There have been very few Olympic medalists that are also in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In fact, we can think of only two: Jim Thorpe and Ollie Matson. Thorpe grabbed the gold medal in both the decathlon and the pentathlon in 1912 at the Stockholm games, while Matson won both a silver and bronze medal at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Matson took third in the 400-meter run and then was a member of the U.S. 4X400-meter relay team that took the silver that year. And, ironically, both were members of the Chicago Cardinals football team!
Thorpe’s time with the Cardinals was brief, playing just a single game in 1928 in what would prove to be his final game played in the National Football League. Matson, however, considered himself a “lifer” in the Cardinals organization, joining the club as a first-round draft pick in 1952.
At the time of his Olympic heroics in 1952, Matson was better known as an All-American halfback for the University of San Francisco. Matson led the Dons to an undefeated (9-0) season in 1951 and topped the nation in rushing with 1,566 yards as well as in scoring with 126 points.
His Olympic feats on the running track were even more surprising since San Francisco did not even have a track team at the time! During his college days, Matson entered an AAU track meet in Berkeley, CA where he narrowly lost to Jamaican Olympian Herb McKenley in the 440 and caught the eye of Stanford’s track coach Dink Templeton. Matson recalled: “Dink thought I should stick to track, but even though I had always dreamed of running in the Olympics, I made up my mind to play football.”
Fast forward two years later and here was Matson contacting Templeton who was now in charge of the U.S. Olympic track team. Dink’s words were not encouraging as he told Matson: “Ollie, you laid off track too long.”
Yet when the final numbers were reduced, Matson had made the Olympic team by taking third in the 400 at the U.S. Olympic trials in Los Angeles. In Helsinki, he was the top U.S. finisher in the 400 in winning the bronze medal. As a member of the 4X400 relay team, Matson missed the gold medal by just 1/10 of a second in an exciting photo finish.
Ollie Matson's NFL Career Begins
With the Olympics over, Matson rushed back to the states on the 4,000-mile flight from Helsinki. He landed in Chicago, signed a contract with the Cardinals, and then drove up to the Wisconsin training camp of the 1952 College All-Stars for a few practices before the annual College All-Star game with the Los Angeles Rams. Playing almost exclusively on defense, Matson and the All-Stars lost a tight 10-7 verdict to the Rams.
Matson then reported to the Cardinals’ training camp under new head coach Joe Kuharich, who was also Ollie’s coach at the University of San Francisco the year before. As a 6-2, 210 lb. halfback, Matson quickly demonstrated his skills as both a runner, returner, defender, and a receiver. In an early game against the Chicago Bears, Matson returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score and then returned a fumble recovery 34 yards for another TD in a 21-10 Cardinals’ win.
For the year, Ollie Matson gained 1,240 yards overall, led his team with 54 points, and shared NFL rookie of year award honors with Hugh McElhenny, all while playing part of the year with a broken wrist suffered in the fifth game of the season. The Associated Press named him to its first team all-defensive honor squad.
With platoon systems becoming popular in football at the time, Matson made it clear in an interview with the Chicago Tribune exactly what he thought of the popular system: “I like defense. It isn’t drudgery, and a defensive man lasts longer. But I also like to carry that football. I prefer to play both ways.”
Military Service and Trade Brewing
However, Matson was inducted into military service on February 20, 1953, and became the mainstay of the Ft. Ord football team, leading it to an 11-2 record with the only two losses coming to NFL teams. Matson picked up 1,084 yards on just 78 carries during the season for an astounding average of 13.9 yards per attempt. Upon his discharge on September 29, 1954, Matson promptly reported to the Cardinals and topped the NFL with 1,666 all-purpose yards.
In 1954, Matson suffered a serious head injury in a game against the Eagles after scoring on a 50-yard punt return. He was hospitalized and then released to fly home. This severe concussion may have been one of the injuries that precipitated some difficulties that Matson endured later in life.
As Matson continued to soar for the Cardinals, so did his paycheck. By 1958 it was reported that Ollie was the highest-paid player on the Cardinals with a $20,000 salary. It was well deserved; at different times during his time in Chicago, Matson led the league in categories such as punt return yards, punt return touchdowns, longest punt, and kick-off returns, and once again in 1956—all-purpose yards.
Each year during his time with the Cardinals (1952, 1954-58), Matson was named First-Team All-Pro. He and his wife seemed to like Chicago as well. In 1957, after receiving reassurances from Cards’ managing director Walter Wolfner that he would never be traded, the couple, then with two young children, purchased a home on the south side of Chicago. Following the 1958 season in which Matson scored a career-high 60 points and enjoyed another spectacular season on both sides of the ball, he received quite the shock: in February of 1959, he learned that he had been traded to the Los Angeles Rams.
If you’re interested, you can learn about the story of the Cleveland Rams moving to Los Angeles in this episode of The Football History Dude podcast.
Ollie Matson Traded
The trade was only part of the story…It was announced that Matson had been traded for an unbelievable nine players, a number seen only once before in the NFL. Matson’s initial reaction was one of shock as he told the Chicago Tribune: “I’ve just finished making repairs on my house. But the big thing is that I wanted to finish my career with the Cardinals.”
