The world of football was different in the 1930s and 40s. Facemasks? No, they didn’t exist, your nose offered your face its best protections. The size of the players, even at the highest levels, was several dozen Big Macs short of anything you’d expect to see today, especially for linemen. In the offseason, most players had jobs, real ones, some that paid better than their football checks. And a guy who didn’t play competitive football until college could become the best lineman in the National Football League. That was 6-2, 220-pound guard from the Texas School of Mines Riley Matheson.
Matheson was born on this day in 1914 in Shannon, Texas, south of Wichita Falls, and grew up in tiny Headrick, Oklahoma in the southwest corner of the state, a town so small they didn’t play tackle football.
He went to Cameron Junior College where he played basketball, then on to college in El Paso in 1937 where coach Mack Saxson convinced him to play football. Matheson, already slated to play basketball, was one of the better athletes on the football team as well. Saxson flirted with the idea of moving Matheson to the backfield but instead placed him at end for parts of the 1938 season. Eventually, Saxson saw Matheson value at tackle, and that’s where he’d stick for rest of his Miners career.
Miner coaches named Matheson the team’s MVP following the ‘38 season. He also made the All-Border Conference team. After football season, Matheson transitioned onto the Miner basketball team where he served as captain and starting center.
Matheson was preparing for life after football when the Cleveland Rams sent him a Pro-Football contract in the mail. He signed up and reported, but the Rams cut him in 1939 and instead he went to play with the Columbus Bullies of the American Football League. There he honed his craft and again caught the eye of the Rams and head coach Dutch Clark. Matheson signed on with the Rams for the 1940 season.
Matheson earned the nickname “Rattlesnake” during his time with the Rams because as legend has it, he was bitten (depending on which account you read) between two and four times by rattlesnakes during offseasons spent as a rancher and mining engineer. Teammates joked that the snakes died rather than the tough Texan. During the 40s, most considered Matheson the best lineman in the NFL, earning five All-Pro nods during his stint in the league playing for the Rams, Lions, and 49ers.
Even as an All-Pro, Matheson wasn’t well compensated. In 1945, the Rams paid him $275 per game plus $25 a game for expenses. Still, fans revered Matheson, who helped the Rams to an NFL Championship in ‘45. Ram fans held a “Riley Matheson Day” and gave him a watch to commemorate his time with the team.
Famed columnists and tennis commentator Bud Collins set up a soda concession outside the Rams dorms at training camp on the campus of Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. Collins noted “Anyone as big, mean looking, but kindly as Riley Matheson, who was called ‘Rattlesnake’ and came from Texas Mines, you had to be awed.”
Matheson was as close to a natural as you could find. When he got to Cleveland in 1939, line coach Art Lewis asked Matheson where he’d like to play? Matheson, who played tackled and end for the Miners asked about those two positions, and Lewis told him his prospects looked grim at either one, so Matheson asked what positions looked the most promising? Lewis said he might have a shot at guard and the rest was history. Of course, given the era, Matheson played both ways on the defensive side as a linebacker.
Matheson ended his career in Canada with the Calgary Stampeders where the league voted him a CFL All-Star both seasons. Matheson was named to the Rams All-Century team in 1999.
He passed away in 1987. Pour one out for a Miner great and one tough dude, rest in peace Rattlesnake.