How Tom Matte Almost Changed NFL History

by John Delach

Tom Matte, a stubby halfback who played for the Baltimore Colts for 12 seasons passed away on November 2nd in his home in Towson, Maryland. Mr. Matte was 82.

A competent and reliable running back, Matte played 12 seasons with the Colts, from 1961 until 1972. Unspectacular, he was the kind of every man’s player that loyal Colt fans and many other non-Colt NFL fans liked and admired. He was the kind of guy you wanted to have on your team or have a beer with after the game.

In 1965, the Colts were one of three Western Division teams vying to make it to the NFL Championship Game together with the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears. With three weeks left in the season, the Colts led the pack with a 9-1-1 record, (nine wins, one loss and one tie.)

The following Sunday, Johnny Unitas, the Colts star quarterback suffered a season ending injury in a 13 to 0 loss to the Bears. Don Shula, the Colts head coach promoted Gary Cuozzo, to starter, found his backup, Ed Brown, on the used quarter back stockpile and designated Matte as the team’s emergency backup. Brown had been cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier that season.

Bad went to worse the following Sunday when Cuozzo also suffered a season ending injury when the Packers rout routed the Colts, 43-27. Shula decided to rotate Matte and Brown with Matte doing most of the running and Brown the passing. Even though Matte had been a quarterback at Ohio State, he knew he was limited in his passing ability: “I have very small hands. I couldn’t even put my hand around the ball.”

Utilizing this unusual quarterback combination, the Colts eked out a 20-17 victory against the Los Angeles Rams in the last regular season game. Brown connected for an 81-yard throw and Matte led the team with 99 rushing yards. After the game Shula explained to the press: “We had scratched our complicated offense, but the Rams didn’t know that. Tom would fake a complicated play and then run the ball himself.”

The Colts and the Packers finished with identical 10-3-1 records forcing a one-game playoff to be played in Lambeau Field on December 26th. The teams met on a wintery, but sunny day for this 1 PM start. The temperature was 22 degrees with a wind chill of 12 degrees. The NFL ruled that Brown was ineligible to play in the game since the Colts had picked him up so late in the season. Tom Matte had to go it alone as the Colts QB

The Colts compacted their game plan reducing the number of plays  to a dozen or more. Matte wore a wrist band that he could open to review each play. The odds had it that the Packers would once again drub the Colts like they did two weeks ago.

But what the odds’ makers failed to consider was how the entire Colts organization would rally behind their intrepid halfback and fight like the devil to support him in every aspect of the game.

This became apparent on the very first play of the Packers first possession. Bart Starr, their future Hall of Fame quarterback passed 10 yards to Bill Anderson. Anderson fumbled allowing, Don Shinnick, the Colts 235-pound linebacker to scoop up the ball on the Packer 25 and take it in for a Colts touchdown: Colts 7 – Packers 0.

In the second quarter, Lou Michaels, of the Colts made it 10-0 when he kicked a 15-yard field goal.

The Packers had their chances in the first half. Don Chandler, their kicker, missed a 47-yard field goal and the Colts defensive rose up to make a goal line stand at the one-yard line stopping both Packer stars and future Hall of Fame running backs,  Paul Horning and Jim Taylor.

They knocked Bart Starr out of the game, but his understudy, Zeke Bratkowski, rallied the Packers despite two interceptions. In the third period, Horning scored closing the score to 10-7.

Late in the fourth quarter, Bratkowski drove the Pack to the Baltimore 15 allowing Chandler to kick a chip-shot field goal. In those days, the goal posts were on the goal line. Also, in 1965, only one official stood under the uprights, and he stood directly under the center of the goal posts,

Chandler’s kick rose like a mortar shell climbing way above the 20-foot uprights. The single official standing in the middle signaled the kick was good, but his position prevented him from properly judging the kick that far above the uprights. He called it good, but the angle we saw on TV showed the ball going wide-right.

Green Bay went on to win on a field goal in overtime.               .

For the record, the Green Bay Packers defeated the Cleveland Browns in the 1965 NFL Championship Game played on January 2, 1966, at Lambeau Field by the score of 23 to 12.

The Packers would go on to win the next two NFL titles, a record. That also included winning the first two Super Bowls.

The Colts won the NFL Championship in 1968 but lost Super Bowl III to Joe Namath and the Jets.

In 1966, the NFL increased the length of the goal post uprights to 30 feet. They also positioned an official under each goal post and eventually added mandatory replays for all scoring plays.

Any one of these changes would have resulted in a Colts win by Matte and changed NFL history…and so it goes. RIP Tom Matte.