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One rainy fall afternoon in Philadelphia only 18 years ago, the Brooklyn and Philadelphia professional football teams played to a capacity press box and empty stands. The few spectators at Municipal Stadium had left the 100,000 seats bare to the downpour and retired to the press box to watch the game in lonesome, dry comfort. Bert Bell was the coach of the Philadelphia team—and the business manager and ticket seller and ad salesman for the program. He had little success in any of his ventures.
"Our total home gate was around $60,000," Bell said the other day. He now earns nearly that much each year ($40,000) as commissioner of the National Football League; the Eagles are still having trouble making money, but only the Chicago Cardinals share this fiscal discomfort. The rest of the teams in the booming National Football League showed a net income before taxes in 1956 ranging from $237,483 (the Detroit Lions) to $24,009 (the Pittsburgh Steelers). And 1957 may see the two losers in the black; season ticket sales over the league reached $1,300,000 plus for this fall. As an indication of the burgeoning growth of this exciting game, total gate receipts for the league in 1945 were only $1,270,401.
"The player draft made the difference," Bell said in his gravelly voice the other day. He is a short, round man, little given to diplomacy or soft talk, and his rough hand on the reins, as much as any one thing, has kept the NFL prospering. "Back in 1936 when I had the Eagles, you had to bid against the rich clubs for players. From 1933 to 1945, for instance, the Big Four—the Washington Redskins, Chicago Bears, New York Giants and Green Bay Packers-won 252 games and lost only 59 against the rest of the teams in the league. In 1936 we started the draft, and by the time the talent was equalized, the whole picture changed. From 1946 through 1956, the same four teams won 133 and lost 136 against the rest of the league. That's why people come out to see the pros play—they know a game between any two teams in the league can go either way easily."
As the pros head into what will probably be the most successful season in league history, no team lacks for good football players. Indeed, each team has 35 (the league limit) of the best players in football; the difference between the champion and the last-place team in each division is the number of great players on the squad. The players shown in color on the next four pages are the kind who make the vital transformation of a good team into a great one; the crunching running of a big, fleet fullback like the Bears' Rick Casares, the unbelievably accurate passing and adept faking of quarterbacks like Bobby Layne and Norman Van Brocklin, the graceful, elusive galloping runs of a Hugh McElhenny or the all-round brilliance of a Frank Gifford—these are the things which lift a good team out of mere competence into the realm of greatness. Bell's advocacy of the draft—allowing the lowest team in winning percentage each year first choice of the college players available—has given every one of the 12 teams in the National Football League the opportunity to stock itself with as many of the great players as it is wise enough to select. Every team has one or two; the teams which win the championships of the Eastern and Western Conferences and meet for the world championship in December will have five or six.
Professional football is, incomparably, a game of skill. The lowliest guard on the last-place team in either division is a skillful player. The players whose pictures are on the following pages are, in their field, as skillful as a National Open golf champion or a Wimbledon winner. They are all magnificent physical specimens, as well. They have courage and cool determination under fire; the lowly guard has that, too, or he would not be playing professional football.
For this is no easy life. It requires abnegation, and, as one end coach in the National Football League pointed out in explaining the requirements of his job to a rookie offensive end, "a willing disregard for the consequences." From here on, in many ways, this might be the story of any one of the players on the next four pages; it happens to be the story of the player on this week's cover. He is Ollie Matson, Olympic medal winner, ex-Little All-America and now possibly the best broken-field runner in professional football.
Ollie Genoa Matson's father was a railroad man, but he left Ollie and his mother when the second world war started and never came back. Ollie was raised in Trinity Texas, a small town in the hot South. He lived there with his mother until he was 11 years old, playing football with a tin can in the streets. His mother was a teacher and then she had a nursery school for a while and the family finally went to Houston, where Ollie played football at the all-Negro Jack Yates High School. He was an end for a couple of days, but the coach liked the way he ran with the ball and he played halfback after that for a year. Then the family moved on again, this time to San Francisco, and Ollie played high school football there.
"I made all-city my senior year," he said the other day. He is a big man who looks as if he were carved out of ironwood. His face is quiet and his eyes are oddly mild and he speaks softly. "I don't remember now just exactly how many touchdowns I scored my senior year, but I set some kind of record. I loved to play football, man. I used to go out on Sunday and play in my Sunday clothes and get them all dirty, but my mother never became angry with me at all. She encouraged me to play if I loved it."
Matson had offers from Oregon, Nevada, UCLA, St. Mary's and the University of San Francisco when he graduated from high school. He played instead for a year at City College in San Francisco because he needed to make up a credit in foreign language before he could enter college. He made the Little All-America squad at City College and then went on to San Francisco. Matson is a Catholic and leaned toward a Catholic school, anyway.
In his senior year at San Francisco, he scored "21 or 22 touchdowns (I can't remember these figures so well)" and set ground-gaining records. He was drafted by the Chicago Cardinals, which were then coached by the former USF coach, Joe Kuharich.