Pro football is on its way to another big season, and superstars like Ollie Matson will decide the title. Here is a preview, with scouting reports of all the teams
October 06, 1957

One rainy fall afternoon in Philadelphia only 18 years ago, the Brooklyn and Philadelphia professional football teams played to a capacity press box and empty stands. The few spectators at Municipal Stadium had left the 100,000 seats bare to the downpour and retired to the press box to watch the game in lonesome, dry comfort. Bert Bell was the coach of the Philadelphia team—and the business manager and ticket seller and ad salesman for the program. He had little success in any of his ventures.

"Our total home gate was around $60,000," Bell said the other day. He now earns nearly that much each year ($40,000) as commissioner of the National Football League; the Eagles are still having trouble making money, but only the Chicago Cardinals share this fiscal discomfort. The rest of the teams in the booming National Football League showed a net income before taxes in 1956 ranging from $237,483 (the Detroit Lions) to $24,009 (the Pittsburgh Steelers). And 1957 may see the two losers in the black; season ticket sales over the league reached $1,300,000 plus for this fall. As an indication of the burgeoning growth of this exciting game, total gate receipts for the league in 1945 were only $1,270,401.

"The player draft made the difference," Bell said in his gravelly voice the other day. He is a short, round man, little given to diplomacy or soft talk, and his rough hand on the reins, as much as any one thing, has kept the NFL prospering. "Back in 1936 when I had the Eagles, you had to bid against the rich clubs for players. From 1933 to 1945, for instance, the Big Four—the Washington Redskins, Chicago Bears, New York Giants and Green Bay Packers-won 252 games and lost only 59 against the rest of the teams in the league. In 1936 we started the draft, and by the time the talent was equalized, the whole picture changed. From 1946 through 1956, the same four teams won 133 and lost 136 against the rest of the league. That's why people come out to see the pros play—they know a game between any two teams in the league can go either way easily."

As the pros head into what will probably be the most successful season in league history, no team lacks for good football players. Indeed, each team has 35 (the league limit) of the best players in football; the difference between the champion and the last-place team in each division is the number of great players on the squad. The players shown in color on the next four pages are the kind who make the vital transformation of a good team into a great one; the crunching running of a big, fleet fullback like the Bears' Rick Casares, the unbelievably accurate passing and adept faking of quarterbacks like Bobby Layne and Norman Van Brocklin, the graceful, elusive galloping runs of a Hugh McElhenny or the all-round brilliance of a Frank Gifford—these are the things which lift a good team out of mere competence into the realm of greatness. Bell's advocacy of the draft—allowing the lowest team in winning percentage each year first choice of the college players available—has given every one of the 12 teams in the National Football League the opportunity to stock itself with as many of the great players as it is wise enough to select. Every team has one or two; the teams which win the championships of the Eastern and Western Conferences and meet for the world championship in December will have five or six.

Professional football is, incomparably, a game of skill. The lowliest guard on the last-place team in either division is a skillful player. The players whose pictures are on the following pages are, in their field, as skillful as a National Open golf champion or a Wimbledon winner. They are all magnificent physical specimens, as well. They have courage and cool determination under fire; the lowly guard has that, too, or he would not be playing professional football.

For this is no easy life. It requires abnegation, and, as one end coach in the National Football League pointed out in explaining the requirements of his job to a rookie offensive end, "a willing disregard for the consequences." From here on, in many ways, this might be the story of any one of the players on the next four pages; it happens to be the story of the player on this week's cover. He is Ollie Matson, Olympic medal winner, ex-Little All-America and now possibly the best broken-field runner in professional football.

Ollie Genoa Matson's father was a railroad man, but he left Ollie and his mother when the second world war started and never came back. Ollie was raised in Trinity Texas, a small town in the hot South. He lived there with his mother until he was 11 years old, playing football with a tin can in the streets. His mother was a teacher and then she had a nursery school for a while and the family finally went to Houston, where Ollie played football at the all-Negro Jack Yates High School. He was an end for a couple of days, but the coach liked the way he ran with the ball and he played halfback after that for a year. Then the family moved on again, this time to San Francisco, and Ollie played high school football there.

