Ollie Matson: Back Remembered As One of the Best
Ollie Matson, one of the strongest, fastest and most versatile backs in National Football League history, was the star attraction in an unusually large and apparently lopsided trade 52 years ago today.
The Los Angeles Rams and their young general manager, Pete Rozelle, were so intent on getting Matson that they gave the Chicago Cardinals seven members of their 1958 roster, their second draft choice that spring of 1959, “plus a player to be delivered during the 1959 training camp season.”
In return, the Chicago Cardinals sent their all-pro fullback, Ollie Matson, to the Rams in this unusual nine-for-one deal on Feb. 27, 1959.
Yet many observers felt this was really a fairly balanced swap of talent since Matson was worth a bus load or more of average pro football players.
Winner of two Olympic track medals in 1952 who set records as both an offensive and defensive player in college and pro football, Matson died eight days ago at the age of 80. Tragically, like too many former NFL players, Matson had suffered from dementia for a number of years.
Pete Rozelle, who was 32 years old when he fashioned the big trade, sent a telegram to NFL Commissioner Bert Bell the next day notifying him of the deal. Eleven months later, in January of 1960, Rozelle succeeded Bell as NFL commissioner at about the time that the Cardinals moved from Chicago to St. Louis.
Matson was an unusually big man for an offensive back of his era. He stood 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed about 215 pounds. With that huge, muscular body traveling at the speed of a sprinter, which he was, Matson was extremely difficult to bring down. Add exceptionally good peripheral vision, and Matson could cut and swerve to avoid tacklers coming at him from all angles.
His NFL accomplishments over 14 seasons with the Chicago Cardinals (1952 and 1954 – 1958), Los Angeles Rams (1959 – 1962), Detroit Lions (1963) and Philadelphia Eagles (1964 – 1966) earned him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His exploits as a University of San Francisco player (1949 – 1951) got him into the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame. Matson missed the 1953 pro season because of Army service.
It was Matson’s college years that are, in a sad way, most memorable to those of us who saw this magnificent athlete perform but knew of the disgraceful treatment and abuse that he and other African-Americans endured at the hands of Caucasians in various regions of what we thought was a country where “all men are created equal.”
Born in Texas in 1930, Matson moved with his family to San Francisco in 1944. This fine student and athlete entered the City University of San Francisco in 1948 and then transferred to the University of San Francisco in 1949, where he played football under coach Joe Kuharich, who later coached Matson in four of his 14 pro seasons.
The University of San Francisco, rarely mentioned among the elite major college football powers, went undefeated and untied in 1951 with an extremely talented team that included nine future NFL players, three of whom made it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They were Matson, Gino Marchetti, a defensive end with the Baltimore Colts, and Bob St. Clair, an offensive tackle who played for the San Francisco Forty-Niners. No other college has placed three members of the same team in the Pro Hall of Fame.
Others of note on that team were Ed Brown, the quarterback, and Dick Stanfel, an offensive guard.
Actually, a 10th member of that 1951 San Francisco team would have made it to the NFL. However, Burl Toler, a linebacker and the only other African-American on the team, was injured so seriously in the 1952 All-Star game that he never played for the Cleveland Browns, the NFL team that drafted him. Instead, Toler became the first black NFL official, serving as a field judge and head linesman, 1964 – 1989.
The 1951 Dons team had a 9-0 record and is considered by some to have been the most outstanding college football team in history because it consisted of more excellent players than any intercollegiate squad in history.
And yet the University of San Francisco never played major college varsity football again, dropping the sport after that star-crossed season of 1951.
This came about because of the ugly racism our nation suffered from in those days and, unfortunately, has not completely discarded to this day.
During that 1951 campaign, Matson led the nation’s college players in yards rushing at 1,566 and in touchdowns with 21. Surely these Dons would be invited to play in a major bowl game on New Year’s Day of 1952.
But these Southern bowl institutions — Orange in Miami, Sugar in New Orleans and Cotton in Dallas — with all of their repulsive bigotry, let it be known that they would only invite an all-white team to play in their grossly prejudiced affairs. Orange Bowl officials hinted to the University of San Francisco that the Dons would be “oh so welcome” to the Miami celebration if they attended without Ollie Matson and Burl Toler.
Informed of this “invitation,” every single Caucasian member of the San Francisco team yelled out a resounding “no” to the Orange Bowl.
Thus, the University of San Francisco ended its football season in the red with a loss of more than $70,000. Income from a major bowl would have put the Dons over on the profit side of the ledger and major college football would have been able to last for some time at the university.
The private Catholic Jesuit institution’s administration backed its players’ bowl decision but, as a result, dropped the expensive football program.
Pete Rozelle, whose early career was closely linked to Ollie Matson, was a 25-year-old sports information director (publicist) for the University of San Francisco that sad yet glorious season of 1951.
The 1951 University of San Francisco Dons became known as the second “undefeated, untied and uninvited” college team in history. The 1932 Colgate Red Raiders from upstate New York were known as the “undefeated, untied, unscored upon and uninvited” team when Pittsburgh, with one loss, got the Rose Bowl invitation.
That 1951 affair was not the first serious racial insult to Matson and Toler in their college careers. During the 1950 regular season the University of San Francisco played at the University of Tulsa, which had the chutzpah to ask the Dons not to play their two African-Americans in that game. San Francisco told Tulsa where to go and played Matson and Toler as usual.
In a 1966 interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Matson recalled the Tulsa game saying, “I got hit with everything: fists, elbows, knees. I finished that game with two black eyes, a bloody nose and my face puffed up like a pound cake. I scored three touchdowns and they were all called back.”
Matson was the third pick in the 1952 NFL draft but delayed signing with the Chicago Cardinals in order to compete as an amateur track athlete in the 1952 summer Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland. There he took a bronze medal in the 400-meter run and a silver medal as a member of the U.S. 4 X 400 relay team.
Then came his NFL career during which he played on a winning team in only four of his 14 seasons. He ran with the football, caught passes, returned kicks and played defensive back intercepting passes. He set an NFL record at the time by returning a career total of nine kicks for touchdowns. He retired with a combined yardage of 12,884.
Joe Kuharich said of Matson, “He was the best all-around football player I’ve seen or coached.”
Dick Evans, an Eagles defensive coach under Kuharich when Matson played for Philadelphia, said, “Matson was the greatest athlete I’ve ever seen.”
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is email@example.com.
More like this story