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A real American hero

Mathias was humble, untainted all-around great

Posted: Tuesday September 5, 2006 2:50PM; Updated: Tuesday September 5, 2006 6:20PM
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Successful, handsome and famous before the era of lucrative shoe deals, Mathias retired at age 21 and joined the Marines.
Successful, handsome and famous before the era of lucrative shoe deals, Mathias retired at age 21 and joined the Marines.
Courtesy of Time Magazine
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About a year ago, the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association was asked for nominations to determine America's best natural athlete. More than 600 of us responded to the query, and the top 10 vote-getters, in alphabetical order, were Muhammad Ali, Lance Armstrong, Jim Brown, Wilt Chamberlain, Babe Didrickson-Zaharias, Bo Jackson, Michael Jordan, Jesse Owens, Deion Sanders and Jim Thorpe.

Nothing against any of those individuals, but one name high on my list was conspicuously absent from the final nominees: Bob Mathias.

Mathias passed away on Saturday at the age of 75, and if you're too young to have heard of him, rest assured he was as great a natural athlete as this country has ever seen. He was the first man and is still the only American to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the decathlon, which he did in 1948 and 1952. Designed to combine the elements of skill, speed, strength, and endurance, the decathlon had been traditionally dominated by mature, experienced competitors. Mathias had won both of his gold medals, and had played fullback for Stanford's 1952 Rose Bowl team, by the time he was 21.

He was The Natural. Standing 6-foot-3 and weighing a lean 190 pounds, Mathias had never even competed in a decathlon before 1948. He was a high school football, basketball and track star in Tulare, Calif., and had finished first some 40 times in various track and field events: the discus (his best event), shot put, high hurdles, high jump and sprints. But Mathias had never thrown the javelin or tried the pole vault, nor competed in the long jump or 1,500-meter run. But in the spring of '48, when his track coach, Virgil Jackson, suggested that he enter the decathlon in the Southern Pacific AAU Games in Los Angeles, Mathias agreed to give it a go.

After only three weeks of preparation, he won. His form wasn't textbook -- the columnist Jim Murray once wrote that Mathias gripped the javelin "like a guy killing a chicken" -- but he had enough raw talent to best his fellow competitors. Then the 17-year-old schoolboy shocked the track establishment by going to the Olympic trials in New Jersey and, in only his second decathlon competition, beating the three-time national champion, Irving Mondschein.

From there it was off to London for the 1948 Olympic Games, where, in cold and rainy conditions, the unknown Mathias, when he wasn't huddling beneath a blanket for warmth, beat the world's best in only his third decathlon. If there were ever a kid who fell off the haywagon and landed on the podium at Olympus, Mathias was he.

Imagine it: wearing the crown of "World's Greatest Athlete" -- which the King of Sweden had called decathlete champ Jim Thorpe in 1912 -- at 17. Imagine what kind of loot Nike or Adidas would throw at a kid who did that today. But for Mathias, it was back to school, then on to Stanford, where he played fullback for two years. Mathias helped the team gain a berth in the 1952 Rose Bowl with two fourth-quarter touchdowns against USC, one a 96-yard kickoff return, in a 27-20 win before a crowd of 96,130 fans at the Los Angeles Coliseum. (He was drafted by the Washington Redskins, but never signed.)