Touch Downs: Jim Ritcher’s NFL Career, and Second Act as a Pilot

The North Carolina State University alum was an award-winning lineman in 14 seasons with the Buffalo Bills.
by A.J. Carr | photography by Joshua Steadman

When you’ve played your last game, the cheering subsides and the fanfare fades — then what? Jim Ritcher pondered that question after 16 seasons in the National Football League, then launched a second career as an airline pilot, fulfilling a boyhood dream.

“I always wanted to fly,” says Ritcher, who as a child attended air shows with his father in Ohio.
These days, Ritcher travels each week from Raleigh to Charlotte, climbing into the cockpit of a Boeing 777-200 American Airlines jet transporting as many as 273 passengers to international destinations like Rome, Milan, Munich, Frankfurt and Madrid.

Much like in football, flying gives Ritcher pleasure and pressure. “I’m responsible for a lot of people,” he says. He strives to provide passengers with a safe, smooth flight — and a perfect “touch down.”
“When people tell you great landing it’s like you won the game,” he says.

Before ascending to the friendly skies professionally — first with Continental Express, then with American Airlines for the last 25 years — Ritcher had already made an indelible mark on earth.
He starred in football (All-State) and wrestling (state runner-up) at Highland High School in Medina, Ohio, became a two-time All-American football player at North Carolina State University, and was an award-winning lineman during 14 seasons with the Buffalo Bills.

His interest in NC State was piqued when Wolfpack recruiter Bruce Mays paid him a visit at Highland High. Later he heard head coach Lou Holtz give an inspiring banquet speech and met star NC State players Dave and Don Buckey, who told him there were “a lot of pretty girls” in Raleigh.

“I didn’t know much about North Carolina other than watching the Andy Griffith Show,” Ritcher says, but he was convinced it was the place to be after listening to Holtz and the Buckey twins.

He chose NC State over several schools and arrived on campus expecting to play defensive end, sacking quarterbacks and tackling running backs the way he had in high school. That didn’t happen. Bo Rein was named Wolfpack head coach after Holtz left for the New York Jets and moved Ritcher to center on the first day.

“I said, Please don’t do that,’’ Ritcher remembers. “I felt like crying!”

To make matters worse, he got roughed up going against rugged lineman A.W. Jenkins the first week of practice. He begged again for a chance to play defense. “Stay at center,” Rein mandated.
It turned out the perceptive Wolfpack coach knew best. Ritcher became a starter during his freshman season and developed into a center who garnered national attention. In addition to earning All-America accolades, he won the 1979 Outland Trophy awarded to the nation’s best offensive lineman and helped the Wolfpack claim its last ACC football title.

Rein, quoted in a College Football Hall of Fame story, explained: “[Jim’s] talent enabled us to outline certain plays we wouldn’t have considered with normal players.” On one mesmerizing play against Wake Forest, Ritcher took out three defensive players — a nose guard, linebacker and defensive back — further validating Rein’s decision to utilize his blocking talent.

Beside opening holes with knockdown blocks for all-time Wolfpack leading rusher Ted Brown, Ritcher earned a degree in sociology at NC State and met Wolfpack cheerleader Harriet Kalevas, now his wife of 41 years and mother of their three sons.

“It (all) worked out better than I ever could have imagined,’’ says Ritcher, still a neon name in Wolfpack lore. In 2012, he was inducted into NC State’s first Athletics Hall of Fame class and was chosen to give the acceptance speech on behalf of the 10 honorees, which included David Thompson, Ted Brown, Roman Gabriel, Jim Valvano, Kay Yow and Everett Case. Ritcher also is in the North Carolina Sports, College Football, Greater Buffalo Sports and Medina County Sports Halls of Fame.

After his NC State days, Ritcher, a first-round NFL draft pick, shuffled off to Buffalo, played center one year and then was switched to left guard to maximize his speed and agility. At 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds, he could trap, block and knock down linebackers on sweeps, which he did after gaining a starting spot in his fourth season.

The Bills could count on him as surely as they could those annual Buffalo snow storms. He was the living definition of “durable,” starting every game over an 11-season span and never missing an offensive snap, except to repair broken equipment.

“He may be the best athlete among offensive linemen I’ve ever coached,’’ former Bills Coach Marvin Levy says. “He was the best conditioned athlete I had. He had great values, was clean living and was by far one of the most respected players I ever coached.”

Ken Jones, a stellar Bills lineman who played with Ritcher, amplifies Levy’s comments. “He fit right in when he came up,” Jones says. “He was smart, quick, mobile and strong as a bear. He could bench press 310 pounds 10 times over his head, standing. Not many can!”

“There’s nothing bad to say about him,” Jones continues. “Nice, good family man and did whatever he was asked to do in the community.”

Ritcher made All Pro one season, played in two Pro Bowls, won four AFC championship rings, started in four Super Bowls and wound up on the Bills Wall of Fame. He competed in one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history, helping Buffalo rally from a 35-3 halftime deficit to beat the Houston Oilers 41-38 in a 1993 Wild Card game.

Along with the fun and games, there were some disappointments (four Super Bowl losses) and physical pain. He broke his foot while playing for the Atlanta Falcons, where he spent his last two seasons, and has had five shoulder surgeries. But overall, football and life were good at Medina, NC State and Buffalo.
His sons John, Harrison and Nicholas were born in Buffalo. John and Harrison played at NC State and are NFL scouts, John with Houston and Harrison with Washington. Nicholas, a former All-American lineman at Richmond, is a building supply company warehouse manager and an intern with the British Columbia Lions football team.

Ritcher naturally taught his boys a thing or three about football — and much more than how to compete, block and tackle. “He was a very good role model, a man of faith, even-keeled,” John says. “He says, do the right thing, be a man of integrity. I’m blessed to have him as a father.”

It was in Buffalo that Ritcher’s interest in flying soared again. Quarterback Joe Ferguson took him for a short flight on his private plane to Rochester and allowed Ritcher to pilot the aircraft on the return trip. After that celestial experience, he went all-out airborne. Ritcher bought a plane, became a certified pilot and flew frequently in the off-season.

Two years later, in 1997 and after retiring from football, he landed his first major airlines job. Since then it has mostly been enjoyable trips in friendly skies — except the time his plane was struck by lightning, forcing an emergency landing in Newark, N.J.

Although spending countless hours in the air, Ritcher remains down to earth, soft spoken and spiritually focused. He’s a deacon at Raleigh’s Christ Baptist Church, shares his testimony at speaking appearances and is in his fourth year as a Bible study fellowship leader. Looking back, Ritcher says he was influenced by several Christian teammates while at NC State and matured in his faith through Bible studies in Buffalo.

Now, at age 64 and still physically fit, he wants to remain active, keep serving and keep flying. However, next spring he will celebrate his 65th birthday, the mandated retirement age for American Airlines pilots. What then? With a pilot instructor’s license and continued interested in aviation, chances are he won’t be grounded very long. 

This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of WALTER magazine.