-Bruce Matson, on his father Ollie
The 1972 NFL Hall of Fame parade winds along its two-mile route through Canton, Ohio. Barbara Matson, the 10-year-old daughter of inductee Ollie Matson, takes it all in from the backseat of one open convertible while her dad rides up ahead in another. Throughout the preceding days of ceremonies she has watched as a succession of unfamiliar people have come up to Ollie and shaken his hand or asked him to sign a piece of paper. Now thousands gather along the parade route, some shouting his name. He smiles, waves back. It is all very bewildering.
As Ollie and Mary Matson and their four children eat breakfast the next morning, Barbara can’t help but ask, “You mean they got a parade just for you, daddy?”
Decades later, Matson’s kids looked back at this incident with amusement, but the question wasn’t that far-fetched, considering his achievements. Over a 14-year career, he played in six pro bowls and amassed 12,844 yards, the second highest total yardage in NFL history at the time of his retirement. Matson also set a record for kickoff runback touchdowns that stood until 2009. And unlike today’s specialized players who generally cover just a single position, he excelled on offense, defense, and special teams.
When Matson gained entry into the Hall of Fame, his children didn’t know how accomplished their father was because he rarely mentioned his football career. Barbara (King), now a 49-year-old office manager living in Oklahoma, said, “He wasn’t the type of person who talks about himself or what he’s done….A lot of things about him I found out later in life, reading books and magazines.”
For the past few years, books and magazines – and the anecdotes of those close to Matson – were the sole sources for his life story, as he had been struck with dementia. On February 19, after braving the condition for nearly a decade, Ollie Matson died of respiratory failure in the presence of family members.
“I thought he was a real gentleman, a great guy, fairly quiet….He wasn’t the kind of guy to smoke, have a few drinks with the guys. He was a good person, loved his mother.”
-Gino Marchetti, NFL Hall-of-Famer and Ollie Matson’s teammate at the University of San Francisco
In stark contrast to the many middling Twitter-era celebrities who get their 15 minutes of fame through crass self-promotion and clever media manipulation, Ollie Matson practiced a quiet modesty anchored in the values of Depression-era America. Born in Trinity, Texas on May 1, 1930, Oliver (“Ollie”) Genoa Matson Jr. grew up in a time of sacrifice, humility, and entrenched institutional prejudice.
Jim Crow was the law of the land in the Texas of Matson’s formative years. Schools, libraries, water fountains, and public bathrooms were segregated. Interracial marriage was a felony. Steep poll taxes kept most Blacks - and poor whites - away from the ballot box. Employment was menial. Public lynchings had yet to completely recede into the rearview mirror. Walt Jourdan, a friend of sixty years, said Matson didn’t discuss his early years in Texas much: “Most of us in those days didn’t want to talk about where you came from because there weren’t a lot of good memories. They didn’t treat us too well. We didn’t go back unless there was a funeral.”
The oppressive environment across the South and a booming war-time industry on the Pacific Coast generated an exodus of Blacks to San Francisco, whose African-American population increased nine times over in the 1940s. Among those in search of a better life was Gertrude Matson, a Houston elementary school teacher who brought her twins Ocie and Ollie west during their freshman year of high school.
The family settled in the Western Addition neighborhood, and within a few years Ollie Matson established himself as an exceptional athlete at George Washington High. Inspired by Joe Louis, the heavyweight champion at the time, Matson originally wanted to be a boxer, but was overruled by his mother; he pursued football and track instead. By his senior year he was an unusual - and lethal - combination of size (6’2,” 190 lbs) and speed; he was so fast that he was nicknamed “Mercury” Matson. In 1947, he set the school record for touchdowns. The following spring he broke an interscholastic mark in the quarter mile and made the final trial heats for the US Olympic track team in the 400-meter sprint.
In the fall of 1948 Matson enrolled at City College of San Francisco, where he was one of the “City College Seven,” a group of ambitious African-Americans who formed a tight bond on the football squad and off. According to Walt Jourdan, “Most of us were born in the South or our parents came from the South.” Coming to California was “about becoming something.” At a time when most Americans didn’t finish college, all seven would get degrees and enjoy successful professional careers, including Rotea Gilford (who would go on to become the deputy mayor of San Francisco) and Burl Toler (later the first Black referee in the NFL.)
