Later today, the 2018 FIFA World Cup will officially begin with host country Russia squaring off against Saudi Arabia. Millions around the globe will watch the highly anticipated event, which is the biggest tournament in all of – at least from a U.S. perspective – the “other” football aka. soccer. The two sports sharing the same name in most parts of the world is no coincidence considering the history of the American football.
Despite the historical ties between the two sports, however, few have played them both – at least professionally. In fact, there are only six men who earned a pay check playing both soccer and football (for the sake of the argument, professional football is defined here as NFL football; there were other more or less professional leagues in the past but none of them had any lasting staying power).
But how did those six men even find their way to playing in the NFL? It all started in the late 1960s: Popularized by players such as Pete Gogolak, Jan Stenerud and Garo Yepremian, the soccer style proved to be an effective method of attempting field goals in the NFL. Naturally, more and more teams were trying to find kickers to do what others around the league have successfully been doing. One of those teams were the Dallas Cowboys.
In 1971, head coach Tom Landry’s team sent a group of scouts to Europe to find new Pete Gogolaks and Jan Steneruds. The first city they visited in their quest to bring the next great soccer style kicker to the NFL was Vienna. The first player they tried out was Toni Fritsch, who had spent the previous eight years playing professional soccer for Rapid Wien, the most successful club in Austria.
Fritsch, who hardly spoke any English, signed an undrafted rookie deal with the Cowboys and at 26 years old made his NFL debut in November 1971. He proved to be a successful signing right away by kicking a game-winning 26-yarder in his first game. The Austrian, who was voted to the Pro Bowl in 1979, spent a total of 12 seasons in the NFL and appeared in a combined 139 games for Dallas, San Diego, Houston, and New Orleans.
In his first year in the league, Fritsch helped the Cowboys win a Super Bowl which makes him the only man to win professional titles as both a soccer player (Rapid was Austrian champion three times during Fritsch’s tenure with the club) and a football player. The most successful soccer player to join the NFL opened the door for others to enter the league. One of them was a colleague of Fritsch at Austria’s national soccer team.
Toni Linhart, who played for Wiener Sportclub for seven years, came to the United States one season after Fritsch and in 1972 signed a deal with the New Orleans Saints. Two years later, the Baltimore Colts brought him on board and he went on to enjoy the most successful stretch of his football career: Linhart became one of the best kickers in the NFL – earning Pro Bowl honors in 1976 and 1977 – and appeared in a total of 85 games.
The second of three Austrians to ever play in an NFL game (ex-49ers kicker Ray Wersching is the third) also crossed paths with a young Bill Belichick. In 1975, the New England Patriots’ head coach was on his first job in the league as a low-level assistant with the Colts. He did not forget Linhart: During a press conference last year, Belichick mentioned the kicker when talking about a game being played in foggy conditions.
When Linhart was voted to his first Pro Bowl, Chris Bahr made his NFL debut. Bahr, a Pennsylvania native, also joined the league via professional soccer: After playing one season for the North American Soccer League’s Philadelphia Atoms, he decided to pursue a career kicking different balls and entered the NFL draft. Bahr was indeed selected and served as the Cincinnati Bengals’ kicker from 1976 through 1979.
After four solid seasons in Cincinnati, Bahr signed a deal with the Oakland Raiders. Playing nine years with the team – the final seven of which in Los Angeles –, the former soccer player and second-round pick earned two Super Bowl rings following the 1980 and 1983 seasons. When Bahr retired after spending the 1989 campaign with the San Diego Chargers, he had a total of 221 NFL games on his résumé.
While Neil O’Donoghue – unlike Fritsch, Linhart or Bahr – failed to earn any major accolades, he did have a pretty successful career. After playing professional soccer in Ireland, most notably for the Shamrock Rovers, O’Donoghue moved across the Atlantic Ocean on a football scholarship. When his college ended its soccer program, however, he was forced to transfer to the University of Auburn. There, he joined the football team.
O’Donoghue ultimately made it all the way to the NFL: In 1977, he was selected in the fifth round by the Buffalo Bills. After a disappointing rookie campaign and being let go by the Bills, the Irishman still remained in the league eight more years. Spending most of his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St. Louis Cardinals, O’Donoghue appeared in a combined 113 NFL games – an impressive number, but one that pales in comparison to Matt Bahr’s career longevity.
Bahr entered the league two years behind O’Donoghue, in 1979, and played in the NFL until after the 1995 season. Along the way, he became the most successful pro-soccer-player-turned-pro-football-player ever: After playing for three North American Soccer League clubs from 1978 to 1979, Chris Bahr‘s younger brother appeared in 248 total NFL games and earned three Super Bowl rings.
Overall, he played for six teams during his 17 years in the league: Bahr was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, joined the 49ers and the Cleveland Browns, and in 1990 moved on to a New York Giants team that had Bill Belichick as its defensive coordinator. Bahr continued his career with the Philadelphia Eagles before ending it with Belichick’s current team: Between 1993 and 1995, the kicker appeared in 36 games for the Patriots.
It took 20 years after Matt Bahr’s retirement for another former professional soccer player to join the NFL. In 2015, however, current Jacksonville Jaguars kicker Josh Lambo ended the drought when he signed a rookie contract with the then-San Diego Chargers. Three years before entering the league, Lambo announced his retirement from pro soccer after six games played for FC Tampa Bay.
With his soccer cleats hung up, the Michigan native enrolled at Texas A&M and was later signed by San Diego as an undrafted rookie. Lambo played 32 games for the Chargers before getting released and subsequently joining the Jaguars. His first season with the reigning AFC South champions certainly was a successful one as he missed only three of a combined 44 kicks in 2017.
Lambo is the sixth and latest former pro soccer player to make it in the NFL. And even though those who play both sports professionally are a rare occurrence in the league, there will be a number seven sooner or later.
One candidate to follow the footsteps of Fritsch and Linhart in particular is fellow Austrian Christian Fuchs, who currently plays for Premier League club Leicester City and has stated in the past that he wants to play in the NFL one day. Time will tell whether Fuchs will get his chance. For now, though, the exclusive club of men who played both professional soccer and professional football holds only six members.