As a collegiate and professional athlete it seemed as if nothing could stop Ollie Matson. In 1951, his senior year at the University of San Francisco, he led the nation in rushing (1,566 yards) and touchdowns (22), helping the 9-0 Dons to their best season ever. The following summer he won two track medals at the Helsinki Olympics--a bronze in the 400 meters and a silver in the 4√ó400 relay--then began a 14-year NFL career. A six-time All-Pro at running back, who also was a standout defensive back and kick returner, Matson joined Jim Thorpe as the only athletes to earn an Olympic medal and induction into the college and pro football halls of fame.
But Alzheimer's has done what few competitors could do: slow the speedy Matson, who has been battling the disease for five years. Even so, at 74 he remains in good spirits at his home in Los Angeles with Mary, his wife of 50 years. Two months ago Matson traveled to the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, where he was among the honorees at a breakfast celebrating college football's ties to the Olympics.
Matson calls the undefeated USF team "the greatest of all time." Eight teammates would join him in the NFL, including two--linemen Gino Marchetti and Bob St. Clair--who also would be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Yet the Dons were not invited to a bowl game because it had two black players: Matson and linebacker Burl Toler. Moreover, without the revenue that a bowl would have provided, USF's struggling athletic department was forced to cancel the football program on Dec. 30, 1951.
A first-round pick of the Chicago Cardinals, Matson delayed signing until after the Olympics. The Trinity, Texas, native ran the 400 final in 46.94 and had a 46.70 leadoff leg on the relay team that ran faster than the world record but finished second to Jamaica.
October 10, 2004
Matson was an All-Pro as a rookie, and his all-purpose skills were so highly regarded that, in an unprecedented trade, the Los Angeles Rams gave the Cardinals nine players to get him in 1959. Matson later played for the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles.
After retiring as a player in '66, Matson was a physical education teacher and football coach at Los Angeles High, then coached the running backs at San Diego State. He later served as events supervisor at the L.A. Coliseum for 11 years, retiring for good in 1989. Though his short-term memory often fails him, Matson still enjoys his family--four grown children and eight grandchildren--and swims and plays an occasional round of golf. --Joe Lemire