Friday, May 30, 2014

Ollie Matson added to '55 All-American customs

I've been planning to do a 1955 All-American style custom card of Ollie Matson for a number of years. His 1954 Bowman card was one of my childhood favorites. I've had a USA Today clipping about his college team in my files for more than five years.

What got me off center on the project was my viewing the other night of the ESPN documentary '51 Dons.

The hour-long 2014 film details the University of San Francisco football team. It is largely based on the book Undefeated, Untied and Uninvited by Kristine Clark.

You can probably catch the documentary in a rerun, so I'm not going to do more than give you a capsule summary. In 1951 the Dons, from a tiny (1,200 enrollment) all-male Catholic college, were 9-0. The team featured running back Ollie Matson, who led the nation with 1,566 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns, and linebacker Burl Toller, whose defense held opponents to an average of just eight points per game. Both were black.

With most of the major bowl games played in the Jim Crow South, the Dons were snubbed for a bowl bid, ostensibly because of the relative weakness of the Dons' schedule. When the Orange Bowl made back-channel overtures to the effect that USF could get the bid of they agreed to leave Matson and Toler at home, the team overwhelmingly voted to decline. 

By refusing to turn their backs on their teammates, the Dons lost more than the chance to win bowl championship rings. The loss of a major bowl-game payday doomed the school's football program. The school had lost $70,000 on football in 1951; it could not afford to continue in 1952. USF's football program went dark until 1959, when it returned as a minor college program.

The Orange Bowl insult was just another injustice heaped on Matson. Despite his NCAA-leading offensive stats, when he was named as San Francisco's first and only All-American, it was as a defensive back. In the Heisman Trophy balloting, he could no better than 9th.

The pros, however, recognized Matson's value. His college coach, Joe Kuharich, who had moved on to the Chicago Cardinals with the folding of the San Francsico program, made Matson the No. 3 overall pick in the 1952 NFL draft, behind Bill Wade and Les Richter.

Matson delayed signing a pro contract so that he could compete in the 1952 Winter Olympics in Helsinki. As part of the U.S.A. track team he won a bronze medal in the  400-meter sprint and silver in the 1,600-meter relay.

It was Matson's ill-luck to play his entire 14-year NFL career with non-contending team. With the Cardinals (1952, 1954-58), Rams (1959-62), Lions (1963) and Bears (1964-66), Matson played on only two teams with a winning record. He never appeared in a post-season game. 

Following the 1958 season, Matson once again figured in a former USF official's NFL plans. Pete Rozelle, who had been Don's sports information director in 1951, traded eight players and a draft pick to add Matson to the L.A. Rams team of which he was general manager.

Matson was a five-time All-Pro and played in six Pro Bowls. When he retired, his 12,884 all-purpose yards were an NFL career mark second only to Jim Brown.

He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972. His teammates Bob St. Clair and Gino Marchetti also made the Hall of Fame, becoming the only college teammate trio so honored. He joined the College Football Hall of Fame in 1976.

Suffering from the sort of dementia now recognized as being caused by repeated head injuries, Matson died in 2011.

Naturally, there tons of stuff about Ollie Matson available on the internet. I can recommend his N.Y. Times obituary. .

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