One of the greatest Olympians of all time, Bob Mathias, is all but forgotten today. He was born in 1930 in Tulare, in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley. Robert Bruce Mathias was his name, but everyone called him Bob.
Bob had extraordinary coordination from infancy onward. Although plagued by anemia, which caused him to take frequent naps and eat a special diet, Bob took to sports with reckless abandon. When he was 12, he happened upon his 15-year-old brother, Eugene, and a few of Eugene’s friends high-jumping over a makeshift bar in the family backyard. The bar was now up to 5'6", and none of the older boys was able to clear it. After much pleading, Eugene’s little brother was allowed to try. Bob sailed over the bar with room to spare. “We knew then,” said Eugene, “he could just do anything athletic.” At Tulare High School Bob Mathias became the star of the football, basketball, and track teams. He averaged 9 yards per carry on the gridiron and 18 points per game on the court, and won more than 40 first places in track.
During Bob’s senior season, his coach urged him to try the decathlon. Mathias had only a vague notion of the event and had never pole vaulted, thrown the javelin, or run a race beyond the 220. He was, however, one of the top prep hurdlers in California and the state high-school champion in the shot put and discus. Two weeks before he graduated from Tulare High, he entered the decathlon at the Southern Pacific AAU Games in Pasadena. Although he was competing against the best collegians on the West Coast, Mathias won handily. The townsfolk in Tulare raised money to send him to the national AAU championships in New Jersey. He won again and a month later was traveling with the U.S. Olympic team to London.
At the 1948 Games he found himself very much the inexperienced kid among the 35 decathletes from 20 countries. After the first day’s five events, spectators and participants were shocked to see him in third place. Surely the grueling second day would see him fade from contention. Through cold and rain the competition dragged on into the night. Cars were driven into Wembley Stadium to illuminate the final events. Instead of fading, Mathias moved into first place with the best discus throw of the day and then maintained his lead with a solid performance in the javelin. All that remained was the 1,500 meter run, a relatively strong event for several of the older and more experienced decathletes, including the pre-Olympic favorite, Ignace Heinrich of France, who was in second place. Although a bone-weary Mathias finished with a time 27 seconds slower than Heinrich’s, totals for the ten-event contest still left the California kid 165 points ahead. Floyd Simmons, a Purple Heart recipient from North Carolina, finished third.
Asked how he was going to celebrate his gold-medal victory, Mathias replied, “I’ll start shaving, I guess.” He was still nearly four months shy of his 18th birthday.
Mathias received the James E. Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete for 1948 and enrolled at Stanford University a year later. Fearing an injury would end his track career, he didn’t play football at first. When he did, it was two years of stardom for the 6'3", 204 lbs. running back. The big game of 1951 pitted Stanford against Southern Cal, quarterbacked by Frank Gifford, to determine which West Coast team got the 1952 Rose Bowl berth. Before 96,130 fans on SC’s home turf, the L.A. Coliseum, Stanford trailed 20-14 going into the fourth quarter. Then Bob Mathias broke the hearts of Trojans everywhere, scoring two touchdowns, including a spectacular 96-yard kickoff return, to give Stanford a 27-20 victory.
He played in the Rose Bowl, a losing effort to an outstanding Illinois team, and then won his fourth national decathlon championship five months later. At the 1952 Games in Helsinki, he simply destroyed the competition, winning by a stunning 912 points, the largest margin of victory in Olympic history, and broke his own world record.
After graduating from Stanford in 1953, Mathias was commissioned a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. Before going on active duty he starred in the Allied Artists picture The Bob Mathias Story. In 1956 Mathias easily won the decathlon in the Inter-Service championships and probably could have won a third gold medal at the Melbourne Olympics, had not the AAU declared him a professional for having played himself in the movie about his life. Bob retired from competition having set three world records and gone undefeated in 11 decathlons.
During the late 1950’s, the handsome, dark-haired, blue-eyed Mathias appeared in several movies and starred as Frank Dugan in the television series Troubleshooters. He lived in Pacific Palisades, a few doors down the street from one of my best buddies, and organized improvised decathlons for us kids. He later moved back to Tulare and served four terms in Congress as a Republican. He died of cancer in 2006.
Corresponding editor Roger D. McGrath is the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes.