Jim Fraser first attended Camp Tecumseh as a 12-year-old in 1948, making the 400-mile trek from Philadelphia to the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee with his father. He must have liked the bucolic New Hampshire setting of woods and mountains, because he went back the next year, and the next year, and the year after that.
All told, Mr. Fraser was part of Camp Tecumseh – as a camper, counselor, head of football, athletic director, and sports director emeritus – for 70 consecutive years, including six when he left to prepare for pro football seasons.
Or, as he always quipped when asked about his time at camp, “I forgot to leave.”
“He’s the best. He’s a true legend,” said Dan Leibovitz, a member of the board of trustees of the 117-year-old boys’ camp and associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, a college sports conference.
“The honest truth is that there are hundreds of boys and men in the Philadelphia area that would all tell you that they learned how to throw a football from Jim Fraser," Leibovitz said. "Some of them became college football players and college quarterbacks. But every dad, myself included, when we pick up a football, we think of Mr. Fraser telling us to keep our elbow out of the water.”
Mr. Fraser, 83, of Lansdale, a Germantown Academy graduate, died Saturday, April 18, at Gwynedd Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center in Lansdale from complications of the coronavirus.
He played 72 games in six pro seasons as a linebacker and punter, the first five with the Denver Broncos (1962-64), Kansas City Chiefs (1965), and Boston Patriots (1966) when all three teams were members of the American Football League. He was a three-time punting champion with the Broncos, averaging 44.1 yards, and became noted for his soccer-style kickoffs.
After finishing his career in 1968 with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, he moved into coaching, serving as an assistant coach at Cornell University, the University of Illinois, and Trinity Valley Community College in Texas. For more than 20 years, he served in the same role at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va.
However, for generations of attendees every summer at Camp Tecumseh, which annually has a robust Philadelphia-area presence, Mr. Fraser was a welcome sight, even if he appeared somewhat intimidating at 6-foot-3 and 236 pounds to first-time campers.
“I can remember my first day in 1986,” said Leibovitz, a University of Pennsylvania graduate who was an assistant basketball coach at Temple University and with the Quakers. “They had the first dinner about code of conduct and understanding the rules of operation. Mr. Fraser stood up, and he said, ‘Gentlemen, if you don’t fall asleep at night the second your head hits that pillow, you’re doing it wrong.’ That was something I really think about a lot in my life.”
Leibovitz said another of Mr. Fraser’s favorite sayings was, “Pain is beautiful. It builds character,” which he would utter while leading the boys in grueling calisthenics.
“It just started with this mountain of a man figure,” Leibovitz said. “Small interactions meant everything. Then as you got older, you got to know him in a different way, and you saw the softer side. He was very humble and self-effacing, and he would poke fun at himself. He had that booming voice, and you can just hear him in your head forever.”
Mr. Fraser also was influenced by George Munger, the legendary coach of Penn’s powerhouse football teams in the 1940s, who spent 25 years as the camp’s director.
Mr. Fraser’s wife, Martha, saw what made the camp special to her husband in 1987 when the couple spent their honeymoon there.
“There were 190-some boys. That was an experience,” she said. “I went up there from then on, so I can understand how it gets in your blood. It was an amazing place.
“I’m overwhelmed with all the cards and letters. What an influence he had on all these boys, and how he changed their lives and made them what they are today. He was very quiet and unassuming, and you would never know he would have that influence on them.”
Mr. Fraser was a versatile athlete at Germantown Academy, winning at least one varsity letter in seven different sports. After playing three sports as a college freshman at the University of Wisconsin, he concentrated on football, winning three varsity letters and capturing lineman MVP honors in the 1958 Blue-Gray all-star game.
The Cleveland Browns drafted him in the 21st round of the 1959 NFL draft, but he went into the military, serving in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, before beginning his pro career in Denver.
In addition to his wife, survivors include sons John and Jeffrey; stepchildren James, Stephen, Douglas, and Jeffrey; three grandchildren, seven step-grandchildren; one step-great-grandchild; and a sister.