Meanwhile, the 1948 City College football team romped to a 12-0 season, giving up just 55 points all year. Matson broke the national junior college touchdown record en route to attaining Junior College All-American status, which made him a sought-after athlete. Though he was courted by big schools with enticing offers, Matson chose to transfer to the University of San Francisco (USF), a small private college, in no small part because his mother felt confident that he would get a good education at the Jesuit institution.
At USF, Matson continued to showcase explosive talent on the gridiron. Teammate Bob St. Clair said, “If you were behind in a game you always had a chance. He was always a threat…if he broke through the middle or around the end he was gone.” But Matson’s athletic prowess didn’t insulate him from the bigotry of the times. On a 1950 trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma, USF was asked to leave their two Black players behind. The team took the higher ground and ignored the request, but Matson and Burl Toler couldn’t patronize the same restaurants or hotel as their white teammates, and some Tulsa fans were openly hostile. Wide receiver Ralph Thomas said that that weekend’s game was an “ugly display of people…that’s all you heard all night long – MFs, Fs, N words…the only thing that separated us was a chain link fence.”
Even so, Matson found some solace in the kindness of people who invited him over for home-cooked meals while he was on the road. Turning sour lemons into lemonade would be a habit of mind for Matson through years of such experiences. His daughter Barbara said, “My father would make the best of everything. As long as his family was together, everything would fall into place.”
Back on the football field, Matson’s star continued to rise. In his junior year he was the number one rusher in the nation until leg and knee injuries intervened. But he came back stronger than ever in his senior year, as did the USF Dons. In 1951, with the future of the football program hanging in the balance due to heavy debt, the Dons powered their way through an undefeated season in which their average margin of victory was 31-8.
Matson led the country in points scored and nearly broke Division 1 records in touchdowns and yardage. According to Gino Marchetti, Matson went to the bench in the last quarter of the final game of the season with a sprained ankle. Propelled by running back Roy George, USF drove the ball to their opponent’s three-yard line. Matson was asked if he wanted to come back into the game to tie the touchdown record, but declined, saying that Roy should get the credit, as he had taken the Dons all the way downfield. “That’s the kind of guy he was,” said Marchetti.
In addition to being an offensive machine, Matson was a standout kick and punt returner and All-American defensive back. His USF coach Joe Kuharich told a Sporting News reporter in a 1951 interview, “He’s the best all-around football player I’ve ever seen or coached…No one can match his speed. Yet his power is as sharp as any plunging fullback. He is not Mr. Outside or Mr. Inside. He is Mr. All Outside or Mr. Inside. He is Mr. All Sides and Mr. Everywhere. To this add his blocking, his pass protection and terrific defensive work and you have something that’s never been duplicated in a generation.”
A bowl game could have given USF football enough money to stay afloat, but it didn’t come to pass. One of the public justifications for the snubbing was the Dons’ “weak schedule” (which was partly a result of major teams such as Stanford and the University of California avoiding them), but other forces were at work. Pacific University, whom the Dons had crushed 47-14 that season, were invited to the Sun Bowl. The Cotton, Sugar, and Gator Bowl committees in the South wouldn’t host integrated teams. The Orange Bowl Committee in Miami offered USF a berth, but only if they played without Matson and Toler. Of this proposal, Gino Marchetti said, “We didn’t talk about it, we didn’t vote on it, you never heard another word. When we rejected it, it was 100% backed up by the club and the school.”
The magnitude of this injustice became more obvious with time, as nine players from the ’51 USF team were drafted into the NFL, five went on to play in the Pro Bowl, and three were enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame, the most ever from a single college team.
Six weeks after the Dons’ last Division 1 game, Matson was chosen as the third pick in the NFL draft by the Chicago Cardinals, one of just three Black players on the team at a time when the league was still predominantly white. Before signing a contract, Matson earned a bachelor’s degree and tried out for the Olympics, though he hadn’t run track competitively since his freshman year at City College. According to Matson’s USF teammate Bill Henneberry, “Experts said he couldn’t run at that level after four years of beating (in college football), but he was extraordinarily determined.”
The Olympic trials were in Lincoln, Nebraska. Before Matson left, Henneberry gave him his sister’s phone number at a convent there. When Matson returned to San Francisco after the tryouts he didn’t mention the trip, but Henneberry later heard that Matson had cancelled a press conference to say hello to his friend’s sister. Matson went on to win a bronze medal in the 400-meter sprint and a silver medal in the 1600-meter relay race at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
Not a month after the Olympic closing ceremonies, Matson reported to training camp for the Chicago Cardinals, and got off to a quick start. In his first season of professional football he made All-Pro status and shared Rookie of the Year honors with Hugh McElhenny of the San Francisco 49ers.
