Honor the Heroes of the Game, Preserve Its History, Promote its Values & Celebrate Excellence Everywhere
Jon Kendle is Director of Archives and Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His biweekly columns tell unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton in 1920 to the present day.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame opened its doors on Sept. 7, 1963. Since that time, only 310 of the greatest men to ever play, coach or administer the game at the professional level have been enshrined into the most exclusive club in all of sports. However, digging through the archives at the Ralph Wilson, Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center reveals that only three with bronzed busts in Canton also have competed in an Olympics. The distinguished list includes the great running back Ollie Matson along with Jim Thorpe and Bob Hayes.
The commitment, integrity, courage, respect and excellence Matson, Thorpe and Hayes showcased on the gridiron were also on display when competing in track and field. All three of football greats earned Olympic medals. Thorpe won gold medals in the Decathlon and Pentathlon during the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden. Hayes took home gold in both the 100 meters and 400 relay during the 1964 games in Tokyo, Japan.
Matson captured a bronze medal in the 400 meters and a silver medal in the 1,600 relay in the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland.
One of the most versatile players to ever put on a football uniform, Matson ran for more than 3,000 yards and established himself as one of the top football players in America during his three seasons starting at the University of San Francisco. While at USF, he joined two other future Pro Football Hall of Famers, Gino Marchetti and Bob St. Clair, to form one of the best college teams “no one remembers.” The 1951 USF Dons went undefeated and untied, but unfortunately never received an invite to a bowl game. Word circulated that the Dons might be invited to play in the Orange Bowl. However, if an invitation were issued, it would be extended only to the team’s white players, excluding Matson and Burl Toler, because of the color of their skin. The Dons showed their character and remained united and committed to one another by staying home on New Year’s Day.
“We were shocked,” St. Clair said. “We didn’t even vote on such a stupid request.”
By 1952, Matson entered the NFL draft and was chosen No. 1 overall by the Chicago Cardinals. However, he had already sat out all the All-Star games that offseason in order to protect his amateur status and had no intention of reporting to the Cardinals until after the`52 Olympic Games.
His hope was to be added to the United States Olympic track squad and that goal was obtained when he was selected to participate in the 400 and the 1,600 relay. Looking back on his experience Matson explained, “At Helsinki, my main advantage was strength. The Olympics test your ability to hold up over a three-day period. By the time the final came around, I still had my strength and my 9-foot stride.”
The 400 final was a highly competitive event with two Jamaicans, George Rhoden and Herb McKenley, finishing first and second, respectively. Down the home stretch a third Jamaican, Arthur Wint, who had been the pre-Olympic favorite, was held off by Matson who captured the bronze with a time 46.8 seconds. Matson later ran the lead leg of the 1,600 relay, helping the USA team earn the silver medal by placing second behind Jamaica’s world-record performance.
The closing ceremonies were the following day, but Matson didn’t have time to stick around and enjoy his accomplishments. He boarded a flight and was on his way to Chicago for the Chicago All-Star Game where he’d be playing defense against the Los Angeles Rams’ Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch.
After Matson returned home, his focus returned to football which his Cardinals coach Joe Kuharich, who also coached him at the University of San Francisco, was glad to see.
“He is the best all-around player I’ve ever seen or coached,” Kuharich said. “Just consider his talents. No one can match his speed. Yet his power is as sharp as that of any plunging fullback. He is not Mr. Outside or Mr. Inside. He is Mr. Allsides and Mr. Everywhere. Add to this his blocking, his pass protection and terrific defensive work and you have something that’s never been duplicated in a generation.”
Matson enjoyed a spectacular rookie season with the Cardinals. Then military service interrupted his career for a year but, once back in a football uniform, Matson earned first- or second-team All-NFL honors six times and was selected to play in six Pro Bowls during 14 pro seasons. While Matson’s prowess on the football field has been highlighted with good reason throughout the years, his overall athletic abilities and the strong character he possessed allowed him to transcend the gridiron.