Jacksonville Sports Day

UT History Series: Tampa and Number One Overall NFL Draft Pick

By Joey Johnston

It’s a kill-shot question that should make you a winner on anyone’s trivia night.

Which three Florida colleges had a player taken first overall in the NFL Draft?

Well, that sounds simple. Florida, Florida State and Miami, right?

Wrong.

It’s Florida State, Miami and … the University of Tampa.

Yes, it actually happened. On Jan. 30, 1973, in the Versailles Room of New York’s Americana Hotel, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle stepped to the podium.

“The Houston Oilers … select … the first choice of the first round … John Matuszak … M-A-T-U-S-Z-A-K … defensive end … University of Tampa.”

The NFL Draft was not televised. There was no NFL combine, no mock drafts, no ESPN, no Internet speculation.

Nationally, many fans might have been wondering “John Ma-who-szak?”

Matuszak, a 6-foot-8, 282-pounder who had a 54-inch chest and a 34-inch waist, was well-known in Tampa because of two sparkling seasons with the Spartans following his transfer from the University of Missouri.

Tampa Tribune sports editor Tom McEwen asked Matuszak to follow the draft from the Tribune’s sports department, where he could watch results on the Associated Press and United Press International wire services.

At first, Matuszak balked, saying he needed to report to his job as teaching intern at Hillsborough High School. Eventually, he relented and even ate breakfast at the Tribune Grill ($2.75 got him streak and three eggs, two orders of rye toast and two milks). Then he joined FSU quarterback Gary Huff, a product of Tampa’s Leto High School, for the expected Tribune vigil.

For Matuszak, though, there was no wait.

“I can’t believe it,” Matuszak said. “I just can’t believe it.”

John Matuszak became an NFL icon, probably better known for his off-field outrageousness than his on-field production.

Matuszak bounced from the Oilers to the Kansas City Chiefs to the Washington Redskins before settling with the Oakland Raiders, where he won two Super Bowls.

He became an actor, appearing in 10 feature films (including “North Dallas Forty” and “The Goonies”), while making television appearances on shows such as “MAS*H, The Dukes of Hazzard, The A-Team and Miami Vice.

Matuszak played hard, lived hard and died young. He died at age 38 on June 17, 1989 — nearly seven years after his final NFL season — following an accidental overdose of the prescription drug Darvocet, according to findings from the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office.

Things got a lot more complicated. There probably was never as much joy as that January morning in 1973, when an unsuspecting Matuszak became the NFL Draft’s No. 1 pick and immediately knew his life was about to change.

Matuszak had been a tight end at Missouri, but was quickly converted to defensive line when he arrived for his fresh start at UT. In two seasons, which included a Tangerine Bowl victory, Matuszak established himself as one of the nation’s most dominating players.

He remains one of the most notable players for a football program that was disbanded following the 1974 season. Matuszak was interested whenever he heard about the intermittent attempts to revive UT football.

Generally, though, he stayed in California, where he played out his football career, then shifted into the acting industry.

There was a notable exception.

He returned to Tampa in 1983 for his induction into the UT Athletic Hall of Fame.

“He wore a tuxedo that night, gave a very impressive speech and generally made a great impression on everyone,” said Rick Thomas, the former UT defensive back. “He appreciated being in the Hall of Fame as much as anyone. That was the last time I saw him.”

John Matuszak stories have lived on, whether it’s the image of him chasing down an opposing quarterback or a sighting on the streets of Tampa, sort of like Bigfoot.

“He was such a larger-than-life type guy,” former UT wide receiver Mark Wakefield said. “I remember when he would come over to my house. When he sat down, it looked like he was sitting on toy furniture. He was the biggest man I had ever seen.”

“You couldn’t get an idea of how big he was on TV,” former UT defensive lineman Dan Lea said. “Believe me, he was huge. He was a wild one, with a big bite and a big growl. He was somebody you paid attention to. But he had a big heart.”

He was exceptionally close to his family in Milwaukee. Three of his siblings had cystic fibrosis. At UT, he often said he was playing for the memory of two of them, while also setting an example for his younger sister.

“A smiling, gentle giant,” former UT quarterback Freddie Solomon, who died in 2012, once said of Matuszak.

“People tend to talk about off-the-field stuff and his incredible size,” former UT safety Dave Tomeo said. “But I’ll tell you, the guy had a brain, too. He’s a bright guy. Just look what he did with his life after football. He was a success. We were all proud of him. Some of my greatest memories in life are playing with him and the other guys on our team.”

Maybe there wasn’t much innocence associated with Matuszak’s memory. After all, his autobiography (“Cruisin’ With The Tooz”) celebrated his hard-charging lifestyle.

It was often a punchline.

At Super Bowl XV, after Matuszak stayed out all night and was fined for his partying on Bourbon Street, Philadelphia Eagles coach Dick Vermeil said, “If he was an Eagle, he’d be on a plane back to Philadelphia right now.”

Matuszak’s retort: “Why would anybody want to go to Philadelphia in the winter?”

A larger-than-life character?

Absolutely.

But there was the day in 1973, when all of Tampa, not yet a professional sports town, swelled with pride over Matuszak’s accomplishments and sudden fame.

After the No. 1 selection, Matuszak bought a new suit and was whisked to Houston, where he held a news conference.

“Now that I’m in Texas, I need to find me a big pair of boots and a big horse,” he said, drawing laughter.

He then traveled to New York, draft headquarters, where he was greeted by a New York Daily News banner headline:

Matuszak, Tampa’s Titanic Tackle, No. 1 Draft Pick.

Going into the draft, the headliners included LSU quarterback Bert Jones and Alabama offensive lineman John Hannah. Either of those players — perhaps more — wouldn’t have been perceived as a shocker at No. 1.

Oilers coach Bill Peterson fell in love with Matuszak, saying his performance at the American Bowl (an all-star game held in Tampa) was the final evidence.

It didn’t work out with the Oilers — or two other NFL teams — but he’s regarded as Raider royalty. His performances can still be spotted on late-night television.

And at UT, he’s still regarded as one of the players who put the Spartan program on the national map.

Florida State, Miami and the University of Tampa.

It’s the unexpected answer to a trivia question.

But Matuszak’s accomplishments were far from trivial.

Joey Johnston has worked in the Tampa Bay sports media for more than three decades, winning multiple national awards while covering events such as the Super Bowl, World Series, Final Four, Wimbledon, the U. S. Open, the Stanley Cup Finals and all the major bowl games. But his favorite stories have always been about Tampa Bay Area teams and athletes. A third-generation Tampa native, he was a regular in the Tampa Stadium stands at University of Tampa football games.

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