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Ollie Matson, Long Ago Cardinals Running Back, Remembered

Chicago Cardinals running back Ollie Matson shined bright and played in the same era as Hugh McElhenny, who recently passed away.

For any San Francisco native raised in the 1950s and inspired by the wonder and wizardry of great running backs, two were dominant – Hugh McElhenny and Ollie Matson. Running backs were a prime focus in football during those days before passing the ball became a mainstay of the game. Jim Brown was, and often is, the most celebrated runner. But he was in Cleveland and televised games were a rarity.

On the West Coast we had our own stars. None shone brighter than McElhenny and Matson. In their respective journeys to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, these two sensational careers coincided and clashed in a manner that showcased their similarities and differences, as well as the state of our country and football at the time.

Both graduated in 1948 from George Washington High School, McElhenny in Los Angeles and Matson in San Francisco. Their talents were so conspicuous that they were already getting enthusiastic attention. The San Francisco 49ers, still in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), tried to sign McElhenny out of high school, four years before they drafted him in the first round. Matson almost made the U. S. Olympic Track and Field team.

McElhenny was a powerful physical specimen at 6-foot-1, 198 pounds with speed to run 100 yards in 9.8 seconds and athleticism to set high-school records in the low and high hurdles and win the 1947 state prep long jump.

Matson was bigger, at 6-foot-2 and 220, and faster, with a 100-yard time of 9.6 seconds, plus he was feared as a hard-hitting defensive back. Matson set a national high-school record with a 440-yard time of 47.8 seconds and in major prep meets usually also won races at 100 and 200 yards and even the pole vault.

In the year after high school, the contrast between McElhenny and Matson first came into focus. For those who noticed, this was already apparent in their respective styles of playing football.

McElhenny reflected his abilities in the hurdles, galloping with high knees, long strides and evasive, blink-quick lateral agility rarely displayed by a white running back. His broken-field runs entertained fans and left defenders grasping air. His evasive moves often defied description.

Matson could avoid tacklers, but mostly he ran through and away from them with a combination of speed, physicality, and focus. His no-nonsense style entertained fans and frustrated defenses because he always seemed one step, one broken tackle, from a clean sprint to the end zone. He attacked opponents on offense and on defense, where he was feared as a vicious tackler.

McElhenny’s first few months out of high school were similar to his football running style. He was all over the place.

First, he signed a football and track scholarship at nearby University of Southern California. One course short of eligibility, he took extension classes. But, in a harbinger of stories to come, he left when the school didn’t pay him the $65 a month he was promised, ostensibly for watering the grass around the Tommy Trojan statue.

For three months, McElhenny and a high-school buddy toured the country (“I could have signed with anybody,” he said years later). But he became homesick, returned to California, and enrolled at Compton Junior College.

After Matson graduated high school, he tried out for, and almost made, the 1948 U.S. Olympic Track and Field team. He rejected scholarship offers from numerous colleges, including some of the best in the country. Matson opted to stay home and enrolled at City College of San Francisco.

In that post-war era, community college football was huge. Compton saw 300 men, many fresh from World War II, try out for the football team and overflow crowds of 15,000 at home games. Compton was the No. 1 junior-college team in the nation for 1946 and 1947. The Tartans even had a PR department that included a young Pete Rozelle, fresh out of the Navy.

Rozelle would be deeply involved with McElhenny and Matson many times in future years. But in 1948 – with McElhenny at Compton and Matson at CCSF – even Rozelle, the future czar of pro football, couldn’t manage to put together what could have been one of the greatest matchups in junior college history.

That season, McElhenny rushed for 1,184 yards and 17 touchdowns and led the Compton Tartars to an 11-0 record, including a 48-14 drubbing of little Duluth (Minn.) JC in the third annual Little Rose Bowl, attended by 50,638 fans. But the historic footnote from that game is undefeated City College of San Francisco and the great Matson should have played Compton for what would have been a legitimate JC national championship. Matson led CCSF to a dominant 12-0 record, setting a national junior-college record with 19 touchdowns. Compton and CCSF each claimed the mythical title of national champion.

It is unclear why CCSF was avoided in that 1948 game, but it foreshadowed a future bowl snub that remains an embarrassment in college football history. More on that later.

After their great junior-college seasons, McElhenny and Matson continued to show the similarities as great players and their differences otherwise.

In a 2004 interview, McElhenny confirmed some of the worst-kept secrets of his recruitment and career at the University of Washington. He was lured by many schools, but literally took the best offer, made by a group of Husky alums. This was decades before the current NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) funds that groups use to induce prospects, more-or-less legitimately.

McElhenny was recruited, as it were, by former Washington All-American tackle Paul Schwegler and booster Al McCoy.

