THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE TOOZ : Menacing Body Held Spirit of Insecure, Guilt-Ridden Child

Times Staff Writer

He was the best of times, he was the worst of times. . . .

There were always two of him: The Tooz, a raging, running-on-premium-and-lots-of-it, havoc-wreaking monster; and John Matuszak, a 6-foot-8, 280-pound puppy dog just begging for you to pat him on the head.

The people who knew him by day adored him, remember him for his gentleness, his consideration, his unfailing kindness. The people who saw him out on the town on one of those nights didn't soon forget it.

He could wipe himself out and take a tavern down with him (or his car, or someone else's car plus the attending peace officers), and joke about it later for interviewers. You cruised with the Tooz, you couldn't lose but you might get bruised, etc. The press was a partner in a mutual endeavor, the propagation of Tooz's legend, and he was nothing if not diligent in its service.

And it was his undoing.

Beset by fears he couldn't acknowledge, his body weakened by years of abuse, his path long since hardened into a superhighway to hell, Matuszak suffered massive heart failure in his North Hollywood home on the evening of June 17 and died at age 38. He had created the Tooz as a mighty fortress to hide in, but he got trapped in there.

There has been some attempt to put a last gentle Hollywood glow on his life, to suggest he'd numbed himself out because of the pain of football injuries, but it's sadder than that.

His is a harrowing story of addiction to alcohol, cocaine and prescription drugs. His final years were marked by a futile series of efforts to kick the addictions. He started detox programs at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and at Beverly Hills Medical Center in 1985 and 1986, and left early both times. His long-time fiance, Stephanie Cozart, called off their wedding in 1986 and broke up with him in 1988. After his death, the autopsy found cocaine in his urine, although the coroner's office said it hadn't contributed to his death.

In his last months, he was still being seen out on the town, still capable of sudden violence.

One April day in the Raider training room in El Segundo, he punctuated a routine laughing, kidding argument with assistant coach Terry Robiskie, a former teammate, by suddenly slapping Robiskie's face, then grabbing him and shaking him.

Robiskie, seven inches shorterand 70 pounds lighter, then grabbed a metal crutch and broke it over Matuszak. The training room was crowded, and it took several players to pull them apart.

Neither was seriously hurt. The Raiders treated it as merely another Tooz flip-out. The broken crutch was mounted on the training room wall with a sign: " 'Biskie's Tooz Pick."

Robiskie won't comment, but Cozart, who remained friendly with Matuszak, says John told her about it. The amazing thing, she says, is that he said that it had been his fault, something he'd never said before about similar situations.

In this game, however, it was too late for comebacks.

He was already deep into the fourth quarter, but nobody knew it.

YOUNG TOOZ

There were things in his life that he would lie to other people about. I would tell him, "The day you stop lying to other people and to yourself, you've made a big step." (He'd say the incidents) were always the other person's fault. It was never his fault. And it never had anything to do with the fact that he was high. --STEPHANIE COZART

Everyone laughed.

For years and years, Matuszak's adventures were romanticized. He became a personality.

He got into the movies and television. He wrote his autobiography. The blurb on the jacket cover announces:

"It's all here. The booze. The parties. The broads. The out-of-control substances. The brawls. Don't miss your chance to go 'Cruisin' with the Tooz!' "

In HBO's "First and Ten," they had his character, a burned-out veteran, drop dead of a heart attack.

Born in Milwaukee, he was the only surviving son of Marv and Audrey Matuszak. One brother died at birth of cystic fibrosis; his other brother lived two years before dying of the same disease. A sister, Dawn, has it, too, but has survived.

He always felt cut off. In his book, he describes the move from downtown Milwaukee to the outlying village of Oak Creek as wrenching. He'd go home crying to his mother when schoolmates ridiculed him as a gawky beanpole.

His destiny, however, would be anything but quiet desperation. He became an athlete and his huge body became the badge of his pride.

The Tooz, almost a mirror opposite to the gentle John, was emerging, to guard him from ridicule and avenge the many slights he felt.

In his sophomore year at the University of Missouri, where he was a reserve tight end, he caved in a student's face while drunk at a fraternity party. He said the student had fondled his date and that he hadn't meant to hit him so hard. His scholarship was revoked.

In his second professional season, he jumped the Houston Oilers in mid-season and signed a second contract with the World Football League. A posse of lawmen pursued him on the sidelines at an Oiler game to serve him with a subpoena.

In his fourth season, in Kansas City, his girlfriend tried to run him down with their car. Shortly thereafter, he collapsed in a bar after taking two sleeping pills while drinking, and was taken to a hospital in an ambulance, with Chief Coach Paul Wiggin pounding on his chest to try to keep him alive. Matuszak said he'd been having trouble sleeping; he didn't say why he took the pills in a bar.

He was traded to the Redskins, who cut him a few weeks later.

He was picked up by the Oakland Raiders, the well-known Outlaws' Last Chance.

