Late Oakland/LA Raiders owner Al Davis was known for a lot of things.
He loved strong armed quarterbacks, fast receivers, and an angry, aggressive defense.
Davis was also adept at collecting characters.
One of the most colorful characters he signed was defensive lineman John Matuszak.
Teased for his awkward appearance in grade school, Matuszak transformed himself into a larger than life athlete who would win two Super Bowls.
He would also appear in several television shows and movies including one role that remains memorable decades later.
2x Superbowl winner & one of the toughest Raiders of all time John Matuszak was Sloth in the Goonies. RIP pic.twitter.com/BEpbMQrPcA
— Kyle (@Kylebra78) July 23, 2021
Then, at the age of 38, Matuszak passed away from an accidental drug overdose.
This is the story of John Matuszak.
John Daniel Matuszak was born on October 25, 1950 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The Matuszak family experienced severe hardship when John’s two brothers died of cystic fibrosis when they were young and his sister had the disease as well.
When Matuszak was in elementary school, his parents moved the family to Oak Creek, a suburb south of Milwaukee.
At Matuszak’s new school, his classmates teased him because he was tall, gangly, and thin.
The ridicule only motivated young John to get bigger and stronger as he got older.
Eventually, he became a Wisconsin state champion at Oak Creek High School in the shot put with a throw of over 58 feet.
Matuszak also played on the Oak Creek football team as a defensive lineman.
Although he played fairly well on the gridiron, Matuszak did not have many colleges beating down his door as he approached graduation.
Of course, that had more to do with the fact that Matuszak didn’t apply himself in the classroom like he did in sports.
“Studies just didn’t interest me in high school,” he said, “and my grades weren’t good enough to qualify me for college. Both Wisconsin and Iowa were interested in me as a football player and suggested that I go to Fort Dodge Junior College in Iowa.” Matuszak said in 1973.
Since he wanted to continue playing football, Matuszak chose the Juco route for his next step.
Nomadic College Career
Matuszak began his quest to play collegiately at Fort Dodge.
John Matuszak graduated from Oak Creek with a GPA undesireable for bigger college scholarships…and decided to attend Fort Dodge Junior College his freshman year to build up his grade average while playing ball. From Iowa..he transferred to the University of Missouri. pic.twitter.com/VPUcAMWqXy
— AK (@AK7682) June 18, 2019
He played well for the team and his grades started to improve.
College coaches noticed and began to inquire about his services.
“My grades picked up so much that a lot of schools and a lot of coaches were after me, especially Dan Devine of Missouri, And that’s where I went,” continued Matuszak.
Happy to be wanted by a large program, Matuszak headed to Missouri where Devine planned to use him as a tight end.
Matuszak played well, although sparingly, and proved to be an adept blocker for a Tigers team that mostly ran the ball.
Then, one day he was at a party when he noticed an Air Force cadet hitting on his girlfriend.
Matuszak snapped and commenced beating the student so severely that he needed several hours of surgery.
“When that cadet began making passes at my girl, I hit him. I hit him a left and a right. They said afterwards I broke most of the bones in his face. He was in the hospital eight weeks and I was charged with felonious assault. When the charge was later reduced to a misdemeanor, I pleaded guilty to be rid of it,” said Matuszak.
After the incident, Devine was left with no choice but to suspend Matuszak for the rest of the season.
When Matuszak’s sophomore season concluded, Devine left Missouri to coach the Green Bay Packers.
The Tigers new coach, Al Onofrio, wanted nothing to do with the problematic Matuszak and took away his scholarship.
For the third time in as many years, Matuszak was looking for a new college to play for and found one in Florida.
All-American at University of Tampa
At the time, the University of Tampa was known as an “outlaw” school that housed undesirables and castoffs from other programs.
John Matuszak 1972
University of Tampa
#82 DE pic.twitter.com/GUet98VTNm
— AK (@AK7682) June 21, 2019
Matuszak seemed to fit well with the cast of characters and jumped in with both feet.
He began his time with the program as a tight end but switched to the defensive line during spring practice.