"I made all-city my senior year," he said the other day. He is a big man who looks as if he were carved out of ironwood. His face is quiet and his eyes are oddly mild and he speaks softly. "I don't remember now just exactly how many touchdowns I scored my senior year, but I set some kind of record. I loved to play football, man. I used to go out on Sunday and play in my Sunday clothes and get them all dirty, but my mother never became angry with me at all. She encouraged me to play if I loved it."

Matson had offers from Oregon, Nevada, UCLA, St. Mary's and the University of San Francisco when he graduated from high school. He played instead for a year at City College in San Francisco because he needed to make up a credit in foreign language before he could enter college. He made the Little All-America squad at City College and then went on to San Francisco. Matson is a Catholic and leaned toward a Catholic school, anyway.

In his senior year at San Francisco, he scored "21 or 22 touchdowns (I can't remember these figures so well)" and set ground-gaining records. He was drafted by the Chicago Cardinals, which were then coached by the former USF coach, Joe Kuharich.

Sprawled wide and heavy on a narrow cot in a training-camp dormitory, he thought about being drafted, the mild brown eyes heavy-lidded as he looked out a narrow window.

"I had always thought of professional football in terms of the Los Angeles Rams or the San Francisco 49ers," he said, with maybe a trace of regret in the soft voice. "But when Coach Kuharich drafted me, I was satisfied. I still am. These people have been nothing but nice to me. This is a very demanding game and that does make a difference."

He puffed industriously at an ancient pipe. It had gone out and he relit it, holding the match carefully and sucking at the pipestem for a long time to get an even fire.

"Yes, man," he said then. "This is a very demanding game in so many ways. Take drinking. Man can't do it in this business. Very fortunately for me, hard liquor makes me quite ill. I used to go into Roy Barni's bar back in San Francisco and Roy would say to me, 'Ollie, how about a gin?' and I'd say to him, 'No, man,' and then he'd laugh. And then he would say again, 'Come on, Ollie, and have a gin,' and I'd keep on saying no. One time I did and I was really very ill. But the rest of the time I'd say to him, 'Roy, gimme a beer,' and at the utmost, I would have two beers, maybe three on a real hot day. Man, Roy thought it was real funny the day I got ill."

Matson chuckled appreciatively, remembering how funny it was, the oddly mild brown eyes lighting up. He was stretched limply on the bed. He sucked briskly on the pipe, cold again now.

"Like smoking," he went on. "Used to smoke cigarets, but not many. One thing about me, if I smoke a cigaret while I'm drinking a beer, that makes me very ill. So one day I'm in a store and I see this pipe which you may have noticed is a quite unique pipe. It was something like $12.95 and the man said I could have it for $4 and I been smoking it since. Doesn't bother me at all." He held the pipe up and looked at it appreciatively.

"Doesn't hurt my wind at all," he said. "This is a rough business, so you must keep yourself in superb condition at all times. I watch my diet. If my wife cooks potatoes, I don't eat any bread. If I eat bread, no potatoes. During the off season, I go to the gym, play basketball, play golf, or shall I say I hack at the golf ball. Month before the season starts, I go down to the beach and run in the sand and run on the bridle paths and try a few pass-pattern maneuvers. My speed is most valuable to me, so I do my utmost to retain it."

(Matson placed third in the 400-meter run in the 1952 Olympics. It is a measure of the unswerving determination to excel which is a part of his makeup that he made that Olympic team in the face of almost universal assurance that three years of football at USF and no track had taken away too much of his speed. "Dink Templeton told me I couldn't make it," he said once. "I told him when the boat left for Helsinki, I'd be on it. Was, too. Then in Helsinki, I'm sitting around playing cards with George Rhoden, Mai Whitfield and Herb McKenley and all of them telling how they were gonna win the 400 meters the next day. I said to them, 'Fellows, there are three places on that stand out there and I'm going to be on one of them.' Was, too.")