He stuck and prospered, in his inimitable style, which wasn't far from their inimitable style.

DREAD PIRATE TOOZ

In Oakland, they asked Mike Ornstein, then a 22-year-old front office worker, to live with Matuszak and keep an eye on him. This was the Raider way; they didn't mind hijinks, they weren't going to spend a lot of time telling Matuszak what he could do or couldn't do, but they didn't want him getting locked up for good.

It wasn't just a job, it was an adventure.

"The guy was a good human being," Ornstein said. "He was a very, very good person and he had a great heart for kids.

"There was a kid, I remember, who had cancer. He gave him his jersey, gave him his helmet, gave him everything he had. He went to visit that kid, like 25 days in a row at Children's Hospital. He did stuff like that.

"But he just couldn't control himself. He just couldn't have one drink. He thought his body was so large, it would absorb it. His drink was triple Crown Royal with a beer backer. You'd sit down and drink a Coke, he'd drink (his drink). The man lived a hard life.

"Basically, to be honest with you, as long as he was there on defensive day--Wednesday's practice--and he was ready to play the games, the Raiders didn't worry about those things. We always had someone watching and if a guy got in a problem, we were there to help him. But we didn't care about all that stuff. We had 20 Matuszaks. Maybe not as volatile as he was, but every day someone was doing something abnormal.

"I think John got to the point where he felt he was expected to do it. We had Ted Hendricks, Ken Stabler, Otis Sistrunk, Errol Mann, Phil Villapiano. Those were the guys at the Airport Hilton after practice every day. Everybody'd come in, like 20 guys, but they were the core guys. Those guys would sit there 'til 9 o'clock, proving who was going to out-drink the other guy.

"You'd come in the next day and there'd be a Tooz story. He thrived on that. Hey, he made a lot of money on that.

"Tooz was definitely an insecure guy. We used to go down to Polk Street (in San Francisco) so the gay guys could look at his build . . . this 52-inch chest, the 34-inch waist. He needed approval from the gays. We'd sit there and drink and they'd come up and say, 'God, John!' Not that he was gay."

Writes Ken Stabler in his book, "Snake":

"I don't know how many times I've seen The Tooz walk into a bar, grab his shirt with both hands, rip it open to the waist and growl like a lion at the top of his lungs. That tended to get everyone's attention.

"He particularly enjoyed stomping into the gay bars in San Francisco and scaring the . . . out of everyone in them. Eyes glaring and muscles bulging, he would let out that roar and it would rattle glasses on the bar and just freeze everyone solid. The Tooz did instant statues. He loved to see fear on peoples' faces."

Stabler was another of Matuszak's assigned roommates, although they disagreed on how it came about.

Matuszak said that Snake's best friends had recently been traded, that he felt bad for Stabler and invited him to dinner to keep him from being alone, that their friendship grew from there.

Here's Stabler's account:

"When we broke training camp in 1979, Coach Tom Flores sent for me. I went to his office, wondering what was up. I found Tom pacing around, with his head down, looking concerned. . . . " 'Would you mind rooming with Matuszak?' Flores said. "We'd like to move him out of the trunk of his car.'

"I laughed.

" 'It's no joke (Flores said). Last season when he wasn't living with some woman, I hear he actually spent some nights in his . . . car.

" 'I'll see what I can do,' I said. I thought it might be kind of fun, being 'Keeper of the Tooz.' And I'd never had a 280-pound pet before.

"I went down to the parking lot looking for John and saw his big curly-haired 'natural' rising above the vehicles. He was packing his car. The biggest player on the team also had the biggest car. It was a 1978 Lincoln Mark IV, about 25 or 30 feet long. . . .

"As I walked over, The Tooz was shoving suitcases into the back seat. The open trunk was already filled and it resembled a Goodwill Industries collection container. Thrown into it were several pairs of jeans, a few pairs of double-knit pants, a bunch of T-shirts and wash-and-wear button-downs, a vast assortment of brightly-colored suspenders and several go-to-hell hats--cowboy, Teddy Roosevelt, cab driver. The Tooz also had strewn much of his paperwork in there: playbooks, receipts, bills, traffic tickets. . . .

"I told John he was welcome to join me in the condo.

" 'Hey, Snake, that's damn nice of you,' he said, 'but I'll have to see the place before I decide.'

" 'You have other offers?'

" 'The Tooz always has offers for his person,' he said, pushing out his chest."

Stabler's story continues to describe their housewarming, but without any chance at merely an R rating. Let's simply say they had some friends over.

CRUISIN'

Seasons passed. The cast around Matuszak changed and became less reverent. New players such as Matt Millen, Howie Long and Lyle Alzado cocked skeptical eyebrows.

Or as Millen once put it: "That's Tooz, all that fake camaraderie."

Said Millen now: "Some guys you could talk to and they let their hair down and level with you. I mean, 95% of the people will do that. He never did that. He was always on, which led me to believe, that was him.

