FAIRLAWN: Retired NFL field judge Fritz Graf is quick to point out he is “an old duffer” at the age of 90.
Graf, an Akron native, still has a sense of humor and wit as he treks around an independent living apartment in Fairlawn.
When asked Wednesday if he plans to watch Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, he responded with a smile: “Sure, I’ll watch it. Is the pope a Catholic?”
Graf celebrated his 90th birthday Dec. 28. He officiated football games for 38 years, including 23 seasons in the NFL as No. 34 in the black-and-white outfit.
“It started in Honolulu, Hawaii,” Graf said. “I was an officer in the Navy, in charge of a recreation center. This was toward the end of the war [World War II]. I came back from Europe where I was a navigator on a ship. They were going to send me on a minesweeping job to sweep out mines in the Sea of Japan. I thought ‘Whoa!’ I pulled a few strings and got out of that. I ended up as an officer in charge of a recreation center on Waikiki Beach.”
Graf worked four Super Bowls; V in 1971, VIII in 1974, XV in 1981 and XVII in 1984 as a field judge. The 1984 Super Bowl was his last game, and then he retired.
When he wasn’t busy officiating football games, he also worked as a sales representative of medical and hospital supplies, and spent time with his wife, Rita, and their 10 children.
They were married on Aug. 10, 1946, in Honolulu, and were married for 62 years until she passed away in 2009. They also have 17 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
Denny, the oldest of the 10 children, was born in Honolulu. The next nine children, Judi, Larry, Mary Eileen, Jack, Martha, Al, Helen, Kathi and Paul were born in Ohio. All 10 were educated in Akron at either St. Vincent, St. Vincent-St. Mary or Our Lady of the Elms high schools, and all have college degrees.
“Vacations on Lake Erie are fond memories,” Graf said. “We would go up there and take the whole family. Those are great memories. As the kids grew up, they played football, basketball and other sports, and I would go see them play. The kids still come to see me every day. I have some kids in town and some kids out of town.”
Graf started his passion for sports, and football in particular, as a youth via his parents, Fred and Kathryn. He graduated from St. Vincent High School in 1940 and from Western Reserve University in 1944. He played football at both schools as a halfback, and also enjoyed playing basketball, baseball and softball.
After his playing career, he loved being around football, and being a ref sounded fun.
“I started officiating out there in Honolulu, and I was doing well,” Graf said. “I left and when I got back to the States, I was a first-class official. I got games around here, then moved into the college conferences and made up my mind to go to the pro league and here I am now.
“I reffed in the [American Football League] one year and did the championship game in 1959. ... Then I decided to go to the National Football League. At that time, they hired one guy and it was me. It was 1960.”
Graf worked several NFL championship games before there was a Super Bowl.
“Fritz is a class person,” said Ken MacDonald, a longtime friend. “You would have to be to be an NFL ref. He is an intelligent person. I have always had high respect for Fritz.”
MacDonald, 77, director emeritus of sports information at the University of Akron, is also a lifetime Akron resident, and a graduate of Garfield in 1953 and UA in 1963.
“I recently reconnected with Fritz and we try to get lunch every Monday,” MacDonald said. “He loves to go to the luncheon in Canton for the Pro Football Hall of Fame luncheon club at Tozzi’s. He is still driving and active. We have gotten to know each other over the years through the Summit County Sports Hall of Fame, Dapper Dan and University of Akron athletics.”
Friendships have always been important to Graf, especially the ones he built with his fellow men in stripes.
Graf said he has noticed how football has changed on the field and off, with the evolution of television and computers.
“The players are bigger, better and faster,” Graf said. “We had people who played in the league at that time who couldn’t play today. They were good football players and all that, but I think they would struggle to play because of their size. I can remember a couple of guards who played for Cleveland for example, who were 230 pounds. There is no way they could play today at that size. A running back and quarterback are that size nowadays.
“I think the officiating is also better. I think they are doing an outstanding job.”
Graf said he likes instant replay as a tool to “correct an obvious error.”
“You like to make sure: Did I correctly do this?” he said. “It is helpful to have someone checking over you to make sure everything is absolutely correct.”