Later in the day, he seemed happier when chatting with the San Francisco Examiner and admitted: “I just hope that I prove worthy of the men they’re giving up. I’m looking forward with enthusiasm to at least three more good years of pro ball. I played hard for Chicago and have always tried to do my best wherever I’ve been.”
The trade itself took three days to complete. Pete Rozelle, the business manager of the Rams, took the lead in negotiating the massive deal. Rozelle, of course, later became the NFL commissioner. Rozelle said: “I’ve been hoping there would be some way to get Matson to Los Angeles ever since I became business manager. Football players like Ollie come along once in years and years.”
On the Chicago side, Coach Frank “Pop” Ivy explained his reasoning for moving the invaluable Matson: “The last thing we wanted to do was trade Matson. But we feel that in order to get worthwhile players, you have to give up something equally good.” Walter Wolfner, the man who told Matson that he would never be traded added: “Our entire coaching staff feels that these additional top-flight players will, without a doubt, make the Cardinals a strong contender this year. Although we know we gave up, in my book, the greatest back that ever played in the National Football League.”
The Cardinals received four starters, four other players, and one draft choice in 1959 for the valuable Matson. After his six seasons with the Cardinals, Matson had amassed 3,331 rushing yards on 761 carries; caught 130 passes for another 2,150 yards; returned 48 punts for 524 yards; and brought back 86 kickoffs for 2,453 more yards. He scored an even 300 points for the Cards during that time frame.
Results of the Ollie Matson Trade
In the long run, neither team benefited from the massive trade since both clubs finished 2-10 in 1959. Over the last 60 plus years, there has been plenty of discussion about the wisdom of the trade for the Cardinals. During the 1959 season for the Rams, Matson exploded for 863 yards on 161 carries for a 5.4 rushing average, caught 18 passes for 130 yards, and scored six touchdowns. In addition, he continued to return punts and kickoffs and played such laudable defense that both UPI and the Sporting News named him to their all-pro teams.
However, Rams’ Coach Sid Gillman was forced to resign after the 1959 season and after that time, Matson’s career, at least on offense, began to slide. Under coaches Bob Waterfield and Harland Svare, the Rams went 9-29-1 from 1960 through 1962, and Matson’s stint in L.A. was over. He spent the 1963 season in Detroit and then concluded his career with a three-year stay with the Eagles from 1964-1966 where he showed some of his old flashes of brilliance. During the 1964 campaign, he rushed for 404 yards and grabbed 17 passes for 242 yards.
When Ollie Matson retired after the 1966 season, he was second only to the great Jim Brown in NFL history with 12,799 all-purpose yards. Aside from being named an all-pro seven times, he was also selected on the All-Decade Team for the 1950s. In 1972, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and then in 1976, he was honored with his selection into the College Football Hall of Fame.
For those who never saw Matson run, a writer in 1973 described his talents: “Matson was a runner whose style was difficult to forget. Coupled with his speed was an almost awesome power, and when he ran over defenders at the line of scrimmage, he had the quickness to bolt by the secondary. In addition, he was almost impossible to ride out of bounds. Matson simply lowered his shoulder and punished the defender.”
Despite these numerous honors that elevated Matson to his rightful role as one of the most exciting players in football history, Matson is probably still remembered mostly for what we call “THE TRADE.” In his later years, Matson often wondered about the trade and its aftermath. “There are times I still ask myself; do I wish I had never been traded from Chicago?”
Apparently, the Rams were a mess under coach Gillman and his two successors. In 2002, Ollie’s wife Mary spoke of the Los Angeles situation and said: “He never had a shot here. We were so thrilled to be here, but it never felt right. So much resentment. Dissension right away. The Rams sabotaged themselves.” Indeed, during his four years with the Rams, the team won just 11 games.
Perhaps there was resentment, and likely there would be, for any one player that was traded for nine others. But Matson kept his thoughts to himself during his playing career and did whatever was asked of him. Following retirement. Matson spent some time as a football coach in Los Angeles where he was often surprised when students would discover tidbits about his great athletic career. In a 1973 interview, he said:
“They’re beginning to know. They go to the library and look me up and they say, ‘Coach, why didn’t you tell us that you did this thing or that thing?’ And I tell them, What I did isn’t important now. What I am interested is you doing it. All I ask is that they do their best. That’s all any person can do.”
Ollie Matson always did his best, no matter what the circumstances. Sadly, he passed away on February 19, 2011, apparently after suffering from dementia for some time, an illness that might be traced back to the injuries he suffered as a player. In tribute to Matson, who excelled both as a player and a person, we thought we would repeat the very fitting comment from Joe Kuharich, his old coach at San Francisco and with the Cardinals. Kuharich accurately described Ollie Matson as: ”The finest player I have ever seen or coached.”
Thank you for sharing your time with us today as we looked back at the wonderful career of Hall of Famer Ollie Matson. In our next episode, we’ll share the very wacky story of a Chicago Bears’ quarterback who had the most unusual passing form in the history of football! He’ll be just one of a few unusual characters that we’ll discuss who graced the team’s roster during the long and entertaining history of the Chicago Bears.
Joe Ziemba is the host of this show, and he is an author of early football history in the city of Chicago. Here, you can learn more about Joe and When Football Was Football, including all of the episodes of the podcast.
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