"Tooz was always larger than life. He relished that role. He always wanted to be the guy who everybody looked to, who everybody tried to emulate. And that's the way he tried to live his life.

"Tooz was a decent guy. He was loud, but not always obnoxious. If you saw him with his family, he was just like you and me. It was mostly when he was high. When he was flying, boy, he was the worst. Which was a lot.

"I almost got into a fight with him on a plane. After the Super Bowl (in 1981, when the Raiders beat the Eagles in New Orleans). He was out all night afterward, partying. He got on the plane and slept, but about half-way home, he started yelling. Everybody thought, 'Oh great.'

"Well, I happened to be walking up the aisle of the 747. And he's right in front of me. I go, 'Hey Tooz, what's up?' He always liked me, even after I dogged (kidded) him.

"Now he started saying, 'Hey rookie this, hey rookie that.' He'd never called me that. I was just kinda laughing. Then he grabbed me by the shirt and threw me backwards. I fell into a seat. I'm no pacifist. I just ran right at him and I hit him in the chest as hard as I could with my head. He went flying. He got up and said, 'Hey, I was just foolin' with you,' and all that stuff. I just left.

"That always stuck with him. His last year, he called me into his room one day. I said, 'I'm not comin' in, Tooz.' 'Cause you didn't know if he had a gun, or what. I saw him shoot a stop sign out."

(Matuszak had been carrying pistols for years. Buddy Martin, a Denver Post columnist, remembers giving him a ride before the 1973 College All-Star Game in Chicago, and seeing Matuszak, then 22, pull a gun out of his boot. Stabler said Matuszak's weapon of choice in their days together was a .357 Magnum.)

"He said, 'Naw, nothing like that. I just want to arm-wrestle you.' So I went in. And he talked about that time when I pushed him backwards. He said, 'C'mon, let's see who's really stronger.'

"So we start and neither of us is moving the other.

"He says, 'You can't beat me, can you?'

"I said, 'No, Tooz, I can't beat you.' "

In training camp in 1982, the Raiders' first season in Los Angeles, Matuszak suffered a back injury and sat out the season.

In 1983, he retired at 32.

If it was traumatic--he wrapped his Cadillac around a telephone pole in Studio City the night he decided to retire--but he was anything but an ex-jock with no options. He had already attracted attention in "North Dallas Forty" and had made two other movies, "Caveman" and "Ice Pirates."

He did another one, "Goonies," and a lot of television over the next few years. He tried to clean up. He published "Cruisin' with the Tooz."

It should have been titled "Once Over, Lightly." What it showed, more than anything else, was a man unable to come to grips with who he was and what he'd done.

In his book, for example, he acknowledges six auto incidents leading to convictions.

Included were:

--Four drunken driving convictions.

--Two for concealed weapons, leading to a three-day jail term in Wisconsin.

--One for misdemeanor marijuana possession in Florida.

--Two crashes into parked cars.

--One arrest in which he was taken away in handcuffs.

--One arrest in which he was taken away in handcuffs and leg chains.

He has explanations for each of them.

In both the crashes, he said he had swerved to avoid someone, in one case a little girl, in the other, an oncoming car.

In the weapons and marijuana cases, he didn't know it was in the car.

In three of the cases, the police officer was hostile, precipitating his resistance.

In the fall of 1987, on a visit to the Raiders' training camp at Oxnard, he said he had put it all behind him ("You cruise, you lose") and talked about the book, which was about to be released.

"It tells all about growing up in America," he said, "where all your dreams and nightmares come true."

STEPHANIE

They met in 1984. He was doing the TV show, "Silver Spoons," and she was working on it as a makeup artist.

Cozart mentioned she was "weak for a man in a tuxedo." On their first date, she put on a miniskirt and answered the door to find him in a tux. She thought he was the sweetest thing she'd ever seen.

Within six months, they were living together in a house on Oak Glen Drive in North Hollywood that she'd found.

"He probably wasn't (straight) at all but I was very green," said Cozart during a break at Universal Studios, where she's working on a Bill Cosby movie.

"The first night we went out on a date, he was drinking triple Crown Royal, which was his drink of choice. And I was rationalizing to myself: 'Well, he can handle it. Well, he's an old Raider football player partier and that's the type of drinking he does.'

"And the sweating--if I'd had any kind of an alcohol education, I would have seen it immediately."

Her education was forthcoming. In the spring of '85, Stephanie met the Tooz.

"He didn't have a car here then (Matuszak was commuting from Wisconsin) and we took a limousine everywhere," she said. "To this day, I still cringe when I see limos.

"We went to a restaurant and he got really drunk, and I said something to him about it. He got really angry. He stopped the car and told me I could get out. And I was so angry I did. I lived in West Hollywood then and I walked home. I was furious. I decided that I was going to break up with him.

"And of course, