Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Game He Didn't Play

NFL Hall of Famer Ollie Matson died yesterday and, as John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle observes, he may have been "as well known for one game he did not play as for those he did."

Mind you, the games he did play between 1952 and 1966 were spectacular enough — or so I've heard. I was a mere child when he retired. I hadn't even begun collecting football cards yet (that was something I probably started doing in the third or fourth grade).

He won a couple of medals at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, then he embarked on a pro football career that included six Pro Bowl selections, seven All–Pro selections and being named to the 1950s All–Decade Team by the voters of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

So what about that game he did not play?

Well, in 1951, Matson was part of the University of San Francisco's football team. It was a good team. Some say it was the best ever. But San Francisco, as Crumpacker writes, "was snubbed by postseason bowls, apparently because two of its players — Mr. Matson and Burl Toler — were black."

If that sounds improbable to 21st century ears, it should be noted that this was in the middle of the 20th century. Integration was happening slowly in professional sports — and even more slowly in collegiate athletics. Most of the postseason bowls at that time were played in the American South, and most Southern colleges and universities would not start fielding black athletes for a couple of decades.

Heck, most of those schools had no black students at that time — let alone student–athletes.

Any of the bowls would have been happy to invite San Francisco to come and play. Any of the nearby hotels would have been pleased to accommodate the members of the team and their coaches. Any of the restaurants in the area would have been thrilled to serve breakfast, lunch and/or supper to anyone on the team.

As long as the two black players didn't come along.

The rest of the San Francisco football team wasn't going to go along with that.

Attitudes were decidedly different, but things really started to change in the 1950s — just not fast enough for Matson and Toler to enjoy a reward for their achievements on the college gridiron in 1951.

They say Matson suffered from dementia for several years before his death yesterday.

You could say that the bowls suffered from society–induced dementia half a century ago.

Fortunately, the bowls got better.

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