During the 1971 season, Matuszak proved to be a perfect fit for defense as he became the 6-5 Spartans’ leading tackler.
In his senior year of 1972, Matuszak racked up 64 tackles and was named to the 1972 All-American Team.
The Spartans as a whole played well that year for coach Earle Bruce and finished the season 9-2.
Their record was good enough to get an invite to play Kent State in the Tangerine Bowl.
Despite Kent State’s roster boasting future NFL Hall of Famer Jack Lambert as well as Gary Pinkel and defensive back Nick Saban, the Spartans defeated the Golden Flashes 21-18.
40th Annual College All-Star Football Game
Soldier Field July 27, 1973
John Matuszak DT
"The Tooz"@Truth_Serum1 @my2boys717 @Angelrdz66 @denniss9117 @serb_alexander @SensingerDarvin @dinolab13 @canadianraider1 @kengfunk @JimJaxMedia @NFLMAVERICK pic.twitter.com/U5qqPewsop
— AK (@AK7682) June 21, 2019
After the bowl game, Matuszak played for the college All-Star team against the Miami Dolphins. He was also voted as the MVP in the ‘Lions All-American Bowl.’
Surprise First Overall Pick
After two exemplary seasons in Tampa, Matuszak was the surprise first overall selection of the 1973 NFL Draft by the Houston Oilers.
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) January 30, 2018
However, he arrived to find a franchise in complete disarray.
The Oilers went to the postseason in 1969 then proceeded to get worse each year after.
When Matuszak arrived, Houston management looked to him to revive the organization.
However, there is only so much a defensive lineman can do and after an 0-5 start, head coach Bill Peterson was fired.
Assistant Sid Gillman took over and went 1-8 the rest of the season.
“The Tooz” (as he came to be called by teammates) did get four sacks for the year.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) November 15, 2017
He was named to a few All-Rookie teams and then a players strike threatened to derail the 1974 season.
As he was waiting out the strike, Matuszak became irked at his perceived treatment from Houston management.
He believed they didn’t offer him a bona fide first pick contract, although his four-year deal of nearly $175,000 was the largest-ever contract for a rookie defensive lineman.
Eventually, his relationship with management and Gillman soured.
He wanted to leave Houston, but that wasn’t an option after only a year of play in his rookie contract.
As a way to get back at his employers, Matuszak signed a contract with the Houston Texans of the World Football League.
It didn’t matter to him that being a member of two professional football teams was a no-no, Matuszak had to get the Oilers’ attention.
He did just that.
When word got out about his stunt, sheriff’s deputies approached him during his first game with the Texans and served him with a court order to cease playing immediately.
The two teams sued each other and the Oilers became so disgruntled with Matuszak that they traded him to the Kansas City Chiefs in exchange for veteran Curley Culp.
Brief Stop with the Chiefs
Matuszak would play for the Chiefs in 1974 and 1975, first for Hank Stram, then for Paul Wiggin.
By then, the “Tooz” character was in full bloom and the Kansas City coaches quickly tired of him as well.
• Ed Podolak, KC: 114 total yds, career-high 3 TD
• John Matuszak, KC: fumble recovery (only career TD)
• Golden Richards, DAL: 2 TD (sensational one-handed catch) pic.twitter.com/wKMe1oiC21
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) November 10, 2020
While with the Chiefs, Matuszak’s wife at the time tried to run him over with her car.
The Tooz was once sent home by the organization twice in one day and Wiggin ended up saving Matuszak’s life.
After taking a sleeping pill and washing it down with four beers, Matuszak collapsed and his heart stopped beating.
Wiggin was nearby and pounded on Matuszak’s chest until it started beating again.
That proved to be the final straw for Wiggin and the Chiefs.
After two years, nine total sacks, and a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown, Kansas City traded Matuszak to the Washington Redskins where he was cut before the 1976 season.
At that point, Matuszak’s NFL career looked like it was over.
He had burned bridges with two teams and developed a reputation as a hell-raiser with an addiction to painkillers.
