Playing The Name Game

By Gregory Kane
Updated: January 6, 2008

BALTIMORE — When you walk around with a moniker like Ollie Matson Jr., you expect to live in your father’s shadow.

Ollie Matson Sr. is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He spent 14 seasons as an NFL running back with four teams. Matson Sr. was a five-time All-Pro and the Most Valuable Player of the 1956 Pro Bowl.

In 1952, Matson Sr. won a bronze medal in the 400-meter race and a silver medal in the 4×400-meter relay at the summer Olympic Games. In 1951, as a senior halfback on the University of San Francisco’s football team, Matson Sr. led the nation in rushing yardage and was named an All-American.

You can’t gauge how good Matson Sr. was just by looking at his NFL stats. The poor man had to suffer for five seasons playing for the perennially hapless but nonetheless entertaining Chicago Cardinals. In 1959, the Cardinals traded Matson Sr. to the Los Angeles Rams for nine players.

And some observers still feel the Rams got the better part of that deal.

Matson Jr. was no slouch as an athlete either, excelling in football, basketball and baseball. When it came time for him to go pro in a sport, Matson Jr. gave hoops the thumbs up.

“I chose basketball because I enjoyed it more,” Matson Jr. said during a recent interview, “and to get out of my father’s shadow.”

Last Wednesday, Matson Jr. will strode back into that shadow. He did it proudly, and with joy. He was at the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., when Matson Sr. and his teammates from that 1951 USF football squad were honored in a pregame ceremony.

In 1951, USF’s football team won all its games; members of the squad expected to get a bowl bid. Matson Jr. still remembers what his father told him about the team’s anticipation before they won their last regular-season game.

“He told me they knew in their minds they had one more game to play and if they won it, they would go to a bowl game,” Matson Jr. recalled.

They did win, and got their bowl invitation. But they were asked to leave Matson Sr. and Burl Toler, the only two black players on the team, at home. They wouldn’t be welcome if they played against teams from the then-still-segregated South.

Members of the USF team took a vote: Either the entire team – including Matson and Toler – would go, or the team wouldn’t go. The squad, which featured future Hall of Famers Bob St. Clair and Gino Marchetti – who’s fairly well known in these parts – never got to play in a bowl game. The team members took a principled stand and showed extraordinary character in an era when character still mattered.

Matson Jr. is a teacher and coach at Windsor Mill Middle School in Baltimore County. He taught and coached for three years at Edmondson High School under Baltimore high school coaching legend Pete Pompey.

For a spell, Matson Jr. was an assistant women’s basketball coach at Coppin State University. In addition to teaching and coaching at Windsor Mill, Matson Jr. is an assistant football coach at Northwestern High School in Baltimore.

Matson Jr. was a teammate of the late basketball star Dennis Johnson at Pepperdine University. When Matson Jr. graduated from the school in 1979, he was drafted and then cut by the Phoenix Suns of the National Basketball Association. It was his father who consoled him after Matson Jr. didn’t make it in the NBA.

“You’re gonna play again,” Matson Sr. told his son. “It may not be in the NBA, but you’re gonna play somewhere.”

Matson Jr. did play – for 10 years overseas. After retiring from pro ball he settled down in Austin, Texas, where he ran basketball camps, did some speaking engagements, took care of a couple of foster kids and started a Little League baseball team.

He also carried on a long-distance relationship with a woman who lived in Baltimore. When the couple made the decision to tie the knot, Matson Jr. made the choice to move to the Baltimore area to be with his future wife.

Matson Jr. found out what Baltimore guys already know: There ain’t no gal like a Baltimore gal.

Matson Jr. – with his brother and two sisters (their mother passed away several years ago) – found out there’s no thrill like seeing his dad honored with his college teammates.

“If I could be half the man he is,” Matson Jr. said, “I’ll be successful.”