Tom Matte, Emergency Quarterback for Baltimore Colts, Dies at 82

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A gritty moving back, helium was enlisted to regenerate Johnny Unitas and his backup arsenic backmost successful captious games successful 1965. He wore a wristband to retrieve the plays.

Credit...Vernon Biever/Associated Press

Richard Sandomir

Nov. 3, 2021, 7:18 p.m. ET

Tom Matte, a stubby halfback for the Baltimore Colts who stepped successful arsenic their backmost precocious successful the 1965 play erstwhile Johnny Unitas and his backup, Gary Cuozzo, were injured and astir took the squad to the N.F.L. title game, died connected Tuesday astatine his location successful Towson, Md. He was 82.

John Harbaugh, the manager of the Baltimore Ravens, announced the death.

Matte was a sturdy, reliable and productive moving backmost for the Colts for 12 seasons. But helium was nary alien to playing quarterback. He had played the presumption astatine Ohio State University, though helium had not passed often successful Coach Woody Hayes’s run-oriented offense. And, with Unitas, a aboriginal Hall of Famer, astatine backmost for the Colts, Matte didn’t person to interest astir thing but taking handoffs and catching passes.

Matte besides knew that helium was physically constricted arsenic a quarterback.

“I person precise tiny hands,” Matte told PressBox, a Maryland sports media company, successful 2020. “I couldn’t adjacent enactment my manus astir the ball. Unitas, he’d wrapper astir each the mode astir the ball, truthful helium would ever propulsion that fantastic spiral.”

But successful successive weeks successful December, Unitas tore up his close genu and Cuozzo separated his near shoulder, mounting the signifier for Matte to go an enduring favourite among Colts fans. In a crippled connected Dec. 18, 1965, helium and Ed Brown, a journeyman player, shared the quarterbacking duties and led the Colts to a 20-17 victory implicit the Los Angeles Rams.

Matte did not implicit immoderate passes but led the squad successful rushing with 99 yards.

“We had scratched our analyzable offense, but the Rams didn’t cognize that,” Don Shula, the Colts’ coach, told The Baltimore Sun successful 2005. “So Tom would fake a analyzable play and past tally the shot himself.”

To retrieve what helium had to call, Matte wore a vinyl wristband with each the plays written successful tiny lettering by his wife, Judy.

The adjacent crippled was for the Western Conference title between the Colts and the Green Bay Packers, to find which squad would play the Eastern Conference champion for the N.F.L. title. Matte again led the squad successful rushing, with 57 yards, and completed 5 passes for 40 yards. But the Packers tied the crippled successful regularisation connected a wobbly, disputed tract extremity and won it, 13-10, successful overtime.

“Everyone knew successful the state that this effort to triumph without Unitas and his backup with Matte would beryllium impossible,” Upton Bell, the Colts’ subordinate unit manager astatine the time, said successful an email, “but we had it won and past mislaid connected a blown call.”

Matte was disconsolate aft the crippled and tore disconnected his wristband, which was retrieved by a Baltimore sportswriter, John Steadman. It is present connected show astatine the Pro Football Hall of Fame successful Canton, Ohio, an accessory calved of necessity that has go commonplace successful the N.F.L.

The Colts were greeted by a throng of worshipful fans astatine Friendship Airport successful Baltimore. Some of them lifted Matte onto their shoulders, if not successful triumph past astatine slightest successful admiration for his enactment arsenic an exigency quarterback.

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Credit...Associated Press

Thomas Roland Matte was calved connected June 14, 1939, successful Pittsburgh. His father, Roland, was a longtime amateur hockey subordinate who had abbreviated stints successful the N.H.L. with the Detroit Cougars (now the Red Wings) and the Chicago Blackhawks.

Matte was a moving backmost astatine Ohio State until 1959, erstwhile helium played backmost astatine times. He became the starter successful 1960, doing good capable (he passed for 737 yards and ran for 682) to beryllium voted an All-American and decorativeness seventh successful Heisman Trophy voting.

He was selected by the Colts successful the archetypal circular of the 1961 N.F.L. draught and implicit 12 seasons rushed for 4,646 yards and scored 45 touchdowns. He besides caught 249 passes for 2,869 yards and 12 touchdowns. He had his champion play successful 1969, rushing for 11 touchdowns, the astir successful the league, and piling up 909 yards, 3rd astir down Gale Sayers and Calvin Hill.

Matte got the nickname Old Garbage Can from Alex Karras, the Detroit Lions antiaircraft tackle, for his pugnacious moving style.

In Super Bowl III betwixt the Colts and the Jets connected Jan. 12, 1969, Matte had 1 of his champion games ever, rushing for 116 yards (half of those connected a second-quarter run) connected 11 carries. But the favored Colts mislaid successful a stunning upset, 16-7.

Matte was traded to the San Diego Chargers successful aboriginal 1973 but chose to retire. Eleven years later, the proprietor of the Colts, Robert Irsay, moved the squad to Indianapolis. The relocation angered fans and galore players, including Matte, who told The Sun successful 1984: “Bob Irsay, you’re retired of your mind. You’re atrocious for the city. He’s breached a large shot tradition.”

Matte would aboriginal enactment arsenic a vigor expert for the Baltimore Ravens, the caller N.F.L. franchise that replaced the Colts, from 1996 to 2005.

He is survived by his wife. Complete accusation connected his survivors wasn’t instantly available.

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