“They came out of the blue,” McElhenny said in that 2004 interview. “They offered me a package where I could afford to get married and take Peggy with me,” he added, naming his high-school sweetheart, Peggy Jean Ogston.

They married on March 19, 1949, in a Palm Springs ceremony underwritten by Washington booster Torchy Torrance. They would have two daughters and remain together for more than 70 years until Peggy died April 20, 2019, at the age of 89.

“What they did with me was illegal,” McElhenny said in that 2004 interview, confirming for the first time that rules violations were committed on his behalf at Washington. “I know it was illegal for me to receive cash, and every month I received cash. I know it was illegal to receive clothing, and I got clothing all the time from stores. I got a check every month, and it was never signed by the same person, so we never really knew who it was coming from. They invested in me every year. When I look back, it was funny. I don’t know how they got away with it.”

From the safety of that 2004 interview, McElhenny looked back at his college life with humor and no remorse. His so-called jobs included working for Rainier Brewery, which told him to take their $200 to some taverns and induce the clients to buy the right beer. But he was a well-known figure and Husky fans bought him beers instead. He drank the beer, kept the $200 but paid dearly the next day at several practices. McElhenny explained that such perks were common in those days.

“I was a movie star up there,” he said. “The people made you feel that way. It got to my head. I don’t know if I took advantage of it or didn’t take advantage of it enough.”

One thing for sure, the Huskies got their money’s worth.

Playing fullback, McElhenny teamed with talented quarterback Don Heinrich and was a first-team All-Pacific Coast Conference selection in 1950 and 1951, as well as the Associated Press All-American fullback in 1951. McElhenny led the team in rushing in each of his three seasons and set 16 school records, including rushing yards for a season, 1,107, and a career total of 2,499.

Mere numbers don’t reflect McElhenny’s awe-inspiring feats of fancy footwork with astonishing, lateral zigs and zags that stretched one’s concept of human agility. His moves were a combination of instinct and dare-devil thoughtlessness. His most remarkable single play at Washington was a 100-yard punt return against USC in 1951, which he later admitted was a bad idea with a good result.

“It was a tough day rushing and I was bored, so I took the opportunity,” he said. “Coach was screaming at me when I caught the ball on our own goal line, but he was cheering when I went 100 yards and crossed the other goal line.”

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Matson also had his choice of colleges, but transferred to crosstown University of San Francisco, a Jesuit school he later said made him feel at home. USF had little to offer recruits beyond a good education along with room and board in the school’s ROTC barracks.

In 1951, Matson led the nation in rushing with 1,566 yards, averaged 6.39 yards per carry and 174 yards per game. The team included Matson’s CCSF defensive teammate, Burl Toler, the only two black players on the squad.

The 1951 Dons’ roster featured eight players who later went to the NFL, three of whom are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame – Matson, brutish defensive end Gino Marchetti and tackle Bob St. Clair, a charismatic giant (6-foot-9, 270) known as “The Geek” because he enjoyed eating raw meat.

Toler never played high-school football, but was a tremendous defensive player whose talents would have found a spot in the NFL. He was drafted in the ninth round (105 overall) by the Cleveland Browns. But after his knee was severely injured in the college all-star game, Toler knew he was unable to play. Instead, he became the NFL’s first black official, a job he held for 25 years.

Also, another part of that 1951 Dons team was Rozelle, who previously worked at Compton with McElhenny and then became student publicist for USF and the Matson-led Dons.

Despite all of that, this historic 9-0 Dons team lives in college infamy, as described in the book titled “Undefeated, Untied and Uninvited.” For Matson and Toler, it was a repeat of being shunned after a perfect season at CCSF.

In 1951, the Sugar, Orange and Gator Bowls all considered inviting the Dons. However, all three were in the South. Only the Orange Bowl was willing to invite the Dons, and then on the condition that Matson and Toler, the Dons' only black players, were excluded.

“We told them to go to hell,” said Bill Henneberry, the Dons’ backup quarterback. “If Ollie and Burl didn’t go, none of us were going. We walked out, and that was the end of it.”

The end indeed. Two days after that great season, the financially-strapped Dons football program – which would have benefitted from some bowl game pay – disbanded and USF never again played Division I football.

In January of 1952, Matson was the No. 3 overall draft selection by the struggling Chicago Cardinals. But before suiting up in the NFL, he had unfinished business.

Although he had not competed in college track since CCSF – USF did not have a track team – Matson wanted to run in the Olympics. Due to his prolonged inactivity in track, Matson was advised not to pursue the 1952 Olympics, but he was determined. In July, at the Helsinki Olympics, Matson defied the odds and quieted naysayers by winning a bronze medal in the 400-meter run and a silver in the 1,600-meter relay.

