A Wife's-Eye View of One of Football's Most Dramatic Substitutions.
By Judy Matte
Spokane, WA Spokemans-Review
January 7, 1967
From now on, any time I watch a National Football League Playoff Bowl game, my memories will be sure to get the better of me. There's even a chance I'll end up crying.
Because, I'll be thinking of the 1966 Playoff Bowl and of a day, four weeks earlier, when I cried for the only time in my long career as a football wife.
That was when I sat in the stands between Jan Braase and Lorraine Sullivan, fellow wives of the Baltimore Colts, watching our husbands battling Green Bay for first place in the National Football League's western division. Suddenly Lorraine grabbed my arm- "Gary's hurt! Tom's going at quarterback! What are we going to do?"
Tom was my Tom, a substitute halfback ordinarily, a quarterback less than a week. I didn't know what we were going to do, but I know what I did. I burst into tears.
I should have been ashamed of myself. Ever since we began dating in Cleveland, I'd watched Tom Matte play high-school, college and pro ball, I'd winced but stood up under the shock of seeing him go down under some 270 pound tackle. I'd learned my muscular, 215-pound husband can take care of himself- as he'd done in track and hockey as well as football, as his decathlon-champ Grandpa and hockey-playing Dad had done before him.
But this day- December 12, 1965- was different. Tom, in the toughest job in pro football, against the toughest team in the game- it was a bad joke that- right then- turned into a nightmare
The bad joke started the week before when Johnny Unitas, the Colts' great passer, was sidelined for the season. So what? Gary Cuozzo, our other quarterback, was perhaps the best bench-warmer in pro ball. He could take the Colts the rest of the way. Nobody dared wonder what would happen if Gary got hurt- there was no sub for him,
Nobody, that is, except coach Don Shula who, with a championship at stake, remembered Tom had played quarterback at Ohio State and kicked off the most exciting five weeks of my life.
I couldn't believe it. "You're not a passer," I told Tom. "Even at State you were a running quarterback. And you've never even practiced there for the Colts. They'll make a door-Matte out of you."
"I know," he said. "But I'll still be running for my life!"
Big joke- right up to the middle of the Packers game, when Gary got hurt, and Lorraine grabbed my arm and got splattered with tears for her pains.
Green Bay won 42-27 that day- Tom was only in for seven blurred (to me) plays before Gary came back and now the Packers were half a game ahead of us with only one game to go. We weren't dead yet- if we beat Los Angeles and Green Bay lost to San Francisco, we'd be back on top.
And we still had Gary- or we thought we did. The next day, an hour after he left for the training room to get a bruised knee treated, Tom phoned me. "I just saw Gary in the parking lot," he said. "He's got a separated shoulder. They're going to operate. Guess who's playing quarterback against the Rams?"
Telegrams . . . phone calls . . . began pouring in from all over the country. Everybody likes to see the underdog come through- but this looked like no contest. It takes years to turn even a first-class college prospect into a championship pro quarterback, and now Tom, a second-string running halfback, had to do it in less than a week. Impossible!
But Don Shula believed in Tom and- no more tears- so did I. I knew Tom had become a quarterback at Ohio State in much the same fictional fashion. He'd tried out there during spring practice as a junior, but fumbled himself back to halfback. Then, at half time in the opening game, coach Woody Hayes suddenly sent him in to play quarterback- and Tom threw a pass to win the game
We tackled the Colts' job as a team. Tom brought home films to study the Los Angeles defenses. Though I didn't know a doo-dad from a hitch-and-do, I studied them, too. He'd jot down what defense he thought they'd use on the next play; then we'd run the film and see how well he'd guessed. He had a lot of them wrong. Rewind . . . re-run . . . guess again.
Meanwhile, coach Shula was revamping the whole Colts' offense- throwing out fancy pass plays, putting in roll-outs and option passes- to slant the attack from Unitas' talents to Matte's.
If Tom was worried, he didn't show it. All he said was, "We've got nothing to lose. Nobody expects us to win." When he came down with the flu the night before the Colts left for the coast, he ignored it. Ditto with his ulcer (oh yes, he's got one; years before, he'd lost 4 1/2 pints of blood when it perforated). But I worried. At the airport, when I handed him his suitcase, I gave him a waste-paper basket, too- incase he got sick on the plane!
Tom and the Colts surprised everybody. They beat the Rams 20-17. Tom ran for 99 yards in 16 tries, and completed 2 of only 4 passes. The sportswriters began calling the Colts the gamest team in pro history and Tom became "Super Sub" and "Instant Quarterback." They went even wilder the next day after the '49er's rose up and tied Green Bay. We were still alive! The Colts and Packers had to playoff for the Western crown the day after Christmas.
That has to be one of the great games in football history. The Colts fought their hearts out against the highly favored Packers- and almost won. They jumped to a 7-0 lead and held it till the final quarter. Then the Packers kicked a disputed field goal for a 10-10 tie (ED NOTE: that field goal, movies showed afterward, was probably wide of the goal posts). Not till 14 minutes of the "sudden death" overtime were gone did Green Bay kick another held goal to win 13-10.
We were in second place- by that much- but I never was prouder of my husband than I was that night. He'd scrambled like a real champion, passing for only 40 yards but running for 57. He got off the plane dog-tired, but his head was high.
Second place brought one consolation. We got to meet Dallas, Eastern runner-up team, in the Playoff Bowl at Miami. The Miami trip was a real family fun kind of thing. A lot of the players and coaches took their children. Coach Shula only worked the team in the mornings. Tom played golf every afternoon all week.
In the hotel the night before the game, I helped Tom make up a "crib sheet" of Colt plays to wear on his wrist band, We kept running out of room- that silly little job should have taken 15 minutes but it took two hours! (The wrist band is now in the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.)
For the first time, Tom was really nervous. He was afraid that Dallas, by now, would be wise to the limited attack Shula had designed for him. And he knew the Cowboys, who had never gotten as far as a Playoff Bowl, would be "up"- while the Colts, champions in the past, might regard a battle between second-placers as an anticlimax.
The Dallas team stayed at the hotel next to ours and, as they got on the bus to go to the Orange Bowl, their band was playing fight songs. Tom kind of gulped. So did a lot of our other players.
As it turned out, the Cowboys' fight was mostly in the songs. The Colts won, 35-3, and Tom had his greatest game ever at quarterback. He threw two touchdown passes and was voted the game's Most Valuable Player. And he promptly quit his month-old job. Today he's a halfback again, where he knows he belongs.
The pressure was over. That night a big crowd of players and their wives went out to dinner. And while we were dancing, Tom said something I'll never forget. He said some people think the pros play football just for the money- and that's not true.
He said the reason the Colts hung together in the face of such overwhelming odds was that they had pride in themselves and in their team. The same kind of pride they'd had in college. So you can bet the Most Valuable Player in this year's Playoff Bowl will consider the award something more than just salary talk.
I say that with more than a little pride of my own. After all, how many girls are married to a hero of one of football's most dramatic battles against "impossible" odds?