Peeping in on the recent NFL draft and with May Day a few hours away, my memory took me back to the great Ollie Matson. He was born May 1, 1930, and drafted in the first round by the Chicago Cardinals in 1952. It’s no exaggeration to say that before there was Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson and other phenomenal running backs in the NFL, there was Matson, who tugged the pigskin with the same results he had with a baton in his hand on a U.S. Olympic relay team.
Matson was born in Trinity, Texas and the son of Ollie and Gertrude Matson. The family moved to San Francisco in the early ’40s and Matson graduated from George Washington High School in 1948. He attended the City College of San Francisco before transferring to the University of San Francisco. It was here that he became a member of the Kappa Alpha Fraternity in 1951. During his senior year at the college, he led the nation in rushing yardage and touchdowns that were instrumental in his team’s undefeated season.
Despite that year’s remarkable accomplishments, he finished in ninth place on the list of Heisman Trophy candidates, the award going to Dick Kazmaier of Princeton. Even so, he was named a first team All-American, but as a defensive player and not a running back. In response to not receiving the trophy, he told reporters in 2001 that “They weren’t ready for me. “But I’m not angry. Those were the days when we were growing up, so you have to take the bitter with the sweet. My days at USF were just beautiful.”
Perhaps more upsetting, his team with its unblemished record was not selected to participate in any of the bowl games. That decision too must be viewed within the times that Matson referenced above when the Jim Crow system affected nearly every facet of American life, including the various southern-based bowls—Orange, Sugar, and Gator—that were reluctant to invite any team with Black players, and USF had two, including Matson.
Even if invited, the USF was not about to attend without its African Americans. (In 2006, the university would honor the team for its integrity and courage.)
Having set aside his football gear, Matson in the summer of 1952 was ready to run in the Olympics in Helsinki, Finland as a member of the 400-meter race and 4X400 relay team. He won a bronze medal in the 400-meter race and a silver medal in the relay. Later that same year, he married the sweetheart of his teens, Mary, and was excited to be selected by the Cardinals in the NFL draft. It would be an eventful first season as a pro when he shared Rookie of the Year honors with running back Hugh McElhenny of the San Francisco 49ers.
Matson, during his 14-year career, played for several teams, including the Los Angeles Rams, where he starred after being traded by the Cardinals for nine players after the 1958 season; the Detroit Lions and the Philadelphia Eagles. He was named to the Pro Bowl six times between 1952 and 1958. When he retired in 1966, he had accumulated 12,799 all-purpose yards as a running back and receiver, second only to Jim Brown. In 1972, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1976. He was also a member of the Pigskin Club of Washington, D.C. National Intercollegiate All-American Football Players Honor Roll.
Matson was plagued with dementia in his later years and was bedridden for several years. His ailments were linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease, which is diagnosed after the death of people with a history of concussions. According to his son, Ollie Matson Jr., due to his degenerative brain disease Matson would wash the family’s four cars almost daily and barbecue chicken at 6:30 a.m. during his later years. Matson hadn’t spoken in the four years prior to his passing, his nephew said.
According to several obituaries, Matson died in his Los Angeles home on Feb. 19, 2011, of respiratory failure, surrounded by family. “He and Mary lived in the same Mid-City Los Angeles home from the time he played for the Los Angeles Rams until his passing. The site is being nominated as the ‘Ollie and Mary Matson Residence,’ a City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, as an historic house museum and interpretive center. Museum and Interpretive was Land marking 2007-2008, being prepared by students of Los Angeles Trade Technical College, Program in Historic Preservation.”