Monday, July 7, 2008

John "The Tooz" Matuszak, 7/5/73

John Matuszak, one of the most renowned and colorful football players to ever suit up for the University of Tampa, stood larger than life. A mountain of a man at 6-foot-8 and nearly 280 pounds, “The Tooz” menaced opposing offensive lineman and terrorized quarterbacks throughout his illustrious playing career.

Even among aficionados of Tampa football, it is sometimes forgotten that Matuszak did not begin his college football career as a Spartan. Matuszak spent his first season playing for Fort Dodge Junior College in Iowa before transferring to the University of Missouri.

Matuszak left Missouri after his sophomore season and finally found a home with the Spartans in time for the 1971 season. He called the University of Tampa “the best school I could find at the time,” and said that he “wanted to go someplace where I could play right away and also that had a good caliber program.” In 1972, Matuszak registered 64 tackles as a defensive lineman and sparked the Spartans to a 10-2 record.

To cap the season and his collegiate career, the Spartans won their first major bowl game, a 21-18 triumph over Kent State in the Tangerine Bowl. Despite a legendary temper and a well-known reputation for brawling on and off the field, Matuszak's gridiron talent earned him All-America honors and propelled him to the head of the National Football League’s draft class of 1973.


The Houston Oilers thought so highly of Matuszak, in fact, that they selected him with the first overall pick of the 1973 entry draft. On July 5, 1973, as Tampa moviegoers prepared for the local debut of "Shaft in Africa," the Oilers readied themselves for the debut of “The Tooz” in Houston by signing Matuszak to a four-year contract worth nearly $175,000. At the time, his contract was the largest-ever deal for a rookie defensive lineman.

The ensuing weeks proved to be a harbinger of the notoriety Matuszak would attract throughout his career. Before playing his first game in the NFL, “The Tooz” would make the cover of one magazine (Sports Illustrated), and be named to the All-Rookie Pre-Season Team of another (Playboy). Controversy soon followed as Matuszak signed a deal to play for the Houston Texans of the World Football League in their inaugural season of 1974. A court-order barred him from playing for both teams, but the Oilers were sufficiently disgusted with Matuszak to trade him to the Kansas City Chiefs after just one season.

After two seasons in Kansas City, Matuszak wound up as a member of the Oakland Raiders in 1976. Brash and intimidating, hard-playing and even harder-partying, Matuszak was a perfect fit for the Raiders, long-considered the renegade organization of professional football.

Matuszak played a major part in the team’s success during the 1976 season, helping the Raiders to a 13-1 record and a 32-14 triumph over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI.

He won another championship with the Raiders after the 1980 season, as Oakland became the first wild card team to win the Super Bowl, a 27-10 romp over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV. After six years with the Raiders, Matuszak retired from football after the 1981 season to pursue a career in show business.

"The Tooz" made a splash almost immediately, posing nude in the December 1982 issue of Playgirl magazine. He earned film roles and guest-starring appearances on television shows as rough-and-tumble characters, and he parlayed his wild-and-crazy persona into a part on the long-running HBO football comedy, “1st and Ten.”

The role of his career, however, came in the 1985 hit "The Goonies." In the film, he portrayed Sloth, a deformed but gentle giant who loved Baby Ruth candy bars and Rocky Road ice cream. In real life, however, Matuszak’s love of drugs and alcohol helped contribute to his untimely death just four years later at the age of 38.

On June 17, 1989, Matuszak passed away from heart failure at his home in Burbank, Calif. The Los Angeles County coroner reported that Matuszak died from an overdose of a mild narcotic painkiller, but that pneumonia and an enlarged heart were contributing factors as well.

While his pro career may have failed to live up to the expectations that accompany No. 1 draft picks, “The Tooz” remains a giant in Tampa sports history. Enshrined in the University of Tampa Hall of Fame in 1983, and one of only three players from a Florida school to be chosen first overall in the NFL draft, Matuszak is perhaps, in the words of former Spartan teammate Eddie Caldwell, “The most well-known individual to come out of the University of Tampa. Ever.”

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