McElhenny and Matson were impactful rookies in 1952 and were both selected as first-team All-Pro: McElhenny as a halfback for the 49ers and Matson as a fullback for the Cardinals.

On his first carry for the 49ers, in a preseason game, McElhenny exploded for a 42-yard touchdown on a play drawn in the dirt because he did not yet know the playbook. Both rookies showed versatility as dangerous runners, receivers and returners. McElhenny’s 94-yard punt return touchdown was the longest in the NFL that year and he was first in the league with 1,731 all-purpose yards. Matson led the league with two scores on kickoff returns, one for 100 yards.

McElhenny was selected All-Pro again in 1953, but Matson was out of the NFL the next two years while serving in the military. Before returning to the Cardinals in 1954, Matson wed Mary Paige, his sweetheart since their teens. They had two daughters and two sons and remained together more than 53 years until her death in 2007.

McElhenny was a key member of the 49ers’ celebrated “Million Dollar Backfield,” a number that represented the combined pay in 1954 of McElhenny, quarterback Y.A. Tittle, fullback Joe “The Jet” Perry and halfback John Henry Johnson. In 1954, that was a lot of money, even among four players. Tittle nicknamed McElhenny “The King,” a name that stuck for a performer that rivaled another King, Elvis Presley.

While both backs had sensational NFL careers, they each endured disappointing setbacks.

In 1959, the 49ers hired head coach Red Hickey who never hit it off with McElhenny. The King was left exposed in the 1961 expansion draft and the new Minnesota Vikings grabbed him. He vented his displeasure with one resurgent season that included 1,067 yards rushing, receiving and returning. The highlight was a spectacular, vengeful, 39-yard touchdown run against the 49ers.

“I think I actually ran more than 75 yards to get that score against Hickey and those 49ers,” McElhenny said. “I mean at least they could have sent me to a contending team.”

Matson’s career also took a turn in 1959. After five years as an All-Pro, Matson was finally comfortable enough in 1958 to buy a home in Chicago. But after that season he was part of one of the most spectacular trades in NFL history. Matson went to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for seven players, a 1959 second-round draft pick and a player to be named.

The megadeal was orchestrated by Rozelle, the Rams general manager and the former USF sports information director in 1951 and Matson. Barely two years after that massive trade, Rozelle became commissioner of the National Football League.

When McElhenny retired after the 1964 season, he was one of only three players to gain more than 11,000 all-purpose yards. The sum of his rushing, receiving, kickoff returns, punt returns, and fumble returns was 11,375 yards – or more than six miles. He scored 63 touchdowns, was selected All-Pro twice, went to six Pro Bowls and in 1970 was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But beyond the numbers and honors, McElhenny’s impact on pro football, especially in the Bay Area, was enormous. His arrival in San Francisco helped popularize pro football and probably saved the troubled franchise three decades before owner Eddie DeBartolo and head coach Bill Walsh created a 49ers dynasty. Long before “The Catch,” there was The King, who reigned for years with those dazzling broken-field runs in the memories of long-suffering, “wait-‘til-next-year” 49er faithful.

When Matson retired in 1966, his 12,799 career all-purpose yards were second only to Jim Brown. Matson played with four teams, was named All-Pro five times and selected for six Pro Bowls. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972.

But this quietly confident man who eschewed controversy was an icon long before playing in the NFL, where he never took part in the playoffs. In fact, he never competed in a post-season season football game on any level despite leading both CCSF and USF to historic unbeaten seasons. On his own, he won silver and bronze medals in the Olympics. But in the memories of those who saw him play, Matson was a gold-medal winner all the way.

Before their deaths, McElhenny and Matson endured agonizing ailments.

McElhenny was still in his 70s when he was diagnosed with a rare nerve disorder called Guillain–Barré syndrome, which almost killed him. He was temporarily paralyzed from the neck down, used a walker for a year and never really regained total strength in the legs that carried him to stardom.

Matson spent his final years impacted by dementia, which was linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive, degenerative disease identified post-mortem in a growing number of NFL players who sustained concussions during their career. Family members said Matson was mostly bed-ridden for years before his 2011 death and rarely even spoke.

Although McElhenny and Matson took vastly different approaches to life and sports, they each had a major impact on football and its fans, especially in California. If they played in a different era, their feats would have dominated ESPN and blown up social media. But they didn’t. So, when given a chance to hear about or see their feats, take heed. They were undoubtably two of the most remarkable running backs in football history.

Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFL Draft Scout, has covered football since 1965 and has been on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee for more than 30 years. He is a native of San Francisco where the feats of Hugh McElhenny and Ollie Matson are still legendary.