The only athlete to ever compete in the Olympics and play in the Rose Bowl in the same year grew up anemic.
Robert Bruce Mathias was born in Tulare, California—a small farming town in the San Joaquin Valley—on this date in 1930. Mathias was the second of four children born to a father who was a doctor and a mother who cried when Bob was born, as she already had one son and was hoping for a daughter. The children were encouraged to participate in athletics and the backyard was used for track events. Napping frequently to save his strength, he took liver and iron supplements prescribed by his father, yet the athletically-gifted Mathias could high jump 5’6” in sixth grade. He played basketball four years Tulare High School, averaging 18 points his senior year, averaged nine yards a carry as a fullback and was a track star—winning the CIF championships in discus and shot put as a junior. By his senior year, Mathias had grown to 6’2” and 190 pounds. His track coach, Virgil Jackson, suggest he take up the decathlon, a grueling ten-event competition that included several disciplines the youngster had never tried, three months before Mathias graduated. Training largely out of a manual, he entered his first decathlon at the 1948 Southern Pacific AAU Games in Pasadena and won, qualifying for the national championship two weeks later. He travelled to Bloomfield, New Jersey, on money donated by hometown friends to compete in the AAU Nationals, which served as the Olympic Trials at that time. Mathias, who held the javelin “like a guy killing a chicken” and whose high jump “looked like a guy leaving a banana peel” beat three-time champion Irving Mondschein to win that event, too. Four weeks later, two months after graduating from high school and six weeks after competing in his first decathlon, Bob Mathias travelled to London to represent the United States in the 1948 Olympic Games.
France’s Ignace Heinrich, the gold medal favorite, was second to Argentina’s Enrique Kistenmacher after the first day of competition. Day two took place on August 6, in cold and rainy conditions in Wembley Stadium. That day’s competition lasted 12 hours and Mathias wrapped himself in blankets and raincoats between events. He took the lead after the discus throw, the seventh event of ten. It was so dark for the javelin, the next-to-last event, that cars were driven inside the stadium so headlights could be directed to help athletes and officials see the foul lines. The final event was the 1,500 meters, which Bob Mathias ran in 5:11 to become, at 17, the youngest man ever to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field. The New York Times wrote, “in rain, on a track covered in water, on jumping and vaulting runways that were slippery and a bit risky, in fading light and finally under floodlights, it was an amazing achievement.” Upon his return home, Mathias received 200 marriage proposals and won the Sullivan Award as most outstanding amateur athlete in the U.S. “I wouldn’t do this again in a million years,” he said after the ’48 Games.
Mathias enrolled at Stanford University in 1949 and played football—his father was a tackle at the University of Oklahoma– as an upperclassman, . One year later, he set his first world record at the National Decathlon Championship meet held in Tulare. In a game played in front of 96,130 fans in the Los Angeles Coliseum against USC in 1951, he returned Frank Gifford’s kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown before playing in the Rose Bowl later that season. Mathias qualified for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, where he asserted himself as one of the world’s best athletes by winning the decathlon by 912 points—a huge margin—despite a pulled thigh muscle. He beat his career bests in the javelin [194-3] and 1,500 meters [4:50:8] to become the first decathlete to successfully defend an Olympic title and returned to the United States as a national hero. After the Games, he retired from Olympic competition and, in 1953, graduated from Stanford with a B.A. in education. Mathias served for two-and-a half years as a second lieutenant in the U.S Marine Corps and was drafted by the Washington Redskins but never played in the NFL. He became a television and movie actor and traveled as a good-will ambassador for the State Department before serving four terms in the U.S House of Representatives [R] representing California’s San Joaquin Valley.
Bob Mathias was a true American hero. He won all eleven decathlons he competed in and won four national AAU championships. Mr. Mathias set three decathlon world records and is the only person to compete in an Olympics and play in a Rose Bowl same year, which he did in 1952. In 1977, he became the first director of the United States Olympic Training Center, a post he held until 1983, when he was appointed executive director of the National Fitness Foundation. Robert Bruce Mathias died of cancer in 2006. He was 75 years old.