To compete in the Olympic Games, an athlete has to be one of the best at his or her event not only in their nation but in the world.
It takes years of dedication and sacrifice to reach the highest levels of international sport.
Even then, it’s not a guarantee whether the athlete will succeed against other Olympic competitors.
That wasn’t the case for Ollie Matson.
Matson participated in the 1952 Olympic Games and medaled twice before beginning a career in pro football.
— David Nelson (@dtnelson) August 23, 2021
Other athletes in NFL history have competed in the Olympics before suiting up for a team.
However, very few of them were as successful as Matson.
Already a college star at the University of San Francisco, Matson joined the Chicago Cardinals in 1952 before becoming a key piece in a 1958 trade to the LA Rams for nine players.
Matson played through the 1966 season and retired as a seven-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowler.
Then in 1972, Matson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This is the story of the amazing life and career of Ollie Matson.
Raised in the Bay Area
Ollie Genoa Matson II was born May 1, 1930, in Trinity, Texas.
Hall of Famer Ollie Matson was born OTD in 1930. Hall of Fame Enshrinement Class of 1972. Won bronze and silver medals in track and field as a part of the U.S. Olympic Team in the 1952 Summer Olympics. pic.twitter.com/hMeJMzcHNF
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) May 1, 2018
His parents divorced when he was young, and Matson’s mother remarried a few years later.
The family, including Matson’s twin sister, then moved to San Francisco where Ollie played football for George Washington High School.
While starring for the Eagles as a halfback and end, Matson also took up track and field and soon found that he was talented in the sprint events and pole vault.
During his final year of high school, Matson achieved several athletic accomplishments.
In the fall of 1947, the senior dodged tacklers left and right while scoring an astounding 102 points in just seven games, setting a new league record and becoming an All-City running back selection.
“[Matson] gives every indication of being the hottest thing San Francisco high school football fans have seen in quite a spell,” San Francisco Chronicle reporter Don Selby wrote.
Then, in the spring of 1948, Matson set a national high school record in the 440-yard run with a time of 47.8 seconds and added a 100-yard dash time of 9.6 seconds.
He received an opportunity to try out for the U.S. Olympic team in the 440 but just missed the cut.
Matson Sticks Close to Home
After failing to make the Olympic team in 1948, Matson enrolled at San Francisco City College and joined the football team.
During his one year with the Rams, Matson became an All-American running back for undefeated SFCC.
The following year, Matson transferred to the University of San Francisco where he continued embarrassing opponents.
Matson & Toler transferred to USF & in 1951 they led the Dons to their best season ever. Although 9-0, their biggest win came in choosing not to accept an invite to a bowl game under the condition the team played without its two African-American players, Ollie Matson & Burl Toler pic.twitter.com/UWnMefJicu
— City College of San Francisco Football (@CCSFFootball) May 6, 2020
As a sophomore, Matson averaged 5.5 yards per carry as a human bulldozer, running through and over would-be tacklers.
“If you were around him, you’d never know he was one of the greatest athletes to come out of the city,” Matson’s nephew, Art Thompson said. “He didn’t carry himself that way.”
In his junior year, Matson suffered from injuries and was limited in his playing time.
Injuries couldn’t keep Matson down for long. His senior season in 1951 would be one for the ages.
As the Dons were thrashing teams left and right on the way to a perfect 9-0 record, Matson rushed for 1,566 yards, only four yards shy of the national record.
He also led the NCAA with 126 points (which included two 90+ yard kick return touchdowns against Fordham).
Matson was then curiously snubbed when he came in ninth in the Heisman Trophy vote, but he was named an All-American as a defensive back (where he also thrived).
“They weren’t ready for me,” said Matson. “But I’m not angry. Those were the days when we were growing up, so you have to take the bitter with the sweet. My days at USF were just beautiful.”
Even worse, no bowl committee in the country invited the Dons to play in a postseason game.
Remembering: 1951 San Francisco Dons. The Dons, 9-0, were led by the nation's leading rusher & scorer Ollie Matson (Photo). SF refused to accept the 1952 Orange Bowl bid because 2 African-American players were not invited. #CollegeFootball @elevenbravo138 @InsideHBCUFball pic.twitter.com/MYAzOiRt1J
— History of College Football (@HistColFootball) January 13, 2023
The reason was clear when a number of committees informed Coach Joe Kuharich that they would invite USF only if the team left Matson and fellow African American player Burl Toler home.
“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.”
From that moment on, the members of the 1951 Dons football team called themselves “undefeated, untied, and uninvited.”
