Rob Oller: No quarterback? No problem. Tom Matte bailed out Buckeyes and Baltimore Colts

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Running back Tom Matte, here following Baltimore Colts linemen Alex Sandusky (68) and Palmer Pyle, was used by coach Don Shula as an emergency QB late in the 1965 season after injuries to Johnny Unitas and Gary Cuozzo. Matte had played some quarterback for Woody Hayes at Ohio State in 1959 and '60.

Last week’s Denver Broncos quarterback quandary took Tom Matte back six decades to when Ohio State assistant coach Bo Schembechler pulled the Buckeyes’ fill-in QB out of the High Street bars.

“I wasn’t big into drinking, but that’s where the good-looking girls were,” Matte told me on Tuesday. “Bo was the coach I had to report to and he would come check out what I was doing at the North and South Heidelbergs.”

The two Heidelberg bars sat at opposite ends of campus (the north location later was renamed Northberg Tavern). Matte, not wanting to show geographic favoritism, felt obligated to visit both establishments.

“That was when at age 18 you could drink 3.2 beer,” he said. “Remember?”

Oh, I remember.

Matte continued: “Bo would come in and say, ‘OK, that’s enough. You gotta get ready for the game. Baby, you’re the quarterback now.’ ”

Not wanting to upset Bo, who blew his fuse only slightly less often than his boss, Woody Hayes, Matte would exit the bar with his Phi Gamma Delta fraternity brothers — he pleaded the Fifth when I asked if frat friend Jack Nicklaus left with him — and immediately begin arguing with his belligerent belly.

“I was under a lot of pressure,” Matte said. “I had ulcers. Bleeding ulcers. They finally had to cut my stomach out.”

And we think we have it tough cooped up indoors for nine months. Matte had to deal with Bo and Woody while playing a position he had no business playing. Just like Kendall Hinton, Denver’s little-used wide receiver who was pressed into emergency service on Sunday after the Broncos’ first three QBs were disqualified for breaching mask-wearing protocols related to COVID-19.

Hinton’s challenging assignment — the former Wake Forest quarterback who converted to receiver for his senior year was 1 of 9 for 13 yards and a sack, two interceptions and a passer rating of 0.0 — reminded Matte of his own struggles as a running back-turned-quarterback, first at Ohio State and then with the Baltimore Colts.

Matte, 81, who lives with his wife Judy in Baltimore — the couple has been married 58 years — did not volunteer for the assignment thrust upon him in Ohio State’s 1959 season opener against Duke.

Recruited as a defensive back who played some quarterback at Shaw High School in East Cleveland, Matte entered 1959 playing DB and running back before things changed quickly. Ohio State starting quarterback Jerry Fields injured a shoulder in the first half against Duke, and Matte, who later became known as the “Garbage Man” because he played so many positions, was pulled aside at halftime.

“Woody and I went out to the practice field next to the stadium,” Matte recalled. “There were 80,000 in the stadium and here we are taking snaps at halftime. Woody says to me, ‘I may have to put you in at quarterback.’ I didn’t want to play quarterback, actually used to fumble the ball on purpose in practice because I didn’t want to play it. Plus I had really small hands, so it was tough to hold the ball.”

Matte chuckled when sharing that “I almost castrated poor center (Jene Watkins) at halftime” because he had to practice so many snaps. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll eventually get it.’ ”

Matte nearly escaped going under center during the game, but after opening the second half with sophomore quarterback Jack Wallace, Hayes eventually switched to Matte. It worked. Matte led Ohio State on a 63-yard scoring drive, culminating in a fourth-and-22 touchdown pass to Chuck Bryant in the closing minutes of a 14-13 win.

Tom Matte, shown here as a sophomore in 1958, came to Ohio State from Cleveland to play halfback, but injuries at quarterback forced coach Woody Hayes to use him under center in 1959 and '60.

From then on, Hayes made sure Matte knew every jot and tittle of the playbook, even making his fill-in quarterback come to his house for dinner and film study. 

“It was, ‘Here’s what you do if this happens.’ All the hypothetical stuff,” Matte said. “Woody told me if somebody is open, throw it. If not, run it. I definitely didn’t know what the hell I was doing.”

Matte became Ohio State's starting quarterback in 1960, then returned to running back with Baltimore when the Colts selected him seventh overall in the 1961 NFL draft.

But there was no escaping the past. In 1965, after Johnny Unitas and Gary Cuozzo suffered season-ending injuries, Baltimore coach Don Shula pulled a Woody by turning to Matte to run the offense.

The Colts won their regular-season finale, but lost their first playoff game. The famous wristband Matte wore that held a list of plays can be found in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“They designed the offense around my running ability,” Matte said, admitting that his passing ability was suspect. “Our receiver, Jimmy Orr, said I threw an ‘option ball,’ because you could catch it at either end.”

Despite the stress associated with being “the last man standing,” as he put it, Matte takes pride in the way he was able to step in and win games.

“You have to have a little bit of ability to reach that challenge as an athlete,” he said. “I had to fill John Unitas’ shoes.”

He played pretty well in them, too.