Here’s another vintage bonus piece by our man Pete Dexter. This one appeared in the October 31, 1981 edition of Inside Sports.
If This is Wednesday, It Must Be Toozday
By Pete Dexter
At three in the morning, coming east across the Bay Bridge in a limousine the size of a cattle truck, a quiet falls over the back seat. It is the last day before John Matuszak goes to Santa Rosa for training camp. More to the point, it is Wednesday. There are three of us in the back—John and me and Donna, the girl he cares for above all others—and suddenly, as if by unspoken agreement, it is time for some quiet thinking and assessment.
We have run out of flaming arrows—matches, Southern Comfort, shot glasses. “Jeez, that’s too bad,” the driver says. He doesn’t sound like it’s too bad.
I’m not the first person to wonder what John Matuszak was thinking. Since he came into the National Football League as the first draft pick of 1973—ahead of people like Bert Jones and John Hannah—that question has been on a lot of minds at one time or another.
Matuszak went to Houston in that draft, then to the World Football League, where he played one series of downs before he was handed an injunction returning him to the NFL, then to Kansas City. He was traded from there to Washington where George Allen, whose idea of temptation is a quart of ice cream, cut him in two weeks. Matuszak was on the way to the Canadian Football League when Al Davis flew out from Oakland and offered him a chance to play for the Raiders in 1976.
He has been there since. “It’s the only place I could play,” he said once. “I know my reputation around the league.” The reputation, briefly, is that he still belongs in the straitjacket they used on him when he overdosed on depressants and alcohol in Kansas City. The truth, though, unless you happen to look at it from a very tight-ass point of view, say, that of most of the coaches in the National Football League, is that while Matuszak has had his share of scrapes, most of them can be put down to growing pains. That and things found hidden in his automobiles. A machete, a .44 magnum, a little dope.
Anyway, all that was before he mellowed….
Sometimes you go in and it’s like you’re Edward R. Murrow. You let go of the doorbell and hear the footsteps. You feel it coming and there’s no place to hide.
The kids are going to be lined up on the couch, youngest to oldest. The little girls will have ribbons in their hair, Skipper the mongrel will be there on the floor and mom will be sitting at the end with an arm around Dale Jr. Trophies over the fireplace and dad is out in the shop, finishing up some woodwork. Why don’t we go see how he’s doing?
You wait at the door, dead certain that unless a sociable way to pass a quart of 151 up and down that couch presents itself, you’re doomed.
But the door opens and it’s Audrey Matuszak, still in the skirt she’d worn to work, talking on the phone. Somebody she has never heard of in New York wants to know if she’s big.
She holds the door while I come in. “Big?” she says. “Why, I never thought of it. I’m 6-5 and 265…no, that’s about average in the family….” Some days you’re doomed, some days you’re not.
She says the sweetest goodbye you ever heard and cradles the phone against her ear a minute longer. “I shouldn’t have done that, I suppose,” she says, “but sometimes you wonder about New York, don’t you?”
“Yes ma’am, you do.” She smiles and gets me a beer out of the refrigerator. There is an autographed picture of her son on the door. BEST WISHES TO MOM AND DAD, YOU’RE THE GREATEST. JOHN. It is the only evidence on the main floor of the house that he is different from the other children. The trophies, the movie posters are upstairs in the bedrooms.
“I think you’re going to enjoy John,” she says. “He’s just so much fun to be with. He’s out in back if you want to see what’s he’s doing.”
Picture old Ed now, sitting back in a cloud of Lucky Strike smoke, watching the camera roll through the doorway to the backyard where John Matuszak, massive and naked except for bikini swimwear, is sitting on an old blanket, tearing the big toenail off his right foot.
He holds it up to the sun, checking both sides.
He looks at the nail, then at the toe. “Toes are tender,” he says.
I take a look at the toenail, then give it back. “That looks like it was a real nice one.”
He nods. “It’s been getting on my nerves, though.”
Matuszak puts the nail next to him on the blanket and leans back to find a new station on the portable radio. “I’ve been on a hot streak,” he says. “It’s hard to explain. I was driving into town Wednesday and suddenly I said ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ and half a minute later that’s what they played. The same thing happened with ‘Déjà Vu.’ Yeah, that’s a song. You know what I mean, when you’re just tuned with things?”
I think that over. “I always know it just before a dog bites me.”
At the work “dog,” he looks around to make sure his mother is gone. He lowers his voice and points to a pile of freshly turned dirt over by the garden. “They just buried Skipper,” he says. “It really broke them up, they’d had him for years.”
I swear. Skipper. A hot streak of my own. The radio cracks and suddenly Brenda Lee is singing “All Alone Am I.” Matuszak closes his eyes and runs a hand through his hair. “Look at me,” he says, pointing to his arm and shoulder. “Goose bumps. Brenda Lee, 1962. That’s what music does to me. I couldn’t live without music.”
He sings along with Brenda. He tests the toe. He reasons with it. “Well, there’s always a hump out there you’ve got to get over, right?”
The hump is an asphalt hill on the other side of the two-lane highway that runs in front of his parents’ house. The hill angles like a swan’s beak about a quarter of a mile down, then flattens into a dirt road and disappears into a railroad tunnel. The radio has just said it is three o’clock and 105° at Gen. Billy Mitchell airport. The heat off the asphalt makes the tunnel seem to float.
The Tooz is wearing sweat pants now, two plastic jackets, a towel around his neck and a wool stocking cap with the insignia of the Oakland Raiders pulled down over his ears.
“Just sit over there on the fence, stud, and I’ll be right back.” He jogs down the hill, getting smaller and smaller, his body waving in the heat until, at the bottom, he could almost be of this earth. He comes back up, spitting and pounding, growing like a bad dream.
At the top he walks it off, blowing his nose.
He will run the hill three more times before he quits, each time coming up harder than the time before. He is big, even for a pro football player—6-8, 300 pounds and none of it is fat—but you don’t really feel it until you see him tired, and he can feel it, too. Walking back to the house he says, “Well, I kicked the hill’s ass today.”