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Tom Matte, former Baltimore Colt who starred in NFL playoffs as running back and emergency quarterback, dies

Fifty-three years ago, running back Tom Matte corralled his Baltimore Colts teammates as they readied for the 1968 NFL championship game against the Browns in Cleveland.

“I’m going home Sunday,” said Mr. Matte, a Cleveland native, “so don’t you SOBs embarrass me out there.”

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Forewarned, the Colts won, 34-0, as the prodigal son scored three touchdowns.

“We played a near-perfect game,” said Dan Sullivan, the right guard. “And every time Matte scored, he ran straight to the stands and shook hands with the fans.”

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Mr. Matte, who played 12 years in Baltimore and adopted the city as his own, died of complications from leukemia Tuesday at his home in Ruxton. He was 82.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh noted that his mother, the former Jackie Cipiti, and Mr. Matte attended Shaw High School in East Cleveland, Ohio, at the same time, and that his parents and Mr. Matte and his wife, Judy, have been friends since.

“So when we came to town, one of the first people to welcome us were Tom and Judy Matte,” Mr. Harbaugh said. “We went out to dinner, and he was just a larger-than-life personality, and he’s the best. We love him, we love the Mattes, and we know that he’s a man of faith. He’s with his Maker right now, and condolences to their family.”

Veteran Fox 45 sportscaster Bruce Cunningham credited Mr. Matte with helping him get familiar with Baltimore and the sports figures who populated the city after Cunningham arrived from Yorktown, Virginia. Mr. Cunningham, who worked with Mr. Matte on television and in radio for more than a dozen years, said Mr. Matte embodied happiness.

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“Tom Matte is the only one of those they ever made,” he said. “I’ve never met anyone like him. You couldn’t be within five feet of Tom Matte and not smile. He was just that guy. He just bounced through life, and he knew that he lived a charmed life, and he loved the fact that he lived a charmed life. Everywhere he went, there were hundreds of fans in his wake. He was just that guy.”

Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti called Mr. Matte a community hero.

“I remember being so excited to meet him at Colts training camp when I was a kid,” Mr. Bisciotti said. “The way he embraced us was truly special. Many years later, when the Ravens came to Baltimore in 1996, it was amazing to then see our team embrace him.”

The older of two sons raised by the former Dorothy Stevens, a secretary, and Joseph Roland Matte, a professional ice hockey player, Mr. Matte grew up in Cleveland Heights, a tough neighborhood in Cleveland that shaped his persona.

“He had to fight his way to school and fight his way home every day,” said his son, Roland Thomas Matte. “That must have deepened his resolve, I guess, because not much fazed the guy. As far as his determination, if he said he was going to do something, he followed through.”

Mr. Matte was the Colts’ No. 1 draft pick in 1961 as a stubby 6-foot-1, 192-pound back from Ohio State. He cowed no one with his choirboy countenance, high-pitched voice and hippety-hop running style where he picked his way through traffic as if playing a game of “Frogger.” Plus, he giggled a lot.

Alex Karras, the outspoken defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions, called Mr. Matte “a garbage can runner.”

Yet the Colts’ versatile halfback piled up 8,882 all-purpose yards, scored 57 touchdowns, made the Pro Bowl twice, graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and earned a Super Bowl ring.

In 1969, his best year, Mr. Matte led the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,422) and rushing touchdowns (11) and made first-team All-Pro.

“I’m an average ballplayer with average speed and average skills,” he once said. “I was clocked at 5.8 [seconds] for the 50-yard sprint and I’m not ashamed of it. I slide for my yardage, but I get the job done.”

He is best remembered for his time at quarterback late in 1965, when the playoff-hopeful Colts lost both Johnny Unitas and his backup, Gary Cuozzo, to injuries on successive weeks. In went Mr. Matte, who hadn’t taken a snap since college. First, while wearing a wristband “cheat sheet” listing plays for a streamlined offense, he led Baltimore to a 20-17 upset of the Los Angeles Rams, rushing for 99 yards. Then, in a playoff for the Western Conference championship, Mr. Matte led the Colts (10-3-1) against the favored Green Bay Packers.

Baltimore Colts Tom Matte dives for yardage against the Patriots in 1971. During his career, Matte piled up 8,882 all-purpose yards and scored 57 touchdowns.
Baltimore Colts Tom Matte dives for yardage against the Patriots in 1971. During his career, Matte piled up 8,882 all-purpose yards and scored 57 touchdowns. (AP)

Teammates dubbed him “The Arm.” America took note. Walter Cronkite interviewed the “instant quarterback” on the CBS Evening News. Telegrams poured in.

“Most of them said stuff like, ‘You’re proving that someone who doesn’t even know what he’s doing can go out there and get the job done,’” Matte told The Sun in a 2005 interview. “I was like the guy on the street, a no-name coming in as quarterback for the Colts. It’s the impossible dream — and they lived it through me. When you think about it, that playoff with the Packers was probably the first fantasy football game.”

Green Bay won, 13-10, in overtime. Mr. Matte completed five of 12 passes for 40 yards and rushed for 57 more.

“He didn’t botch a handoff or muff a signal all day,” Colts coach Don Shula said afterward.

The Packers went on to win the NFL title; the Colts flew home where it took Mr. Matte 25 minutes to press through an airport crowd that finally hoisted him on their shoulders and carried him out.

“The fans just about tore the clothes off my back while they passed me down the aisle on top of their shoulders,” he said. “But how could I complain?”

