Ken Fritz: Remembering a football legend

Published 5:03 pm Saturday, February 10, 2024

The culmination of a brilliant high school athletic career came to Ironton’s Kenny Fritz Wednesday when he signed a football national letter of intent to attend Ohio State University. Fritz, a 6-3 230-pounder, shown above with Ironton Athletic Director Mike Burcham, was considered the most widely recruited athlete in the Tri-State are with over 60 schools contacting the muscular senior. Fritz made several campus visits including trips to Michigan, Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia Tech before deciding on Ohio State University in his final recruiting visit. Fritz, who played guard-linebacker for the Region 7 computer champions this past season, was voted the SEOAL Most Valuable Player, AA District Lineman of the Year, A.P. All-Ohio Lineman of the Year, a member of the U.P.I. first team and was selected to Scholastic Magazines’s Scholastic All-American team. Fritz, a three-year football starter at Ironton, was chosen to the all-district first team as a junior and was named to the second team all-state. Ironton has won 27 of 30 regular season games with Fritz as a starter, including 21 straight SEOAL games and two trips tot he Class AA state playoffs in 1973 and this past season. Fritz is also a member of the school’s wrestling team, going to the state meet as a junior and currently possesses a 13-0 record. The big sandy-haired athlete also holds the school weight-lifting record, capable of bench pressing 410 pounds. The Buckeye-bound Ironton starter resides at 322 Heplar Street with his grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Edward E. Fritz. To complete his demanding sports activities, Fritz is the Tigers discus and shot put man during the track season. (Sports Photo — Ron Crump)

He was a legend in Ironton and at Ohio State. But to the people who knew him, he was just a good friend.

The death of Kenny Fritz on Tuesday morning came as a surprise to say the least. It was actually somewhat shocking to learn about the 66-year-old dying of a heart attack.

Kenny Fritz as an Ohio State Buckeye

I knew Fritz back when he was playing for the Ironton Fighting Tigers. I was working at Bob Linn Sporting Goods and writing some sports articles on the side. Fritz would often come by the store and hang out and at one point Bob Linn gave Fritz a job.

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Everyone has their memories of Fritz as a football player and there are a lot of stories that embody not only his greatness, but his toughness, his strength, his grit, his intensity, and, for me, he was the meanest football player I ever saw.

Fritz was mean and would hit you with the impact of a wrecking ball, but it was always clean. He never took cheap shots. He was taught better than that.

Fritz started as a sophomore tackle for Ironton in 1973 when the team finished as Class AA state runners-up. In his senior season, he was moved to guard alongside big Phil Hieronimus to form one of high school football’s best blocking tandems.

The 1979 Ohio State Buckeyes’ senior captains were, from left to right, Jim Laughlin, Tommy Waugh, Mike Guess and Kenny Fritz. (Courtesy Ohio State Sports Information)

Defensively, Fritz was put in a standing position when coach Bob Lutz moved him to linebacker.

Ironton qualified for the playoffs only to lose to a very talented Cincinnati Wyoming. Fritz was named the Associated Press Class AA Lineman of the Year in the state and signed with the Ohio State Buckeyes.

As a freshman, Fritz made players and coaches take notice, especially head coach Woody Hayes who called him “a red tornado” because of his destructive play at nose guard with the scout team. It was obvious that Fritz would be finding his way into the starting lineup and he did.

Needing offensive linemen more than defensive players, Hayes moved Fritz to guard where he was a three-year starter and became the first Ohio State player to be named a team captain before his senior season. Fritz was a team captain both as a junior and senior.

It was during his junior year that Ohio State lost to Clemson in the 1978  Gator Bowl. It was the infamous game in which Clemson linebacker Charlie Bauman intercepted a pass late and killed a potential Ohio State scoring drive that would have given the Buckeyes the win.

Ohio State junior guard Kenny Fritz holds back head coach Woody Hayes after Hayes got upset and slugged Clemson linebacker Charlie Bauman following his interception at the 1978 Gator Bowl. (Associated Press)

Hayes hit Bauman on the shoulder pads and seemed to have just lost control. It was Fritz who grabbed Hayes and held him back. The picture of the situation was in newspapers across the country. Hayes was fired the next day which was a sad moment for Fritz because of how close the coach and player had become over the past three years.

His outstanding play earned him first team Big Ten honors and he was an Associated Press two-time first team All-American. He helped the Buckeyes win the Big Ten title and earn a trip to the Rose Bowl his senior season only to lose 17-16 to Southern Cal.

Fritz was drafted in the 10th round of the NFL draft by the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

But the pro game was a business and Fritz wasn’t big on the way business was conducted. He had a wife, Terri Cunningham, and a new son, Kenny Jr., and his family meant more than the wars of the pro football world.

Fritz told me that the era of steroids had creeped into a lot of NFL camps after starting with San Diego in 1967.  Fritz didn’t need steroids to help make him stronger. He benched 425 pounds in high school and more than 500 pounds in college.

After his senior season at Ohio State, Fritz brought some teammates with him to Ironton to play against a pickup team in a basketball game one Sunday to benefit the Tiger Clan.

Fritz was joined by center Tommy Waugh, guard Ernie Andrea, tight end Bill Jaco linebacker Jim Laughlin. The group met after the game at Mike Burcham’s home and I had the chance to talk with the players.

One in particular was Jaco. I told him Ironton was proud of Fritz and we all knew about him being a pretty tough guy, but I asked Jaco just how tough Fritz really was and I told him not to lie. I just wanted the truth.

It wasn’t anything surprising.

“I’m a red-shirt senior so I’ve been at Ohio State for five years,” said Jaco. “In my five years, there’s never been a meaner, tougher, badder S.O.B. to walk the practice field than Kenny Fritz. No one, and I mean no one, messes with Kenny Fritz.”

Yet, as tough as Fritz was, he could be as gentle as a kitten and as caring as a grandmother. Fritz would help anyone who asked and even some who didn’t.

A lot of that attitude came from his younger years in Ironton. His mother moved away and his father was unable to care for him. He was in a group home until his grandparents were able to get custody.

Burcham said that you could see his athletic potential even in grade school and he knew that Fritz needed help to keep him on the right track and to use football as his pathway to success.

Burcham was like a father to Fritz. Finding himself homesick as a freshman at Ohio State, he called Burcham and said he was coming home.

Burcham showed him his typical sympathy.

“You mean they’re not playing you? Don’t they know you’re from Ironton and you were the lineman of the year? How dare they not play you. Let me tell you something, Kenny. If you come home, I’ll have my foot up your ass all the way up (Route) 23 until you’re back at Ohio State,” said Burcham.

A couple of weeks later, Fritz was playing more and more in practice and making a name for himself. He called home and said everything was going great.

“So you’re playing now, aren’t you?” asked Burcham.

“Yes,” said Fritz.

“Now, aren’t you glad you stayed?”

Not only was Fritz glad, so was Hayes and the coaches, players and fans.

There are a lot of stories about Fritz and his prowess. It was exciting to see him on national TV when the annual Bob Hope Christmas Show introduced the AP All-American team and Fritz was on camera with Hope.

Fritz, well, Kenny had a great career selling insurance and he and Terri raised two fine sons, Kenny and Eric. Kenny would often come home, usually to see some family members but definitely Burcham and Lutz.

But that was one of the best things about Kenny. He had a love for Ironton that never died. He was always proud to have been raised in Ironton. He would always tell people he was from Ironton.

I share that love of Ironton with Kenny. But most of all, I share a love for Kenny Fritz and I, along with many others, will miss him, too.


Jim Walker is sports editor of The Ironton Tribune.