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Gopher DNA Deep in Dick Mattson

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May 25, 2017


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Dick Mattson lived for Gophers football. The Gophers were the only football team in town to “Matts.” Mention the Vikings and he might snort, or cuss. Bring up the Gophers and passion stirred in his mind, body, and soul.

Lou Holtz was reviving Gophers football to a place of greatness in the mid-1980s. The Metrodome was rocking when Holtz’s team took the field on Saturdays. Mattson contributed to the crowd’s frenzy by running onto the field waving a hockey stick over his head, encouraging the craziness in the stands.

Mattson spent 48 years with the Gophers equipment staff, including 32 seasons heading operations for the football program. Family and friends said goodbye to him yesterday at his funeral. He died last week at age 73, his body giving in to liver and kidney failure.

Mattson was a high school senior in Benson, Minnesota in 1961 when Gophers coach Murray Warmath came to the western part of the state. Mattson, who was an athletics student manager in high school, told the coach he wanted to perform those duties when he came to the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1961.

That’s how Mattson started his long tenure at the U. He arrived in the glory years of Gophers football. The 1960 team had won the national championship and the 1961 team would be headed to a 1962 Rose Bowl win over UCLA. Mattson, though, didn’t make the trip to Pasadena because freshmen managers weren’t allowed to travel. That turned out to be a lifelong regret for him.

He revered Warmath who coached the Gophers from 1954-1971. Mattson would refer to him as the “old man” but it was always respectfully. Warmath was a hard-nosed coach who preached discipline and Mattson was a disciple.

Former Gopher Jim Brunzell remembered the coach and Mattson in an email: “Matts was a real character. He was straight-up, no mincing words with him. He…took on Murray’s traits and attitudes. Be tough—don’t bitch—don’t give up—and respect one another.”

When Mattson encountered a reporter, he set that strong jaw of his and told you exactly what he thought. He probably was chomping on his trademark pipe while looking through his oversized glasses. He let you know where things stood in the Gophers football world.

Mattson made the right impression early on in the football program. Two years after arriving at the U as a freshman he became assistant equipment manager to the legendary Milt Holmgren. Mattson didn’t have his degree in 1963 and never did graduate from college, but he now had a career path. “School was not his thing,” his son Keith Mattson told Sports Headliners.

The Gophers and managing equipment needs was his thing. So, too, was relating with and sometimes mentoring the people around him in an environment of long hours, physical work and intense emotions.

“U of M Athletics was a calling to him, and dedicating his time for 48 years being there for the athletes made him happy,” Keith wrote on Facebook. “I don’t think there is a profession out there where you can be a part of so many young people’s lives as they grow to be adults.”

George Adzick, another former Gopher football player, recalled the impact Mattson had on him, including doing things the right way. “Nobody wanted to disappoint Dick Mattson. You came in as a freshman and he kept a close eye on you to make sure you didn’t go wayward. He had a classic football orientation to do things the right way. He was somewhere in between an assistant coach and the equipment manager.

“That’s how much respect you had for him. Once you came to terms with him, and he believed in you, he was loyal for life.”

Last year Mattson was battling cancer when word came the University wanted to honor him at the “M” Club’s Hall of Fame ceremony. He told Keith he wasn’t sure if he would die before the big day last fall when he was to receive the “M” Club’s Distinguished Service Award in honor of his contributions to Gopher athletics.

Mattson suggested his son might need to represent him. “You’re going to be there,” Keith told him.

Mattson listened and Keith thinks the motivation of receiving the honor kept his father alive longer than he otherwise would have. At the Hall of Fame gathering Mattson told the audience they didn’t know “how much it means” to be recognized.

“It meant the world to him,” Keith said. “It kind of solidified his place in Gophers history, although he would never ask for it (the award).”

Keith travelled with his dad when he met collegiate equipment managers from various parts of the country. People would ask Mattson for advice. “They called him the mentor,” Keith remembered.

Mattson, though, would caution his colleagues to not tell Keith about his episodes as a party man. Mattson liked to drink and eventually became a recovering alcoholic. He didn’t want anyone telling his son about the partying.

“He paid for his sins, as he would tell you,” Keith said.

No doubt Matts is in heaven this week toasting the Golden Gophers with a non-alcoholic beverage of his choice.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

(1) Reader Comment

  1. avatar
    Judge Dickson
    May 30, 2017 at 6:45 pm

    Love you Matts !! Judge Dickson, football 1959-1962

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