BALTIMORE — Ollie Matson was an Olympic sprinter, a Hall of Fame football player and a devout family man.
After scoring 63 touchdowns during a stellar 14-year NFL career, Matson struggled in retirement before dying in 2011 at age 80 of dementia complications.
He barely said a word during the final four years of his life.
Before that, in his 50s, Matson confused $100 bills with $10 bills, cleaned the family’s four cars every day, and fired up the grill at 6:30 in the morning.
“At first we thought it was kind of funny because we didn’t know it was because of all those concussions. Nobody knew,” his son, 60-year-old Ollie Jr., recalled this week. “We kind of laughed it off, but then it got a little worse.”
The elder Matson got lost driving home from Hollywood Park, a place he had been visiting for years, and abruptly gave up driving.
“As time went on you could see him slowing down cognitively,” Ollie Jr. said. “You could see the change in how the autographs were. He got a little sloppy. One of the last ones he did for me, he just put Ollie HOF. He forgot to put the 72 on it. You could see things were going down.”
The younger Matson believes the repeated blows to the head his dad received as a running back robbed the family of decades of good times.
“It was sad because you feel like you got cheated out of some of the best years of your life, not having your father,” he said. “I felt like we lost about 20 years of bonding and doing stuff.”
The Journal of the American Medical Association published a report this week that found chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, was diagnosed in 177 former players, or nearly 90 percent of brains studied. CTE, a debilitating brain disease that can cause a range of symptoms including memory loss, was found in the brains of 110 of 111 former NFL players.
Matson was among those 110 players, which came as no surprise to his son.
“He was one of the pioneers of the game,” Matson said of his father. “But CTE took its toll on him and his family.”
Matson won two medals as a sprinter in the 1952 Olympics before joining the NFL as a member of the Chicago Cardinals. He retired in 1966 and was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972.
Years later, at team reunions and Hall of Fame gatherings, the damage of playing the game became horrifyingly apparent.
“Back then, the guys had no idea they were going to meet their demise from the game they loved so much,” Matson said.
Like Matson, former Baltimore Colts tight end John Mackey died of complications from dementia. The wives of the two players often arranged events at which the stars of the 1950s and 1960s met to talk about the good old days.
“All the guys seemed to have the same symptoms,” Ollie Jr. said. “They were a little withdrawn, a little confused and started to slow down. They were doing things that were out of character. The only thing they had in common was that they all played football.”
It was tough on the players — and agonizing for their families.
“The NFL has been dragging their feet on this. People are going bankrupt,” Matson said. “It’s not how much money you make, it’s how much you end up with. We were paying $4,500 a month for my dad for care.”
The elder Matson was confined to a wheelchair for the final five years of his life, and during that time he rarely spoke.
“I’d come up there and he would say ‘Hi,'” Matson said. “And he would say, ‘Bye,’ when I left.”