Matson, Oliver Genoa, II ("Ollie")

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MATSON, Oliver Genoa, II ("Ollie")

(b. 1 May 1930 in Trinity, Texas), Olympic medalist in track and field and one of the greatest running backs in football history who was traded by the Chicago Cardinals to the Los Angeles Rams in 1959 for nine players, and who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame.

Matson is the son of Oliver Matson, a railroad brakeman, and Gertrude Matson, a school teacher. Matson's parents separated and divorced when he was very young. He and his twin sister moved with their mother from Trinity to Houston, Texas, when Matson was in junior high school. After two years in Houston, Matson's mother married again, and the family moved to San Francisco, California. Matson became interested in sports through an uncle who played semiprofessional football. At George Washington High School in San Francisco, Matson demonstrated great speed and potential as an end and halfback despite suffering a broken ankle early in his first season in 1945. His high school football coach suggested he participate in track to stay in condition for football. Initially indifferent, Matson became obsessed with the sport and developed into a nationally recognized scholastic sprinter and quarter-miler. He set a scholastic record for the quarter mile in 1948 and barely failed to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team that year. He also starred in football as an all-city running back, scoring 102 points in 7 games in 1947 to set a city record.

In 1948, after graduating from George Washington, Matson attended San Francisco City College, where he scored nineteen touchdowns for an undefeated team, setting a national junior college record, and was named All-America Junior College halfback. Disdaining many scholarship offers from much larger schools, he entered the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution that, he later said, had made him feel at home. In 1951 Matson led the nation in rushing with 1,566 yards in 245 attempts, and averaged 6.39 yards per attempt and 174 yards per game. The team, which finished with a 9–0 record, included eight players who later played professional football, three of whom were chosen for the professional Hall of Fame. Matson led the nation in scoring with 126 points and received All-American recognition as a defensive back. In the team's lone eastern appearance on 20 October 1951 against Fordham University, Matson returned two kickoffs for touchdowns (94 and 90 yards) and scored a third touchdown. Totaling 302 yards in a 32–26 victory, he made a powerful impression on such influential sportswriters as Grantland Rice.

Matson was drafted in the first round of the 1952 National Football League (NFL) draft by the downtrodden Chicago Cardinals, but before he began his professional football career, his old passion for track reemerged. After several years of not competing seriously, Matson began to train for the 1952 U.S. Olympic team. Defying the predictions of the track team coach Dink Templeton that he would never make the squad, Matson qualified at the Olympic trials. He won a bronze medal in the 400-meter run and a silver medal in the 1,600-meter relay at the Helsinki Olympics. After the Olympics, Matson participated in the College All-Star Game, then reported to the Cardinals training camp. In his second regular season game he scored twice, including a 100-yard kick return, in a victory against the Chicago Bears. Despite a broken wrist, he starred as a defensive back, running back, pass receiver, and kick returner. At six feet, two inches and 210 pounds, Matson was the fastest running back of his time, a rare combination of size, speed, power, and elusiveness. He was the one bright spot on generally losing Cardinal teams in 1952 and from 1954 through 1958. In 1956, playing on a contending team, Matson had his best season for the Cardinals, rushing for 924 yards and scoring 8 touchdowns, including a 105-yard kick return. Matson served in the U.S. Army in 1953 and part of 1954, playing service football at Fort Ord, California. Matson had met Mary L. Paige at a Baptist Church social in San Francisco when he was fifteen. They married on 22 August 1954 and had five children.

Matson was an all-pro selection four times and played in five Pro Bowl games, winning the Most Valuable Player award in the 1956 game. Despite his individual brilliance, his inability to turn the Cardinals into a contender prompted the team to trade him to the Los Angeles Rams on 28 February 1959 for nine players, including four starting linemen. Many believed the trade would make the Rams a championship team, but despite another strong season from Matson in 1959, the team finished last in the Western Division. In his four years with the Rams, Matson never found his niche and was shifted from halfback to fullback, to tight end, to slotback, and to defensive back. On 21 August 1963 he was traded to the Detroit Lions, and he finished his career with the Philadelphia Eagles from 1964 to 1966. In a fourteen-year career Matson gained 12,884 combined yards and scored 73 touchdowns. He was particularly dangerous returning kickoffs and punts with nine return touchdowns, including two kick return touchdowns in both 1952 and 1958. In 1972, his first year of eligibility, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In 1976 he was elected to the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame.

When his playing career ended, Matson scouted for the Eagles from 1966 to 1968, and he later taught and coached in the Los Angeles, California, school system. Starting in 1971 he was for a time head football coach at Los Angeles High School. Later he served as the backfield coach at San Diego State University. In January 1989 Matson retired after ten years as event supervisor for the Los Angeles Coliseum.

A quietly confident family man who eschewed controversy, worked hard to remain in condition throughout his career, and was one of the most durable players of his time, Matson was a world-class athlete in both track and field and football. His football accomplishments are particularly notable as he played on only two winning teams in his professional football career. An all-NFL selection on both defense and offense, he was arguably the most versatile player of his time and one of the finest players of all time. In his prime he was among the most highly paid players in professional football. He often drew the attention of multiple defenders and special defenses, which created opportunities for his teammates. At the time of his retirement his total yardage numbers were second only to Jim Brown's. As a man of color, Matson encountered prejudice throughout his career, perhaps most notably when the integrated and undefeated University of San Francisco team of 1951 was bypassed as a bowl selection for a team with no black players that San Francisco had defeated. Hailed as a messiah who would lead the Cardinals from mediocrity to respectability, Matson never quite accomplished that objective. With the disappointing Rams, he became the scapegoat after four losing seasons. In the final stages of his career, his statistical achievements were less substantial than during the 1950s. Yet he remained a valuable and reliable performer and a steadying force for every team he joined.

Matson is profiled in Jack Drees and James C. Mullen, Where Is He Now? (1973). An informative biographical sketch by John E. Evers is in The Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Football, edited by David L. Porter (1987). His exploits are recounted in several league and team histories, including Steve Bischoff, The Los Angeles Rams (1973); Joseph Hession, Rams: Five Decades of Football (1987); and Mike Rathet and Don R. Smith, Their Deeds and Dogged Faith (1987). His professional statistics are in David S. Neft, Roland T. Johnson, Richard M. Cohen, and Jordan Deutsch, The Sports Encyclopedia: Football (1976); and Bob Carroll, Michael Gershman, David S. Neft, and John Thorn, Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League (1999). Of the countless magazine articles that cover Matson at various stages of his career, the most informative are A. S. "Doc" Young, "Speed Is Matson's Trademark," Sport (Jan. 1953); Tex Maule, "Run for the Money," Sports Illustrated (7 Oct. 1957); Bill Furlong, "Is Ollie Matson Worth It?" Sport (Oct. 1959); and Larry L. King, "They Couldn't Cut Old Ollie, Could They?" Saturday Evening Post (22 Oct. 1966). A nostalgic overview of the undefeated University of San Francisco team of 1951 is Ron Fimrite, "Yesterday: Best Team You Never Heard Of," Sports Illustrated (12 Nov. 1990).

Edward J. Tassinari