Tom Matte, now 77 years old, is modest when he recalls his 12-year NFL career.
"I was sort of the jack of all trades and master of none," Matte says. "I wasn’t the superstar by no means."
Actually, once upon a time, he sort of was, and I’ll explain. I was reminded of some of Tom Matte’s sort of superstar days with the old Baltimore Colts this week because of what’s been happening to a contemporary NFL team. The New England Patriots, without their first string quarterback due to suspension, have used two backups at that position. Injuries to both of them led to two weeks of speculation about whether a guy who’d never played the position in the pros might have to do so.
'Don't Get Hurt, I Don't Wanna Play Quarterback'
Which brings us back to Tom Matte. Under normal circumstances during the 1965 season, Matte’s job was to run the ball and catch the occasional pass from hall-of-fame quarterback Johnny Unitas.
"He had confidence in me. I had good hands. I could catch the football. And after I caught the football, I could get some extra yards. That’s what he wanted," Matte says. "'Cause you didn’t want to come back in the huddle if you dropped a pass. I’d come back in the huddle, and John would say, 'Tom, you wanna play quarterback today?' And I says, 'No, John.' He says, 'Then catch the football.'"
Matte and his teammates usually did what was expected of them. The Colts had made it to the championship game in 1964. They expected no less in ’65. But in the third-to-last regular season game, Unitas, the previous year’s MVP, went down with an injury. That meant that backup quarterback Gary Cuozzo would be in charge the rest of the way. Unless he were to go the way of Johnny Unitas.
"They said, 'You better take some snaps from center,'" Matte recalls. "And I says, 'Why?' They say, 'Well, if Cuozzo gets hurt, we’re gonna have to put you in at quarterback.' I says, 'You gotta be kidding me.'"
It wasn’t the first time Tom Matte had been asked to play quarterback. At Ohio State, coach Woody Hayes had decided that his running back might be more useful under center. The running back didn’t agree.
"I said, 'I don’t wanna play quarterback,'" Matte recalls. "I said, 'I don’t want to have anything to do with that.' I had small hands and throwing a spiral was hard enough for me to do. He says, 'Well, we don’t like to throw the ball anyway.' We always had that theme of 'three yards and a cloud of dust.'
"But somehow I ended up as an All-American quarterback. And then I got drafted by the Baltimore Colts in the first round in 1961, and I’m saying, 'What do they want me for? They’ve got John Unitas here. You’re drafting me as a quarterback?' I couldn’t believe it. Well, I found out quickly that they weren’t drafting me as a quarterback. They were switching me back to running back."
Tom Matte hoped that “switch” would stick. So, when Cuozzo took over for Unitas, Matte’s advice for the backup sounded pretty familiar.
"I said, 'Don’t get hurt. I don’t wanna play quarterback.'"
So of course Cuozzo got hurt almost immediately.
Crafting A Game Plan For The New QB
The trainer was able to keep Cuozzo’s injured shoulder numb for the length of that game. The following week, Tom Matte trotted onto the field to face the Los Angeles Rams at a position he hadn’t played in almost five years.
"I’m saying, 'Oh, my god. Don’t tell me I have to play quarterback,'" he says. "And I get in the huddle, and the whole offensive line sort of looks at me and says, 'Good luck, Matte.'"
Matte had a couple of coaches who designed a game plan based on what he could do. He handed off a lot. He ran a lot. And because he was no Johnny Unitas, he didn’t pass much. And his coaches also came up with an innovation to help him remember the plays.
"And Don McCafferty says, 'Hey,' and Shula said this, he says, 'Hey, listen, why don’t you put a wristband on, and we’ll signal to you which play we want you to call?' and all this kind of stuff. And I say, 'OK.' It was a wristband with a little plastic cover, so if it got wet, nothing would happen. And I had all the plays written on it," Matte says. "But who wrote the plays on it, but my wife. She could print smaller than I could, so we had it all printed out."
And the Colts beat the Rams, 20-17.
The following week, with Unitas and Cuozzo still prepared to do nothing but watch and offer advice, Tom Matte, 1-0 as a pro quarterback, took the field against the Green Bay Packers.
These days, Tom Matte recalls his career as great fun, but the pressure before and during that game against Green Bay must have been considerable. Winning meant the Colts would return to the NFL championship game. Losing meant they’d play in the game the players called the "Toilet Bowl,” a consolation tilt to determine third place.
The Colts lost on a disputed Green Bay field goal about which, to this day, Tom Matte says there shouldn’t have been a dispute. The kick was wide. Anyway, that meant he and his teammates would face the Dallas Cowboys for the championship of nothing … which is perhaps why Colts coach Don Shula was willing to turn Tom Matte loose.
"Shula called the whole defense into the shower room. Now, listen to this story. This is really funny. He called the defense into the shower room for a private meeting," Matte begins. "He says, 'First of all, I’m gonna let Matte throw the football, and I don’t know what the hell’s gonna happen. You guys may have to play a lot today.'"
"I’m saying, 'Oh, my god. Don’t tell me I have to play quarterback.' And I get in the huddle and the whole offensive line says, 'Good luck, Matte.'"
The defense plays a lot — a lot more than they like to play — when their team’s quarterback throws interceptions. Shula was trying to prepare them for that possibility. Tom Matte, like his coach, had very little idea of how switching up the game plan would work out.
"I was praying they were gonna catch the ball, 'cause half the time they were like knuckleballs instead of spirals," Matte says. "But they did catch the ball."
Tom Matte, The MVP
Two of those catches were for touchdowns. Matte and his teammates must have done some serious running as well. The Colts beat the Cowboys, 35-3.
"We just kicked their butts all over the field," Matte says. "We were laughing after. Everybody had a great time."
Matte was named the game’s MVP. He’s got the game ball in his trophy room, along with one of the wristbands he wore that season.
"In fact, somebody gave me a wooden carving of a hand and a wrist, and so I have that wrapped around there, and it’s sitting in the den," Matte says. "All these guys today, if you take a look, all of 'em are wearing wristbands. I should've patented the damn thing."
Wristbands, game plans and a protective offensive line all worked for Tom Matte 50 years ago. He won’t speculate on how well another emergency quarterback might fare these days, though he does have some advice for a running back or receiver pressed into that kind of service:
"Just don’t make any major mistakes."
Good advice under any circumstances … great advice if you’re playing football’s most important position in a game that counts.
To read more about Tom Matte — and other non-quarterback quarterbacks — check out Sports Illustrated’s story “Emergency NFL QBs Who Have Been Called Into Action.”
This segment aired on October 1, 2016.