Breaking into the NFL can be a lifesaving transition for some athletes. It can also break a man. John Matuszak was a highly regarded prospect who turned into a solid player in the pros. But his demons undermined him throughout his career. And they eventually played a role in his early death.
Matuszak’s passing shows that the trappings of NFL players can also trap them.
John Matuszak didn’t live up to his draft stock but still had a decent career
Observers expected John Matuszak to be a much better player when he entered the NFL. But he still ended up with a solid career. A defensive lineman from the University of Tampa, Matuszak was the Houston Oilers’ number one pick in the 1973 draft. (His draft status didn’t do anything for Tampa’s football program. Citing financial issues, his alma mater dropped football a year later.)
Matuszak, also known as “The Tooz,” also attempted to play for the short-lived World Football League’s Houston Texans. But his stint with the OG Texans lasted all of seven plays before the Oilers served him with a restraining order to stop him from playing for two football teams at the same time. Matuszak didn’t stay in H-Town for long. He was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs a year later for Curley Culp and a first-round pick.
The trade was undoubtedly a win for the Oilers. Culp became a Hall of Fame-worthy nose tackle for them, while Matuszak lasted only a year in KC before being traded to Washington, which released him shortly after the trade. He signed for the Oakland Raiders in free agency. This was the only time in his career when he saw steady footing in an organization, contributing to two Super Bowl victories in six years. He retired in 1982 after spending a year on the injured reserve list.
He also had a respectable filmography as an actor
Matuszak was known for his big personality, and he parlayed that reputation into roles on television and in movies. According to IMDb, most of his characters — the first of which came in the 1979 film North Dallas Forty — were football players or gentle giants. But his best-known performance combined the former’s physicality with the latter’s emotional depth in an iconic piece of ’80s pop-culture history.
He was the man under the makeup for Sloth Fratelli, the deformed but gold-hearted son of the villainous family in The Goonies. Becoming Sloth was an ordeal for Matuszak. It took five hours to apply the layers of makeup for the role.
Matuszak also appeared in notable TV shows throughout the decade, including M*A*S*H, The Dukes of Hazzard, The A-Team, and Miami Vice.
His demons eventually contributed to his downfall
However, his film and TV appearances aren’t the reasons most people remember Matuszak. He died at the young age of 38. The cause of death: heart failure due to an overdose of prescription drugs. His blood also contained traces of cocaine.
It was no secret to the people around him that Matuszak had substance abuse problems and partied too much. On rare occasions, his exploits were seen as comical. His late-night excursions on Bourbon Street during Super Bowl week before the Raiders played the Philadelphia Eagles kept the mood light for his teammates. But it was cause for concern most of the time. He nearly died during training camp with the Chiefs when he mixed Valium and beer. A coach drove him to a hospital in time to save him.
Matuszak joined Alcoholics Anonymous and other treatment programs, but none of them stuck. Eventually, his addictions killed him.