seemann’s penalty kick proved to be decisive in a 2-1 win at Camp Nou that was followed by a 2-0 humbling of the Catalans in the second leg at Tannadice Park. United’s soaring reputation saw Lamar Hunt inviting the club to represent his Dallas Tornado franchise during the 1967 United Soccer Association tournament.

Finn Seemann celebrates after scoring a goal for Lyn Oslo (Source: Lynhistorie.com)
Finn Seemann celebrates after scoring a goal for Lyn Oslo (Source: Lynhistorie.com)

Houston’s groundbreaking Astrodome was one of the venues that Seemann and his United teammates visited during the tour. Danish winger Mogens Berg recalled his fellow Scandinavian being the first player to trot out onto the AstroTurf field when the Tornado players arrived at the gargantuan structure to play the Houston Stars.

“He tried to kick the ball as high as he could,” said Berg in an interview for the book “Summer Of ’67: Flower Power, Race Riots, Vietnam and the Greatest Soccer Final Played on American Soil.”

A competition quickly ensued during the Tornado’s pre-game warm-up to see if anyone could hit the 208-foot-high roof. Nobody came close.

Dallas lost 2-0 to the Stars, represented by Rio de Janeiro state champions Bangu, in front of 20,375 fans. The blistering Texas heat saw Kerr’s combination of Scots and Scandinavians stutter to one home win from six games at the Cotton Bowl, and results on the road were little better.

Seemann grabbed his only goal for the Dallas Tornado in a 4-1 win at the Boston Shamrock Rovers, represented by Ireland’s Shamrock Rovers. Five games remained in the season when Seemann’s involvement with Hunt’s franchise was curtailed when his wife gave birth to a baby boy.

Amsterdam’s Door Wilskracht Sterk signed Seemann from Dundee United in 1968 before transferring him to F.C. Utrecht three years later. He was still with Utrecht in 1973 when Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams visited the Netherlands on a mission to find a strong-kicking soccer player that could adjust to the gridiron game.

Seemann had retained his dead ball expertise and he impressed during a brief trial. The 28-year-old Norwegian would soon be returning to Texas as a member of the Houston Oilers football team.

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Finn Seemann arrived at the Schreiner Institute in Kerrville, about 60 miles northwest of San Antonio, on July 17, 1973 for his first practice as a member of the Oilers. He converted nine out of 10 field goal attempts, including two from 40 yards, and finished with a kickoff that sailed 86 yards down the field.

“I find it easy,” Seemann told an Associated Press reporter. “One thing I find hard – getting the helmet off my head.”

The newcomer skipped calisthenics and weight-lifting sessions after his workout, telling reporters that he used his foot to kick the ball and not his shoulders.

“In three months, Finn will be kicking the ball 20 yards more than Toni Fritsch,” predicted Oilers kicking coach Bob Kap after Seemann’s first day on the job.

Seemann juggles a soccer bowl during an Oilers practice session in July 1973 (Source: UPI)
Seemann juggles a soccer bowl during an Oilers practice session in July 1973 (Source: UPI)

Houston hosted the Baltimore Colts in a pre-season exhibition game on Sept. 1, giving Seemann the chance to play at the Astrodome six years after his first visit as a soccer player. He converted a 13-yard field goal attempt and another kick from nine yards as the Oilers triumphed by 20-9.

Regular placekicker Skip Butler retained the starting spot throughout a disastrous 1973 season that saw the Oilers finish bottom of the AFC Central Division with a 1-13 record. A rule change ahead of the 1974 campaign shifted the goal posts to the back of the end zone, adding another 10 yards to every kick. Seemann’s hopes of playing seemed to have improved as Butler struggled with long-range efforts.

“The field goal kicker, he’s going to have to be some kind of strong-legged field goal kicker if we’re going to see some three points,” Oilers owner Adams told reporters after his team beat the San Antonio Toros in an exhibition on July 22, 1974. Seemann fell short with a 37-yard attempt during the game.

Houston’s pre-season preparations continued with a 16-7 win over the New York Giants that drew 15,501 fans to the Astrodome on Aug. 3. Seemann converted a 30-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, but he blotted his performance with one botched point-after-touchdown attempt.

Seemann was in impeccable form the following week as the Oilers routed the Washington Redskins by 48-3 in front of 14,786 fans at RFK Stadium. He converted six extra point attempts and added two field goals from 31 and 26 yards. It was not enough to convince Oilers head coach Sid Gillman of his development. Butler kept the starting role and Seemann was waived ahead of Houston’s season opener against the San Diego Chargers.

The Norwegian returned to his hometown soccer club Lyn Oslo, scoring four goals in 16 top-flight appearances before injury forced him to play out his career among the country’s lower divisions.

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Bum Phillips’ appointment as head coach of the Houston Oilers in 1975 brought the franchise its first winning season in eight years. Owner Bud Adams still had not landed a soccer-style kicker, but that changed in 1977 when Toni Fritsch joined the organization after spending one year with the San Diego Chargers.

“Wembley Toni” had been part of two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys and he led the NFL with 22 field goal conversions in 1975. He produced the five highest field goal percentage rates of his career over the next five years, peaking in 1979 with an 84 percent success rate from 25 attempts (21 converted) including a career long 51-yarder. The 34-year-old Austrian was selected for that season’s Pro Bowl all-star game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Oliver Luck, the father of current Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew, arrived in Houston ahead of the 1982 NFL season after being drafted from West Virginia University. Luck had spent considerable time in Germany during his childhood visiting his German mother’s side of the family. He was fluent in the language and would often converse with Fritsch in the kicker’s native tongue.

“He would walk through the door and you’d think this guy can’t be a professional athlete,” Luck told The Soccer Observer in a May 2012 interview. “He’s got a big belly, totally out of shape, but he could kick very well.”

“Oliver, this is the simplest job I’ve ever had,” Fritsch told the rookie quarterback. “I played soccer, and I can put the ball wherever you need it to go.”

Fritsch’s time with the Oilers was coming to an end, and the 36-year-old was cut before the 1982 season began. Bum Phillips, now with the New Orleans Saints, signed the veteran after Danish rookie Morten Andersen was injured on the opening weekend. Fritsch’s kicking prowess appeared to be dwindling in the five games that he played before Andersen’s return. He missed three out of seven field goal attempts in what proved to be his final year in the NFL.

* * * * *

Toni Fritsch and Finn Seemann were linked by a set of events that brought them to Dallas and Houston after representing their respective countries on the soccer field. The parallels in their sporting careers also strayed into their personal lives in tragic circumstances.

Fritsch suffered a fractured jaw, cracked ribs and a broken shoulder in May 1980 when his Volkswagon Rabbit crossed two lanes of traffic on the North Central Expressway in Dallas before flipping over into an oncoming Chevrolet carrying seven people. Nelda Kay Burks, a passenger in Fritsch’s vehicle, died from massive head injuries. Fritsch pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and received an eight-year probated sentence.

The Austrian kicker played on after his NFL career ended, moving back to Texas to represent the Houston Gamblers in the short-lived United States Football League. He kicked the final points in the franchise’s history in a 22-20 playoff loss to the Birmingham Stallions at the Astrodome on June 29, 1985.

Ten weeks later on Sept. 7, Seemann was involved in a road accident near Lillehammer in Norway that took his life. He was 40 years old.

unitedprogramDundee United paid tribute to the fifth member of the club’s Scandinavian quintet from the Sixties in its official programme for the Skol League Cup semi-final clash with Aberdeen on Sept. 25. Seemann’s death deeply shocked everyone at Tannadice Park, particularly club director and former United captain Doug Smith who had been a close friend of the Norwegian during his time in Scotland.

Fritsch stayed in Houston after his retirement. He traveled to Vienna in September 2005 to watch his former club Rapid take on Bayern Munich in its first UEFA Champions League group appearance in nine years. Fritsch collapsed on the eve of the game shortly after collecting his tickets. He died of heart failure. He was 60 years old.

Rapid honored “Wembley Toni,” the man who had fired Austria to its famous victory 40 years earlier, with a minute’s silence before kickoff.

 

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