“Painkillers are a way of life in the NFL,” Matuszak said once. “You sit out a game and your replacement could steal your job, so you play with the pain … which sometimes leads to even more injuries.”
He returned home to Wisconsin and considered trying to latch on with a Canadian Football team.
That’s when fate intervened.
“The Tooz” Signs with the Raiders
As the 1976 season began, the Oakland Raiders were having serious issues with injuries.
Three defensive linemen, Horace Jones, Tony Cline, and Art Tomas were all laid low.
That forced coach John Madden to switch to a 3-4 defensive scheme.
The scheme also meant that Madden would need another defensive end to make it work.
Owner Al Davis knew just who to contact and reached out to Matuszak.
The pairing couldn’t have been better.
Matuszak the malcontent was on a team known for malcontents.
It just so happened that Oakland had a talented roster as well.
That season, the Raiders boasted quarterback Ken Stabler, receivers Fred Biletnikoff and Cliff Branch, tight end Dave Casper, Art Shell and Gene Upshaw on the offensive line, and defenders Otis Sistrunk, Ted Hendricks, Phil Villapiano, George Atkinson, Willie Brown, and Jack Tatum.
As a precaution, Madden paired Matuszak with Stabler, apparently believing that someone nicknamed “the Snake” would be a good influence.
Nothing was off limits when Hank Jr., Ken Stabler, & John Matuszak were runnin together….. pic.twitter.com/n5MsxxZzL5
— PolyesterPalace (@PolyesterPalace) January 20, 2022
That turned out to be a bad idea as both men were significant party animals.
Not long after arriving, Matuszak declared Wednesdays as “Tooz-days” and enjoyed “enough parties for twenty people’s lives.”
In his biography, Stabler mentioned his roommate’s idea of fun as, “Crown [Royal] and [Quaaludes], the late supper of champions.”
Of course, all that “fun” got Matuszak in copious trouble as he frequently found himself in court for various offenses such as aggressive driving, careless driving, drunken driving, and possession of drugs.
Just as he was a hellion off the field, Matuszak was a devil on the gridiron.
The man who was once teased as a gawky beanpole in grade school was now a 6’8”, 280-pound menace who helped get the Raiders to a 13-1 record in ‘76.
December 26, 1976
AFC championship game
Raiders 24 -Steelers 7
Raiders defense were led by the likes of DE John Matuszak, DL Otis Sistrunk and LB Phil Villapiano. pic.twitter.com/gAjSGNpBHh
— AFL Godfather 🏴☠️👓🏈 (@NFLMAVERICK) December 26, 2020
Matuszak collected 9.5 sacks that season as Oakland defeated New England and Pittsburgh in the first two rounds of the playoffs before knocking out Minnesota 32-14 in Super Bowl XI.
Just like that, Matuszak went from unemployed to world champion in the span of one season.
Matuszak Gets Another Ring
For the next three years, Matuszak was a steady presence for the Raiders.
He started every game in 1977 and 1978 while getting 15 sacks and three fumble recoveries combined over both seasons.
After the ‘78 season, Madden stepped down due to burnout and would make his way to the broadcast booth to begin a second career.
Tom Flores took his place in 1979 as the Raiders went 9-7 and missed the postseason for the second straight year.
That same season, Matuszak was beset by injuries and was limited to two starts and one sack.
Gone but never forgotten, John Matuszak
Remembering The Tooz, Have a great Toozday!@Raiders @AK7682 @AmyTrask @SilverBlack2Day @denniss9117 @my2boys717 @serb_alexander @Truth_Serum1 @NFLMAVERICK @SensingerDarvin @ronzoni64 pic.twitter.com/bkfqOxrxWs
— Angel Rodriguez (@Angelrdz66) November 26, 2019
Then, in 1980, Oakland and Matuszak shined on the field as the Raiders went 11-5, beat Houston, Cleveland, and San Diego in the first three rounds of the playoffs and returned to the title game.
In Super Bowl XV, the Raiders defense limited Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski and his offense to 10 points in a decisive 27-10 win.
