Before the game, the Alter team plans to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame next door and that’s where Matthew will reconnect with the man who long ago started the football journey that he and his family — including his brother J.P., a standout receiver for the Knights two years ago, grandfather Denny Graf, a defensive end for the Dayton Flyers in the late 1960s, and great uncle, Larry Graf, a top Ohio State lineman in early 1970s who went to two Rose Bowls with the Buckeyes – have been on.
A year and a day ago – November 29, 2017 – Matthew’s great grandfather, Fritz Graf, died at age 94.
Although wheelchair bound the last few years, he took a keen interest in Matthew’s budding football career and shared some stories when his great grandson visited him in Akron.
But it wasn’t just the family ties that fueled Fritz’s interest, it was his long love affair with the game of football itself.
Fritz was a well-known NFL official from 1960 to the mid-1980s and served as the back judge in Super Bowls V and XIII in the Orange Bowl, XV in the Louisiana Superdome and XVIII at Tampa Stadium.
He worked 10 NFL conference championships, the first regular season game between the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals at Municipal Stadium in 1970 and hundreds and hundreds of other games in the NFL, AFL, college football and high school.
After he retired from the field following the Los Angeles Raiders 38-9 victory over the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII in 1984, he continued with the league as a replay official and an evaluator of officials.
For 55 years he was also an active member of the weekly Hall of Fame luncheon club in Canton, which is something like the Agonis Club in Dayton, only on steroids.
But the game for which he is best known – one that has gotten his whistle displayed in the Hall of Fame – is the 1967 NFL Championship between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys at Lambeau Field.
One of the most famous games in NFL history, it is known as “The Ice Bowl.”
It was played on Dec. 31, 1967. The game time temperature was 15 degrees below zero and the average wind chill was minus 48. The situation was worsened because Lambeau’s turf heating system malfunctioned and the field froze.
The whistle referee Norm Schrachter blew to start the game stuck to his mouth. When he tried to pull it free, it ripped his lips and the blood ended up freezing on his chin.
The Wisconsin State-La Crosse band had to scratch its halftime performance because the woodwind instruments froze and would not play, the mouthpieces of the brass instruments stuck to the musicians’ lips and seven band members were taken to the hospital for hypothermia.
Fourteen fans were hospitalized, too, and four had heart attacks.
On the sideline, Dallas coach Tom Landry had 1 ½ inch icicles hanging from each nostril. In the stands his wife Alicia had one eye freeze shot after it had teared up.
Green Bay won 21-17 and afterward Packer linebacker Ray Nitschke was found to have frostbite on all his toes.
When their whistles froze up, Fritz and the other officials had to yell their calls to players.
“I’m looking forward to going to the Hall of Fame,” Matthew said after practice Wednesday. “Seeing my great grandfather’s whistle from that game would be pretty cool.”
From Akron to Dayton
Denny Graf — who was a successful realtor in Dayton for decades — was the oldest of Fritz and wife Rita’s 10 children.
“My mom and dad never had a lot of money,” he said. “They lived in the same house in West Akron – two stories, unfinished basement with no heat – for 50 years. To go to college, us kids either had to get a scholarship or live in our parents’ attic.
“And you know what? All 10 of us college degrees.”
He was one of head coach John McVay’s first recruits to UD, brought in from Akron St. Vincent by Flyers assistant Joe Eaglowski, who also plucked fellow defensive end Jim Place from Canton Central Catholic.
Denny’s daughter, Kim, married John Schimpf, her high school sweetheart at Alter, and they have three children — J.P., who starred for the Knights and is now studying business at Indiana University, Matthew and his twin sister Lauren.
While Matthew believes he may be the first in the family to play for a state high school football title, he admits his sister is one up on him.
“She plays soccer and she’s already got a state title ring,” he shrugged.
Football though is the sport for which the family is most known. Fritz was a halfback at Western Reserve University before he went off to World War II.
He began officiating football in Hawaii in 1945 and once back in Akron continued with high school games, then moved on to college contests in the Ohio Athletic Conference and the Mid-American Conference. In 1959 he advanced to the American Football League and a year later moved to the NFL.
This year the Knights are coming into the game as the Division III state poll champions. After dropping the season opener to rival Fairmont, they’ve won 13 in a row and done so in stirring, beat-the-odds fashion after losing several key players to injury.
“This team has faced some of the greatest challenges of any team we’ve had,” said Ed Domsitz, who’s in his 44th year as head coach. “The players have proved they are a resilient team. A team that rises to the occasion.
“When injuries hit, other kids stepped up. At one point last week – and this was in a state semifinal —we had four sophomores out on the field.”
The key to Alter’s success has been its defense.
“They’ve been amazing,” Domsitz said. “They have kept us in ball games until the offense gets rolling.”
Along the way, Matthew — who went from JV last season to a starter this year — has begun to blossom on the field.
And while at least three generations of his family will be at the game today, they’ll be missing their cornerstone.
“I guarantee you, if my father was still alive he’d be at the game,” Denny said. ”He’d be sitting there in his wheelchair and we’d have blankets on him and he’d have loved seeing Matthew out there.”
As he fantasized about that scene, he grew quiet, then chuckled:
“Hey, he’s gonna see the game. He’ll probably be at the 50-yard line, looking down from up above. He’ll have the best spot you could have.”
Certainly better than that vantage point he had at another championship game 51 years ago when eyes and toes and whistles all were freezing up.