Tom Matte, a stubby halfback for the Baltimore Colts who stepped in as their quarterback late in the 1965 season when Johnny Unitas and his backup, Gary Cuozzo, were injured and nearly took the team to the N.F.L. championship game, died on Tuesday at his home in Towson, Md. He was 82.
John Harbaugh, the coach of the Baltimore Ravens, announced the death.
Matte was a sturdy, reliable and productive running back for the Colts for 12 seasons. But he was no stranger to playing quarterback. He had played the position at Ohio State University, though he had not passed often in Coach Woody Hayes’s run-oriented offense. And, with Unitas, a future Hall of Famer, at quarterback for the Colts, Matte didn’t have to worry about anything but taking handoffs and catching passes.
Matte also knew that he was physically limited as a quarterback.
“I have very small hands,” Matte told PressBox, a Maryland sports media company, in 2020. “I couldn’t even put my hand around the ball. Unitas, he’d wrap almost all the way around the ball, so he would always throw that wonderful spiral.”
But in successive weeks in December, Unitas tore up his right knee and Cuozzo separated his left shoulder, setting the stage for Matte to become an enduring favorite among Colts fans. In a game on Dec. 18, 1965, he and Ed Brown, a journeyman player, shared the quarterbacking duties and led the Colts to a 20-17 victory over the Los Angeles Rams.
Matte did not complete any passes but led the team in rushing with 99 yards.
“We had scratched our complicated offense, but the Rams didn’t know that,” Don Shula, the Colts’ coach, told The Baltimore Sun in 2005. “So Tom would fake a complicated play and then run the ball himself.”
To remember what he had to call, Matte wore a vinyl wristband with all the plays written in tiny lettering by his wife, Judy.
The next game was for the Western Conference championship between the Colts and the Green Bay Packers, to determine which team would play the Eastern Conference champion for the N.F.L. title. Matte again led the team in rushing, with 57 yards, and completed five passes for 40 yards. But the Packers tied the game in regulation on a wobbly, disputed field goal and won it, 13-10, in overtime.
“Everyone knew in the country that this attempt to win without Unitas and his backup with Matte would be impossible,” Upton Bell, the Colts’ player personnel director at the time, said in an email, “but we had it won and then lost on a blown call.”
Matte was disconsolate after the game and tore off his wristband, which was retrieved by a Baltimore sportswriter, John Steadman. It is now on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, an accessory born of necessity that has become commonplace in the N.F.L.
The Colts were greeted by a throng of worshipful fans at Friendship Airport in Baltimore. Some of them lifted Matte onto their shoulders, if not in triumph then at least in admiration for his work as an emergency quarterback.
Thomas Roland Matte was born on June 14, 1939, in Pittsburgh. His father, Roland, was a longtime amateur hockey player who had short stints in the N.H.L. with the Detroit Cougars (now the Red Wings) and the Chicago Blackhawks.
Matte was a running back at Ohio State until 1959, when he played quarterback at times. He became the starter in 1960, doing well enough (he passed for 737 yards and ran for 682) to be voted an All-American and finish seventh in Heisman Trophy voting.
He was selected by the Colts in the first round of the 1961 N.F.L. draft and over 12 seasons rushed for 4,646 yards and scored 45 touchdowns. He also caught 249 passes for 2,869 yards and 12 touchdowns. He had his best season in 1969, rushing for 11 touchdowns, the most in the league, and piling up 909 yards, third most behind Gale Sayers and Calvin Hill.
Matte got the nickname Old Garbage Can from Alex Karras, the Detroit Lions defensive tackle, for his tough running style.
In Super Bowl III between the Colts and the Jets on Jan. 12, 1969, Matte had one of his best games ever, rushing for 116 yards (half of those on a second-quarter run) on 11 carries. But the favored Colts lost in a stunning upset, 16-7.
Matte was traded to the San Diego Chargers in early 1973 but chose to retire. Eleven years later, the owner of the Colts, Robert Irsay, moved the team to Indianapolis. The relocation angered fans and many players, including Matte, who told The Sun in 1984: “Bob Irsay, you’re out of your mind. You’re bad for the city. He’s broken a great football tradition.”
Matte would later work as a radio analyst for the Baltimore Ravens, the new N.F.L. franchise that replaced the Colts, from 1996 to 2005.
He is survived by his wife. Complete information on his survivors wasn’t immediately available.