Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ollie Matson, 1930 - 2011

     After winning the world championship in 1947 and narrowly losing the championship game in 1948, the Chicago Cardinals fell back into their accustomed position as second-class citizens not only in their home town but also in the NFL. They had two winning seasons in the next eleven years. But while they were not particularly successful in the 1950s, the Cardinals were never boring. Their battles with the Bears remained fierce and compelling, and these years were also enlivened by the exploits of two future Hall of Famers, defensive back Night Train Lane and running back Ollie Matson.
     Matson, who passed away February 19 at the age of 80, was sensational. He was not only big for a running back in those days, at six-foot-two and 220 pounds, but he was probably the fastest man in the league as well. An All-American at the University of San Francisco, he was drafted by the Cardinals in 1952 after winning two medals at that summer's Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland (a bronze in the men’s 400 meters and a silver in the men’s four-by-400-meter relay).
     Matson was an excellent back and an absolutely devastating returner of punts and kickoffs. “I could either run around you,” he said, “over you, or through you.” He shared the 1952 Rookie of the Year award with Hugh McElhenny of the San Francisco 49ers. He was a first-team All-Pro every year from 1952 through 1957 (except in 1953, when he missed the entire season while serving in the military). He made the Pro Bowl in 1952 and every year from 1954 through 1958. Despite Matson’s formidable presence in the lineup, however, the Cardinals’ record was a dismal 23-58-3 over that period.
     With very little to lose, the Cardinals traded Matson to the Los Angeles Rams after the 1958 season for nine players—“none of whom,” a teammate later said, “was worth a damn.” (The man who traded for Matson, the Rams’ 32-year-old general manager Pete Rozelle, became NFL commissioner a year later.) The Cardinals went 2-10 in 1959, then packed up and moved to St. Louis.
     Matson played four years for the Rams, one for the Detroit Lions, and three for the Philadelphia Eagles. When he retired after the 1966 season, his 12,799 all-purpose yards ranked second all-time to the great Jim Brown. Matson was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972 (his first year of eligibility) and elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1976. Joe Kuharich, who coached Matson both in college and in the NFL, called him “the greatest all-around player I've seen or coached.”
     In his final years, Matson suffered from dementia, which those close to him suspect was connected to his years in football. Regrettably, his situation has been all too common for NFL players of the past. Here’s hoping that it can be made the exception, rather than the rule, for players of the present and future.

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