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A Brush With History

I’d have to say that my musical exploits has lead me to interesting places. Playing music and singing at funerals might be depressing or morbid to some but they can be inspiring events, especially when you get to know about the deceased’s impact on not only their family and friends, but the world. And sometimes you get a little extra out of the experience, such as the time I had the unbelievable opportunity to sing with Stevie Wonder at the funeral of former Motown Records president Skip Miller in September 2009.

On Saturday morning I was asked to play bass for a memorial service (the deceased’s body was not present) at First Baptist Church near the Mid-Wilshire area. I knew nothing about it other than the location and the songs I was going to play. Upon arriving, I was slightly annoyed at the sight of a stretch Hummer limousine, which had difficulty entering the church’s parking lot, which I was to park in as well.

Eddie Hilley, my musical director at St. Agatha’s, who was asked to lead the music for this service smiled and told me, “I heard the person who died was an NFL star…”

It turned out to be an athlete whose name rang a bell but one I wasn’t very familiar with — Ollie Matson II, who actually died nearly a month ago – was memorialized by family, friends and colleagues today. He played for several NFL teams, such as the (then) Chicago Cardinals, the Detriot Lions, the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles (His entre NFL career predated my birth). He was also an inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and an Olympic silver and bronze medalist for Track and Field in Helsinki 1952.

But perhaps Maton’s bigest achievement was for a game he didn’t play.

Matson played college football at the University of San Francisco and in 1951 his team garnered a 9-0-0 record, which earned the USF Dons an invitation to play in the Orange Bowl…with one exception: That Matson and teammate Burl Toler – both the only African Americans on the squad – not play in the game (remember, this was 1951).

Apparently this upset and insulted the entire team (which eventually produced 10 NFL players) , its coaches and school administration (USF is a Catholic university, run by the socially-conscious Jesuit order), that they declined the invitation and refulsed to play in the Orange Bowl because of such a blatantly racist request.

Their moral stance came at a price though – the next year, the USF football program lost its funding and hasn’t been active since.

Other than his post-collegiate achievements, Matson got with some good company – Bill Cosby was invited as a eulogist to the memorial and was supposed to produce a videotaped speech, but technical issues prevented that. But he did write a eulogy which was read by a friend.

While many people remember iconic events such as Rosa Parks’ transit-riding defiance, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s historic marches and speeches, lesser-known actions such as the 1951 USF football team were no less important in the American civil rights saga, and American history as a whole.

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