Just as Matson’s football career got started, he was drafted into the Army. He missed the 1953 season while he served as an infantryman at Ford Ord in Monterey, California, but was able to return the following fall. In 1954, Matson topped the league in all-purpose yards and again made All-Pro. That same year he earned a teaching credential and married his high school sweetheart Mary Paige in a pairing their oldest child Lisa (Lewis), 55, called “a match made in Heaven.” Bruce Matson explained further: “(my mother) was hard-working, very serious, determined. That’s what my father liked.”
Matson stayed with the Cardinals until 1959, when he was traded to the Los Angeles Rams for seven players and two draft picks. The New York Times called the transaction “one of the biggest deals in National Football League history,” but no welcoming committee greeted the Matsons when they arrived in California. Matson and his wife were shown houses at night to conceal their race from white neighbors, and the cold reception followed Ollie to the Rams, where his skills were misdirected or underutilized by three coaches in four losing seasons. As Mary Matson told an L.A. Times reporter in 2002, “One Black for nine whites? In those days?....Lots of people in Los Angeles never got over that.”
In the same interview Mary Matson said, “If we worried about everything that happened to us, we would be dead,” and true to form, the Matsons soldiered on and created opportunities with the move. The Los Angeles duplex would become their base for life, and the first of many real estate investments. Bruce Matson said, “(Ollie) believed in investing his money, he wasn’t a spendthrift. When he got paid he took a meager amount for himself and sent the rest back home…he would buy property off-season because his salary alone wasn’t enough to cover everything.”
After four long years with the Rams, Ollie had brief stints with the Detroit Lions (1963) and the Philadelphia Eagles (1964-1966), who were coached by Joe Kuharich. With Kuharich's help, Matson rebounded in 1964 and was the runner-up for the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year. In August of 1966, Matson announced his retirement from the NFL.
“A lot of stars, if you got to know 'em, you wouldn’t be fans of 'em. Ollie was not only a great athlete, but one of the nicest guys you’ll meet in your lifetime”
-Earl Watson, “Doorman to the Stars” and a family friend of over 40 years
At 36, Matson stepped out from under the halogen glow of professional sports with a lot of living left to do. His daughter Lisa said, “People wanted him to become an actor after he retired” but “acting wasn’t his thing. He said ‘I lived out of a suitcase all those years…I don’t want the limelight now.’”
Ollie III, 53, a high school teacher and football/basketball coach who lives in Baltimore, said his father wanted to be an NFL coach, but this wish came “about ten years too soon,” as African-Americans weren’t allowed into the management ranks at that time. But Matson didn’t stew over the injustice: “He lived life his way, on his terms, so he just accepted it….My dad was a trailblazer. And that’s the way it was for a lot of people during his time. They made things better for all of us and people coming afterward.”
Though Matson wasn’t able to break the racial barrier into pro coaching, he made a civil rights contribution that helped his mother realize one of her dreams. For years, Gertrude Matson had watched the Rose Bowl Parade, disappointed at the absence of Black representation, so in 1963 she held a series of group meetings to enter an African-American-sponsored float into the next year’s procession. Brad Pye, who was involved in the planning, said the parade committee “really didn’t want us in.”
When the entry deadline was missed, the committee rejected an extension until Ollie Matson stepped up and guaranteed the $25,000 needed to advance the project. As a result, “Freedom Bursts Forth” ran in the Rose Bowl Parade on January 1, 1964, just as Lyndon Johnson began muscling the watershed Civil Rights Act through Congress.
The float money reflected a generosity which took many forms. Though he was typically introverted, Matson and his wife were active hosts, with Ollie's barbecue coming in for especially high praise. Bruce Matson said, “Every day we had people over. We fed more people than you could shake a stick at…they never said no to people.”
Matson’s altruistic streak also found flower in his lifelong commitment to the well-being of America’s youth. He taught inner-city kids how to run, throw, and maintain focus through Operation Champ, a Great Society program that provided a positive outlet for at-risk youth. When Ollie III’s Little League couldn’t afford umpires, Matson supplied the necessary funds. Matson refused to do beer commercials because he felt that alcohol endorsements sent the wrong message to children, and he made numerous appearances at Boys and Girls clubs in Fresno. Earl Watson, who hosted the clubs, said, “A lot of athletes wouldn’t go there unless the press was there,” but “every time I asked him he went out of his way to help me….It meant so much to the kids. He was very sincere about dealing with kids.”