“I think we were the best team of any college or university in the country that year,” Matson said in 2001. “It was just unfortunate we ran across all those situations.”
In 1976, voters finally recognized Matson for his USF career by inducting him into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Matson Competes in the 1952 Olympics
In the 1952 NFL Draft, the Chicago Cardinals selected Matson as the third overall pick in the first round.
Before suiting up for the Cards, however, Matson had some business to tend to.
While finishing up his college studies, Matson decided to make one last stab at competing in the Olympics.
“In the Olympics, you’re competing against the best there are,” he said. “It isn’t the Iowa State Fair. It’s the world championship.”
He hadn’t done much running (except for toting a football) during the previous three years, but Matson worked religiously at preparing to face the world’s best athletes.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Matson made the Olympic team and headed to Helsinki, Finland for the 1952 Games.
Did you know? Three members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame have competed and won medals in the Olympics. Jim Thorpe (1912 Summer Olympics), Ollie Matson (1952 Summer Olympics) and Bob Hayes (1964 Summer Olympics).#Olympics | #OlympicGames pic.twitter.com/3eqlLJyFdv
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) July 27, 2021
During the Games, Matson competed in two events: the 400-meter run and as a member of the 4×400 relay team.
Ollie finally realized his dreams of Olympic glory when he took a bronze medal in the 400 meters and finished with a silver medal in the relay event.
Matson then returned to the States to play in the College All-Star Game before making his way to Chicago.
Co-Rookie of the Year
Most mere mortals would be gassed after having competed in several high-profile sporting events within a few weeks.
Matson was not.
He reunited with his college coach, Joe Kuharich, who became the Cardinals’ coach after the USF program folded following the 1951 season.
In Matson’s second game as a pro, he scored twice, including a 100-yard kick return for a touchdown against the Chicago Bears.
Even though the Cards finished 1952 with a 4-8 record, Matson played as a running back, defensive back, punt and kick returner, and receiver.
— Amazed 💎 (@Amazed__You) December 23, 2013
As a rookie, Matson had 344 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns, 11 receptions for 187 yards and three more scores, nine punt returns for 86 yards, 20 kick returns for 624 yards, and an NFL-best two returns for touchdowns.
He was then named to the first of six Pro Bowls, the first of seven All-Pro teams, and was selected Co-Rookie of the Year with the San Francisco 49ers Hugh McElhenny.
Military Service and Return to Chicago
When his rookie year concluded, Matson reported to Fort Ord, California to do his part for the Korean War effort.
While he was in the Army, Matson stayed fresh by playing football and was selected as the MVP of the All-Army football team.
— Dan Daly (@dandalyonsports) February 27, 2017
Matson then returned to the Cardinals in time for the 1954 season. He racked up more than 1,000 yards combined rushing and receiving and seven total scores.
He also had over 500 combined punt and kick return yards and scored one touchdown each.
Matson continued putting up great numbers for the next few years including an NFL-best 245 punt return yards and two punt return scores in 1955.
That was followed up by a career-best 924 rushing yards and five touchdowns in 1956.
The 1956 season also happened to be the only decent record for the Cards (7-5) during Matson’s tenure with the organization.
“Figures do not show his true value,” Ray Richards, Chicago Cardinals’ coach from 1955 to 1957, said of Matson. “When he is in the lineup, somehow the whole team is inspired.”
Blockbuster Trade Sends Matson to LA
Unfortunately, Matson didn’t inspire his Cardinals teammates enough.
In each of his six years with Chicago, Matson was a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro.
He proved to be one of the few bright spots for the franchise as the Cards found winning a difficult task.
As Matson was starring for Chicago in 1957 and 1958, the team itself had a 5-18-1 record during that span.
Then, before the 1959 season, LA Rams general manager Pete Rozelle made a massive trade for Matson that involved nine players and included a draft pick and a player to be named later.
— Patrick Robles (@roblespan) February 25, 2016
Rozelle was a big fan of Matson’s as the two attended the University of San Francisco at the same time (Rozelle was a publicist for USF Athletics).
During Matson’s first year with the club, he tallied nearly 1,000 combined rushing and receiving yards along with six touchdowns on the ground.
He also added 367 kick return yards and was selected for his seventh, and final, All-Pro team.
Although Matson was a good draw for the organization, LA wasn’t much better with him, and a 2-2 start in 1959 turned into a 2-10 finish.
Matson Is Misused and Traded Again
After starting with a bang in Los Angeles, Matson was constantly moved from position to position by coach Bob Waterfield.
Between 1960 and 1962, he was shuffled between running back, tight end, full back, slot back, and defensive back.
— ᑭᖇO ᖴOOTᗷᗩᒪᒪ ᒍOᑌᖇᑎᗩᒪ 🏈 (@NFL_Journal) May 12, 2023
The results weren’t positive for either Matson or the Rams.
LA won nine games total during that period (including only one victory in 1962).
Matson had one decent season in 1961 when he had 718 combined yards and five total touchdowns.
Then, after four losing seasons in LA, Matson was traded to the Detroit Lions in 1963.
Detroit went 7-5-2 that year but rarely used Matson, who didn’t start a game and had a combined 40 yards total.
Trade to Philadelphia and Retirement
A year after not starting a single game for Detroit, Matson was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles where he was reunited with Coach Joe Kuharich.
The 1964 season would prove to be his last year of productive football. Matson started nine games and combined for 646 rushing and receiving yards and five total touchdowns for the 6-8 Eagles.
Ollie Matson had a late-career renaissance with the Eagles in the mid-1960’s, pictured here vs. the SLFC. @Ol_TimeFootball @NFL_Journal @nflpastplayers @BigRed_STL @FootballHistory @OleTimeHardball @BaxFootballGuru @ProFootballHOF pic.twitter.com/QB5kwAX49r
— Eagles Over the Years (@EaglesOrtheYear) August 24, 2022
Matson would start three games total in 1965 and 1966, although in ‘66 he was used primarily as a kick returner and had 544 return yards.
After the 1966 season, Matson retired.
In his career, Matson had 5,173 rushing yards and 40 rushing touchdowns, 222 receptions for 3,285 yards, and 23 receiving scores.
On special teams, he had 595 punt return yards and three punt return touchdowns along with 3,746 kick return yards and six more touchdowns.
Matson was a six-time Pro Bowler and seven-time All-Pro and would be selected to the NFL’s 1950s All-Decade Team and was later inducted into the Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame and the Arizona Cardinals Ring of Honor.
During his time as a pro football player, Matson never experienced the playoffs or a championship.
— ᑭᖇO ᖴOOTᗷᗩᒪᒪ ᒍOᑌᖇᑎᗩᒪ 🏈 (@NFL_Journal) August 5, 2017
In fact, he was on just two teams that had winning records.
“I had all the records,” he said, “but gee whiz, that didn’t mean anything to me. I wanted to be on a team where I could go to the championship. But my whole life, it seemed every team I’d get on that looked like it had a chance, it would go the other way.”
In 1972, just six years after his retirement, Matson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“The things I cherish most are the Olympic medals and the Hall of Fame,” Matson said at his induction. “It isn’t the Iowa State Fair. It’s the world championship. The Hall of Fame is the same. Think of the hundreds of thousands that have played football. Think of the thousands who have played pro football. And you’re one of 74 [at the time] who made it.”
Life after Retirement and Death from Dementia
After retiring, Matson stayed with the Eagles and scouted for the organization through 1968 before returning to Los Angeles.
He became a teacher and high school football coach in LA, and eventually, San Diego State University hired him to be the secondary coach.
Matson found his way back to LA and became the event supervisor for the Los Angeles Coliseum until his retirement in 1989.
By the mid-2000s, Matson began suffering from complications of dementia.
His family noted that he had begun forgetting people and places and doing odd things around the house such as washing his cars daily and barbecuing at 6:30 in the morning.
“At first, we thought it was kind of funny because we didn’t know it was because of all those concussions. Nobody knew,” his son, 60-year-old Ollie Jr., recalled in 2017. “We kind of laughed it off, but then it got a little worse.”
Doctors diagnosed Matson with early-stage dementia, and in his final years, he became bedridden and never spoke.
Then on February 19, 2011, Matson passed away at the age of 80 due to complications from dementia.
Ollie Matson, who played 14 seasons in the NFL after winning two medals in the Olympics, died at 80 and was unable to speak for the final four years of his life because of severe dementia, likely caused by CTE. 5/10https://t.co/jPGZrzJ4pp
— Conor Courtney (he/him) (@conor_courtney) November 5, 2020
His brain was studied and found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) which has plagued athletes who have played contact sports where concussions are plentiful.
Despite his passing, Matson’s family members remembered him during the good times.
“He was the best at everything,” nephew Art Thompson said. “He was the best at barbecue. We’d have pingpong tournaments growing up, he’d pop in and kill everybody. He was the man. He had a full and productive life. He always had a smile and a handshake. He was a warm and very friendly person. I’ve never seen him get angry. Never, ever.”