Matuszak had eight sacks that year, his best season since 1977.
Injuries Lead to Retirement
The following season, Matuszak started every game, but could only muster two sacks and a fumble recovery for 7-9 Oakland.
— Henry and Hudson (@LiberalHenry) October 25, 2019
He was suffering from crippling back spasms that pain killers couldn’t dampen.
Doctors finally diagnosed the spasms as a herniated disc and Matuszak spent the 1982 season rehabbing and resting.
He was scheduled to return again in 1983 when a freak accident led to him reinjuring himself to the point where he would need rehab again.
Not wanting to become a stereotype of a broken down athlete trying to stick around for one more shot at glory, Matuszak retired.
In nine seasons, the Tooz collected 48.5 sacks, seven fumble recoveries and one recovery for a score (the NFL did not keep track of tackles during Matuszak’s career).
He was also a two-time Super Bowl champion.
When he was a young boy, Matuszak saw the James Dean movie Rebel Without a Cause and thought it would be cool to become an actor.
That dream finally came to fruition while he was playing for the Raiders.
In 1979, Matuszak played O.W. Shaddock in the hit movie North Dallas Forty.
John Matuszak in North Dallas Forty has to be the greatest freakin' acting performance by an active professional athlete ever. The Tooz was the goods. pic.twitter.com/x7JAzm4YWT
— Steve Bulpett (@SteveBHoop) November 4, 2018
Critics loved Matuszak’s role and thought he brought authenticity to the football movie.
Matuszak then played a caveman in the 1981 movie Caveman which also starred Beatle Ringo Starr.
During his last season as a Raider, Matuszak got frisky and appeared nude in Playgirl magazine.
After retiring from the NFL, Matuszak started appearing in more television and movie roles.
Notably, he was seen in The Ice Pirates, Dukes of Hazzard, MASH, The A-Team, Miami Vice, One Man Force, and One Crazy Summer.
In the summer of 1985, the hit movie The Goonies was released in theaters.
Not many moviegoers realized it at the time, but the disfigured character “Sloth” was actually Matuszak in heavy makeup and fake facial features.
— Old School 80s (@OldSchool80s) October 25, 2018
Matuszak later revealed that the process for applying Sloth’s disfigured face took up to five hours to complete and he wasn’t allowed to leave the set.
The movie was a hit and helped launch the careers of Josh Brolin, Sean Astin, and Corey Feldman.
Matuszak stayed active in the television and movie business through the late 1980s.
While fully engrossed in the acting world, Matuszak wrote a book called Cruisin’ with the Tooz which was released in 1987 and detailed Matuszak’s life.
— Nica🖤🎧🎼 (@NicaLuv0) August 31, 2021
He continued to struggle with an addictive personality that he tried to reign in.
Several times Matuszak sought help for his drug and alcohol addiction only to relapse.
On June 17, 1989, Matuszak’s girlfriend called paramedics after he collapsed at home from what was later called a heart attack.
As the ambulance was en route to the hospital, Matuszak died. He was just 38 years old.
During his autopsy, it was revealed that Matuszak had a trace of cocaine in his system, but that his cause of death was an accidental overdose of the prescription drug, Darvocet.
Doctors also found that Matuszak was suffering from pneumonia and had an enlarged heart.
Darvocet was eventually banned by the FDA in 2010 for having dangerous side effects.
With his passing, friends and former teammates acknowledged Matuszak’s addiction but also noted his work with children.
For many years of his life, Matuszak avoided children as much as possible due to his brothers’ deaths when he was young.
As time went on, he warmed up to working with kids and even played Santa Claus at a children’s hospital while playing for Oakland.
That experience changed him and Matuszak began to spend a lot more time with youth charities.
The Raiders also made sure to share what Matuszak meant to their organization when he played.
″It was a very emotional moment when he retired because the team meant so much to him,″ recalled Flores. ″He identified with the Raiders more than anybody. He immediately became one of the guys. He was off-the-wall by nature, emotional and volatile. But a lot of that was just for effect.″