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THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE TOOZ : Menacing Body Held Spirit of Insecure, Guilt-Ridden Child

July 09, 1989|MARK HEISLER | Times Staff Writer

He was the best of times, he was the worst of times. . . .

There were always two of him: The Tooz, a raging, running-on-premium-and-lots-of-it, havoc-wreaking monster; and John Matuszak, a 6-foot-8, 280-pound puppy dog just begging for you to pat him on the head.

The people who knew him by day adored him, remember him for his gentleness, his consideration, his unfailing kindness. The people who saw him out on the town on one of those nights didn't soon forget it.

He could wipe himself out and take a tavern down with him (or his car, or someone else's car plus the attending peace officers), and joke about it later for interviewers. You cruised with the Tooz, you couldn't lose but you might get bruised, etc. The press was a partner in a mutual endeavor, the propagation of Tooz's legend, and he was nothing if not diligent in its service.

And it was his undoing.

Beset by fears he couldn't acknowledge, his body weakened by years of abuse, his path long since hardened into a superhighway to hell, Matuszak suffered massive heart failure in his North Hollywood home on the evening of June 17 and died at age 38. He had created the Tooz as a mighty fortress to hide in, but he got trapped in there.

There has been some attempt to put a last gentle Hollywood glow on his life, to suggest he'd numbed himself out because of the pain of football injuries, but it's sadder than that.

His is a harrowing story of addiction to alcohol, cocaine and prescription drugs. His final years were marked by a futile series of efforts to kick the addictions. He started detox programs at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and at Beverly Hills Medical Center in 1985 and 1986, and left early both times. His long-time fiance, Stephanie Cozart, called off their wedding in 1986 and broke up with him in 1988. After his death, the autopsy found cocaine in his urine, although the coroner's office said it hadn't contributed to his death.

In his last months, he was still being seen out on the town, still capable of sudden violence.

One April day in the Raider training room in El Segundo, he punctuated a routine laughing, kidding argument with assistant coach Terry Robiskie, a former teammate, by suddenly slapping Robiskie's face, then grabbing him and shaking him.

Robiskie, seven inches shorterand 70 pounds lighter, then grabbed a metal crutch and broke it over Matuszak. The training room was crowded, and it took several players to pull them apart.

Neither was seriously hurt. The Raiders treated it as merely another Tooz flip-out. The broken crutch was mounted on the training room wall with a sign: " 'Biskie's Tooz Pick."

Robiskie won't comment, but Cozart, who remained friendly with Matuszak, says John told her about it. The amazing thing, she says, is that he said that it had been his fault, something he'd never said before about similar situations.

In this game, however, it was too late for comebacks.

He was already deep into the fourth quarter, but nobody knew it.


There were things in his life that he would lie to other people about. I would tell him, "The day you stop lying to other people and to yourself, you've made a big step." (He'd say the incidents) were always the other person's fault. It was never his fault. And it never had anything to do with the fact that he was high. --STEPHANIE COZART

Everyone laughed.

For years and years, Matuszak's adventures were romanticized. He became a personality.

He got into the movies and television. He wrote his autobiography. The blurb on the jacket cover announces:

"It's all here. The booze. The parties. The broads. The out-of-control substances. The brawls. Don't miss your chance to go 'Cruisin' with the Tooz!' "

In HBO's "First and Ten," they had his character, a burned-out veteran, drop dead of a heart attack.

Born in Milwaukee, he was the only surviving son of Marv and Audrey Matuszak. One brother died at birth of cystic fibrosis; his other brother lived two years before dying of the same disease. A sister, Dawn, has it, too, but has survived.

He always felt cut off. In his book, he describes the move from downtown Milwaukee to the outlying village of Oak Creek as wrenching. He'd go home crying to his mother when schoolmates ridiculed him as a gawky beanpole.

His destiny, however, would be anything but quiet desperation. He became an athlete and his huge body became the badge of his pride.

The Tooz, almost a mirror opposite to the gentle John, was emerging, to guard him from ridicule and avenge the many slights he felt.

In his sophomore year at the University of Missouri, where he was a reserve tight end, he caved in a student's face while drunk at a fraternity party. He said the student had fondled his date and that he hadn't meant to hit him so hard. His scholarship was revoked.

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