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The Tooz Couldn't Scare Away Death

MIKE DOWNEY

June 19, 1989|MIKE DOWNEY

Death should have feared John Matuszak. The other way around makes no sense. When the Grim Reaper came by to touch the Tooz on the shoulder Saturday night, the big guy should have sprung from his bed, ripped open his hospital gown from the neck down, roared like a primal beast and then poured the two of them a drink. He should have scared Death to death.

When you consider how many times John Matuszak teased eternity before, toying with alcohol and Quaaludes and guns the way he did, working hard and playing harder, it is a wonder that he lived as long as he did. Yet, that's the Tooz for you; he was a wonder. He was large and furry and ferocious, practically a centaur of a man, but there was a wonderful puppy dog playfulness about him, a wagging tail and eager pant, that makes his passing all the sadder.

It was more than a decade ago that Coach Paul Wiggin of the Kansas City Chiefs had to pound on the Tooz's chest with his fists, had to watch this 6-foot-8, 300-pound manchild be strapped into a straitjacket and hauled away in an ambulance after an overload of Valium and booze. In certain ways, John Matuszak was dying to die. His big old heart gave out because it just couldn't keep up with him.

Still, no way do you cut down a sequoia, and no way does it stand to reason that a man of John Matuszak's spirit and structure could be felled after only 38 years. The Tooz lived longer and stronger in his hitch on the mortal coil than many do in twice the time, and he seemed somehow indestructible, even though other men his age have continued to excel at athletics. If nothing else, at least we can now remember John Matuszak forever young.

The playing, the partying, the posturing, oh, the way this man lived. He liked to sneak up behind unsuspecting women and hoist them onto his shoulder, like an adagio dancer. One night in San Francisco, the Tooz literally picked up a pair, carried them toward a nearby bar--and forgot to measure the maximum headroom, knocking the poor things into the transom.

"You big dumbo! Couldn't you see we wouldn't fit?" one of the women yelled.

"I'm sorry," said the Tooz, "but, hey, you got to play with the small hurts, as Vince Lombardi used to say."

He would get away with stunts like that, because he could. No one scolded the Tooz, either because of that happy-go-lucky charm of his that guaranteed forgiveness, or because it would have been like scolding Godzilla for stepping on all those trains. John Matuszak simply couldn't help himself. He was what he was. Either you accepted it, or you waited until he went away before breathing easy. All we can say is, if you knew him, you probably liked him.

Absolutely, the Tooz was out of control at times, no doubt about it. In college, at Tampa, Fla., he busted a fellow football player in the chops with an elbow during a game of pickup basketball, which eventually cost him $65,000 in medical and legal fees. Later, in that block-long Lincoln Continental of his that stored so many of his worldly goods, Matuszak occasionally stashed the machete or the Magnum handgun that he bought on whims.

One night outside Oakland, Kenny Stabler had to pay his roomie's bail, because the Tooz had been weaving all over the freeway, shooting at roadside signs. When the quarterback got to the jail, he found Matuszak standing outside a cell, wearing only three things: handcuffs, his Super Bowl ring and a pair of powder-blue, elephant-skin cowboy boots.

"That's my roommate," Stabler said. "I'd recognize him anywhere."

He was hell on wheels, the Tooz was. At the core of his astonishing physique and undeniable football-playing ability was the fire of rebellion. Coaches knew no way of controlling him. George Allen turned him loose in Washington after two weeks. Wiggin watched him nearly kill himself. John Madden fined him repeatedly for typical training-camp violations, like having a woman in his room, but, seeing as how these were the Raiders, generally the money went toward an end-of-the-year team party.

The most publicized infraction of the Tooz's playing career came before Super Bowl XV between Oakland and the Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans. Soon as he hit town, Matuszak proclaimed himself gatekeeper and sergeant-at-arms. "I'm going to see that there's no funny business," he said. "I've had enough parties for 20 people's lifetimes. I've grown up. I'll keep our young fellows out of trouble. If any players want to stray, they gotta go through ol' Tooz."

Next night, ol' Tooz was dancing with another player's wife at 1 a.m., and two hours later, he was still as lit up as the entire French Quarter. Come morning, Raider Coach Tom Flores slapped him with the obligatory $1,000 fine. Far more offended was the coach of the opposition, straight arrow Dick Vermeil, who said in a huff: "If he was an Eagle, he'd be on a flight back to Philadelphia, right now!"

Matuszak nearly busted a gut, laughing.

"Why would anybody want to go to Philadelphia in the winter?" responded the Tooz.

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