Now, resting on the narrow cot after a long morning workout, he thought about the speed which has brought him so much. He rubbed the bowl of the pipe along the side of his nose and gazed solemnly out the window.

"You have to know how to use your speed, though," he said. "You have to use your head to some extent to use your speed to its fullest capacity. You have to set up the defense for the benefit of your blockers. You got to use your speed to get to the hole as soon as the blocker makes contact. When the defense man puts his hand out to ward off the blocker, you got to be there going fast to go by. You got to go right at the hole to do that—got to go right in off the tail of the fullback; you can't square the route. By that I mean you can't run to the side and then cut in at the hole—you got to go right at it."

He stretched with the easy elasticity of a big hunting cat and, holding the pipe by the bowl, waved the stem slowly and didactically to accentuate the points he wanted to make.

"Just the speed is not enough," he said. "In a broken field, I've found it more beneficial to go right at a defensive halfback at slow speed. Naturally, he don't know you're going slow because he can't judge your speed when you're coming right straight at him, then you can pivot and put on that burst of speed and he'll miss you just a little bit. That's all you need—that little bit of speed. Then you got to remember to stay away from the sidelines because you can't evade tacklers there—they use the sideline for another tackler."

Matson sat up on the edge of the cot and rubbed a shin gently. His leg is pocked and scarred with the stigmata of the trade of a running back in the National Football League and he explored the scars gently with the tips of surprisingly slender fingers.

"Like I said, this is a very rough game," he said. "But it has never been any rougher on me because of my race. I can say there was never any prejudice against me. I found out one thing—if you're a good player, everybody is out to get you. Not dirty, just hitting extra hard. You find a few rookies attempting illegal tactics, but it gets around the league and everybody gets after him. You got to understand it is a job and you got a family, so you play hard but not dirty. You don't understand these tactics, one day you'll be outa place, you won't see this man coming, and whoom! they call the stretcher bearers. But I don't mean dirty. Rough, tough, hard. The writers sometimes make it appear dirty, but they misunderstand. It has come to my attention that the only ones who get injured are the ones goofing off, trying to get out of doing what they should. You must be alert and smart out there all the time."

Matson unconsciously smoothed the long, thin-line mustache he wears. He looked down again at the scarred legs and smiled.

"I would not want you to get the idea that this game is not a pleasure to play," he said. "I get very much pleasure out of it. I like to run and block and catch passes. Even when you are not in the play, you can have fun testing your opponent. I always run out my fakes. I figure the thing to do is keep those opponents upset all the time. It is very imperative that you run out the fakes. Another thing. In college, you're fighting for the old alma mater and that makes it a pleasure. When you get to pro ball, you're doing what you want to do and you're getting paid for it and that makes it an even greater pleasure. There's not as much rah, rah on a pro club, but the guys try just as hard."

He rubbed his leg again and flexed one hand, holding the wrist.

"I've taken some beatings up here," he said. "I really have. The Philadelphia Eagles are always a tough team on me. Chuck Bednarik is one of the greatest linebackers in the business. He's smart, he sits back and thinks 'What's gonna happen on this play?' and he hits. That Bednarik's a smart boy. It's not how big you are, it's how smart. You can be big and a little fellow who weighs 225 pounds can move you. Most people think it's brute force, but it's not at all. Another thing. You can't be cautious up here. The cautious ones get hurt because they try to evade the shock. What you have to do is keep running hard, then the man will get more shock than you. And you got to know when to relax. Last year against the Steelers I went way up in the air to catch a pass and the halfback ran under me and I came down on my neck. Many people thought I was seriously injured, but I wasn't hurt at all because I relaxed and I know how to fall and protect myself. This was not hard for me to learn. No part of football is hard for me to pick up because I love it so much. Broken-field running is a godly given gift, and I never take the ball without thinking 'six points.' I'm disappointed if I don't make a long run in a game because I know people come and pay their good money to see me make long runs, and I like to please them. It was hard for me when I first came up to pro ball. I was used to making three or four touchdowns a game in college and I only make one or two a game with the pros, and it was much harder. But the greatest thrill for me is winning the game, no matter who scores the touchdowns."