Two weeks later, in the now-defunct Playoff Bowl between league runners-up, the Colts played the Dallas Cowboys. Mr. Shula put the team on notice.

“I’m going to put a lot of pressure on you guys,” the coach said. “I’m going to let Matte throw the ball, and I don’t know what will happen.”

Mr. Matte passed for 165 yards and two scores in a 35-3 rout of Dallas and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. He never played quarterback again.

The Maryland General Assembly adopted a resolution hailing Mr. Matte for his efforts; the U.S. Army sent him overseas to tour its military bases and inspire the troops. The wristband? It’s in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Big games brought out the best in Mr. Matte. In the 1968 NFL championship, his three touchdowns tied a title game record. Two weeks later, in Super Bowl III, the Colts were upset by the New York Jets, 16-7 — a game in which Mr. Matte rushed for 116 yards and averaged 10.5 yards a carry, a Super Bowl record.

Dealt to the San Diego Chargers in 1973 in a purge of veterans by general manager Joe Thomas, No. 41 retired.

“There are not sour grapes on my side,” said Mr. Matte, who was dogged by bleeding ulcers throughout his career. “It has been a real pleasure to play for the people in this town, which is now my town.”

Despite his career, Mr. Matte took a hands-off approach to his children’s athletic pursuits.

“I see a lot of parents who played put a lot of pressure on their kids, but he never did that to us,” Mr. Matte said of his father. “He told us the same thing his dad said to him. He said there were two things: ‘Have fun,’ and ‘Work hard.’ That’s it. He said you were going to win some and lose some, but when the clock hit zero, the game was over. He wanted us to go to 100% and then back down to zero and to have fun doing it.”

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He entered business, hosted charity golf events and, for several years, helped broadcast Maryland football games on radio. In 1992, when Oriole Park opened, Mr. Matte had a stand selling smoked pork ribs (he’d had a rib joint in Havre de Grace in his playing days). Two years later, he became vice president and TV game analyst of the Baltimore Stallions, the city’s new entry in the Canadian Football League. In 1996, Mr. Matte joined the broadcast team of fledgling Ravens, a job he held for 10 years.

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Former Baltimore Colts players Johnny Unitas, left, and Tom Matte call the ceremonial last play at Memorial Stadium in December 1997. Former Colts took to the field for the last time after the Ravens-Oilers game.
Former Baltimore Colts players Johnny Unitas, left, and Tom Matte call the ceremonial last play at Memorial Stadium in December 1997. Former Colts took to the field for the last time after the Ravens-Oilers game. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

Mr. Matte understood that his short stint as quarterback overshadowed a rich career at running back.

“I’ll meet people who can’t remember my name but who’ll say, ‘You’re the guy with the wristband!’” he said.

Teammates agreed.

“Think about it,” said Raymond Berry, the Colts’ Hall of Fame receiver. “We came within a whisker of playing for the world championship [in 1965], with Tom Matte at quarterback. That’s one of the darnedest things to happen in the history of football.”

Mr. Matte, who lives in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, said his father could be a strict disciplinarian. But he also exhibited a softer side at times.

“My mom would get upset and tell him, ‘You’ve got to go talk to them,’” Mr. Matte said. “He would say, OK,” but the minute he saw us, you could see the love in his eyes, and the anger would go away sometimes. So our family is extremely close and always will be.”

After retirement, Mr. Matte worked briefly as an analyst on CBS coverage of football games. From 1996 to 2005, he joined sportscaster Scott Garceau in broadcasting Ravens games on local radio.

Mr. Matte also joined Johnny Holliday to call Maryland football games for four seasons during the Bobby Ross era. Mr. Holliday, who has been the voice of the Terps football and basketball teams since 1979, said Mr. Matte’s diligent study before each game made him “one of the best analysts I ever worked with.”

“He was so prepared and so in love with doing the games. That’s what struck me,” Mr. Holliday said. “He didn’t go to Maryland; he went to Ohio State. But I was so impressed with how he put his whole effort into covering Maryland, which was unusual at that time if you went to another school. But he was just thoroughly prepared and so good.”

Mr. Cunningham recalled a time when he, Mr. Garceau and Mr. Matte had arrived in the lobby of the hotel where they were staying hours before leaving to call a Sunday night Ravens game. A wedding was underway, several attendees recognized Mr. Matte, and he stayed to greet the couple and fans for 30 minutes.

Mr. Cunningham said Mr. Matte valued his ties to the community.

“Tom used to always say this: ‘It’s about the community. You’ve got to get out, and you’ve got to mingle,’” Mr. Cunningham said. “He believed in that, and I think he really loved the whole idea of Colts fans. He loved the adulation, but he gave the adulation back. He just adored those people.”

Mr. Holliday said fans who recognized Mr. Matte frequently interrupted their dinners to ask for an autograph or a photograph. But Mr. Matte turned the tables by introducing the seekers to Mr. Holliday, whom Mr. Matte described as “legendary.” Mr. Holliday said those exchanges exemplified Mr. Matte’s modesty.

“You would never know the legendary status that he had because he didn’t act like a superstar and an All-Pro,” Mr. Holliday said. “He was just a regular guy that everybody loved. I don’t think I ever saw him turn down an autograph or turn down a picture. He just couldn’t be nicer to everybody.”

Besides his son, Mr. Matte is survived by his wife of 59 years, the former Judith Simons, a daughter, Katherine McNeal Matte of Baltimore, and four grandchildren.

Services are pending.

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