In one of the semi-annual trips I took to Los Angeles years ago when the Buffalo News covered national television differently, I sat in an airplane seat next to a 6-foot 8-inch man who looked like a professional athlete.
We struck up a conversation about sports, which led me to ask a question I had delayed asking because the last thing you want to do with a 6-8 guy is guess that he is an athlete just in case he is one of those tall guys who can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.
He said he played basketball at Pepperdine University, which happened to be my favorite spot in all of Southern California.
On every trip to Los Angeles to previews the new shows, I would find two hours to drive down Pacific Coast Highway to the university, which is up on a hill majestically overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I miss that trip much more than missing previews of majestically bad new shows.
I always wondered how any student could concentrate on studies when that spectacular view was so available.
Naturally, I told the guy seated next to me about my Pepperdine treks and asked him his name before introducing myself.
“I’m Ollie Matson Jr.,” he said.
That was the start of a warm and friendly conversation that ended with Ollie Jr. telling me he’d try and get some tickets that night for a Los Angeles Laker game so I could go.
Now I’m old enough to remember Ollie’s father, though I never saw the Hall of Famer play in the National Football League. I knew that Ollie was one of the all-time greats in the NFL, and asked Ollie Jr. how his dad was doing.
Ollie Jr. said not so well. He said his dad had dementia and it was tough on his mom and the family. He added that a lot of old-time NFL players had dementia and thought that all the hard hits to the head may have contributed to it.
Now this was years before the NFL acknowledged a possible link and years before studies were begun.
I told Ollie Jr. that I had heard that another all-time NFL great John Mackey also was suffering from dementia. I think that Ollie Jr. confirmed that and named several other old-timers.
Then I told him a story that probably only means something to the Pergament family or anyone else who was overmatched athletically. It seems my older brother Stu once scrimmaged against Mackey when the future Syracuse University and Baltimore Colts star was playing at Freeport (Long Island) High.
My brother’s scrimmage didn’t last long. Mackey delivered a devastating block that knocked my brother down and out. But he can always say he played against a NFLer.
The Matson and Mackey stories came to mind this weekend when the New York Times published Matson’s obituary without mentioning that he had dementia.
The omission made me wonder if the writer was respecting the family’s wishes or protecting the National Football League.
Since Ollie Jr. told a stranger about his dad’s illness many years ago and it was reported in many other publications, the omission seemed journalistically questionable.
That was even more the case because of the recent suicide of former NFL star Dave Duerson, who reportedly wanted his brain studied.
Matson’s illness would seem to put more of a focus on Alzheimer’s and other diseases that may lead to dementia and the Times was remiss not to mention it in the obituary.
I wondered what Ollie Jr. thought about the omission.
If I were to run into Ollie Jr. on a plane again, I’d tell him I hope his father is overlooking a place as majestic and as spectacular as the view from Pepperdine University.