Stan West, a 260-pound middle linebacker for the Cardinals, who was an All-America guard at Oklahoma, wandered into Matson's room and sat down by him on the cot, which creaked dangerously.

"Someday," he said sadly, "I'd like to finish somewhere besides last in the wind sprints."

Matson chuckled.

"You got to know how to run," he said. "A little thing like not running in a perfectly straight line can cost you. Maybe you just toe out an inch or so on each stride but you add that up for a hundred yards and it makes maybe a yard or two. And you must know how to breathe."

He looked at West and went "puh hoo!"

West looked back at him blankly.

"Puh hoo!" said Matson again, blowing his breath out in an explosive burst on the PUH and sucking it back as quickly on the hoo! "Puh hoo! That's how you got to breathe when you're getting near the end of the wind sprints. You usually run all the way on one breath. You get out of oxygen and the air gets cold. Then when you go puh hoo you get rid of the old air and get in some fresh air and it gives you a sort of jet takeoff again. You try it, Stan."

West went "puh hoo" experimentally, then tried again louder. "No one ever told me how to run," he said gratefully. "I'll try that."

West wandered out again, still going "puh hoo" like a steam locomotive, and Matson stretched out on the cot. He laid the pipe down carefully on the floor and closed his eyes, then opened them again and smiled apologetically.

"Man gets awful tired on these two-a-day workouts," he said. "I usually sleep after lunch. If you don't mind, I think I'll nap a while and we can resume our discussion later."

Matson came to the Cardinals in 1952, then spent the 1953 season at Fort Ord. He played service football for two years and returned to the Cardinals to play a few games in 1954. He is one of the great runners in the game today and ranked second to the Chicago Bears' Rick Casares in ground-gaining in 1956. He runs with a beautiful, gliding motion which carries him so smoothly that he does not give the impression of great speed. He might be even faster, but, unlike many halfbacks, he wears a full suit of heavy pads to protect himself from the savage beating a back takes from the giant men in professional football.


After the Cardinals had worked hard for two hours in the afternoon, Matson stayed out a little longer to work on pass patterns with rookie Quarterback Paul Larson. He ran the patterns all out in the ground-eating, loping stride he has. He is big—6 feet 2 and 210 pounds—and his legs are thick and powerful-looking from calf to thigh. He ran effortlessly, and it took Larson a while to gauge his speed properly. Finally a long pass hung precisely, and Matson, looking back at the last moment, ran under the ball and caught it.

"That's the way, man!" he yelled happily to Larson. "Hang it up there and let me run under it."

He trotted to the sidelines and stopped. The linemen were ending their workout with the inevitable wind sprints and the ground rumbled as the giants labored downfield. West came by running hard, his face intent. As he came by Matson, he let out a thunderous "puh hooo!" and churned on.

"You not last, Stan!" Matson hollered as loud as he could and laughed. "Don't forget. Puh hoo!"




On the next four pages, rare closeups of the combat expressions of five superstars—Rick Casares of the Bears, Bobby Layne of the Lions, Norm Van Brocklin of the Rams, Hugh McElhenny of the 49ers and Frank Gifford of the Giants.





Other Games (Saturday, Oct. 5)

in Tex Maule's crystal ball


New York Giants


Cleveland Browns


Chicago Cardinals


Pittsburgh Steelers


Washington Redskins


Philadelphia Eagles



Los Angeles Rams


Chicago Bears


Detroit Lions


San Francisco 49ers


Green Bay Packers


Baltimore Colts


Sunday, Sept. 29