This forthrightness carried over to Matson’s relationships with his own children. While he was a pro athlete he had often been away from home, so his wife Mary – known as “The General” for her hands-on approach to life – had raised the kids. But after his retirement from the NFL he joined forces with Mary to create a cohesive parental unit that enforced discipline. Hats off in the house. Punctuality was a must. The dishes weren’t done until they were hand-dried and put away. Ollie III said, “They complemented each other. You couldn’t play them off against each other. He was on top of everything. When he told you to be home at a certain time you better not be a minute late.”
Outside of the house, Matson’s involvement in sports continued. After scouting for the Philadelphia Eagles for a year, he became a Physical Education teacher and football coach at Los Angeles High School in 1968. In this career choice Matson followed in the footsteps of his mother, who had seeded an appreciation for education that was passed on to his children, all of whom have college diplomas. Bruce Matson, a 51-year-old dentist living in Houston, said, “My parents strongly believed in education. They sacrificed and sent us to private schools. Football or basketball alone won’t bring you to the Promised Land.”
After a few years at L.A. High, Matson was named the Assistant Football Coach at San Diego State, which made him the first African-American to hold a coaching position at that university. Matson’s ascension gave the San Diego State backfield the unique opportunity of being mentored by a Hall-of-Fame fullback.
Matson stayed at San Diego State for the ’74 and ‘75 seasons and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1976. With this designation, he became the only athlete ever to win Olympic medals and enter into both the pro and college football halls of fame.
In 1977, Matson took a job as an events supervisor at the Los Angeles Coliseum. In this capacity he led tours and oversaw parking, ticketing, and guest attendance during numerous grand scale happenings, including L.A. Raiders and U.C.L.A. Bruins games, and the 1984 Summer Olympics. Matson retired in February 1989.
“I guess they got what they wanted when they left Texas – an opportunity.”
-Ollie Matson III
Barbara King described her father’s life after retirement as industrious - and structured. Matson kept himself busy gardening, tending to his rental units, and doing charity events, and his schedule ran like clockwork. He woke up every weekday at 4:30 a.m. (“without an alarm”) to run a few miles at the L.A. High track near his house. Saturday was golf. Sunday was barbecuing. By 11 Sunday morning the chicken or ribs were hot and ready in the kitchen. Bedtime was early: “When the sun went down he’d disappear…he wouldn’t say good night. Everyone that knew him knew what was going on.”
As ever, Matson’s life centered on his family. Barbara said, “Everyone else came first….When (my parents) came to your house, you didn’t have to worry about anything. They did everything.” In the summers the Matsons took care of their grandchildren, and helped out however they could when visiting their children; Ollie was known to spontaneously wash his kids’ cars or mow their lawns.
And Ollie and Mary Matson were always available for their children. “If you called in the morning, it would be him. If you called at night, it would be her. I don’t care how busy they were, they would find a way to talk to you,” said Barbara.
Decades of unconditional love were repaid to Ollie Matson in the last several years of his life, as he battled dementia. For a time, he was cared for by his wife Mary, even as her own health declined. She passed away in February 2007, after 52 years of marriage. Thereafter Matson had personal caregivers and the daily attention of his daughter Lisa, a nurse who lived with her father. In addition, he received rotating visits from his other three children, who flew in from around the country.
Though he spoke very little, Matson could still understand what was said to him and his feelings were evident in his facial expressions. Walt Jourdan, who knew Matson since the two played football together at City College in 1948, told of Ollie’s meeting with his former teammate and bosom buddy Burl Toler in 2009, not long before Toler died. No words passed between them, but 60 years’ accumulation of friendship and shared experience bound them together as they sat silently, holding hands.
Despite his illness, Matson didn’t fall victim to the agitation that bedevils many people with dementia, but maintained a quiet, peaceful demeanor. Last summer his daughter Barbara said, “He’s the most wonderful patient you’d want to be around…he doesn’t get agitated…he’s happy, he smiles.”
On February 19, Ollie Matson completed the circle of life in the Los Angeles home he had purchased in 1959, surrounded by family.
Matson’s sports accomplishments continue to amaze, but his most enduring legacy is the world of warmth and possibility he bestowed on his four children, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren through a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice.
In Ollie III’s words: “He taught me…you can be anything you want to be. If you think you can, you can. Nobody stops you but you. He said ‘Always look up so you can get up.’”
© Dan Benbow, 2011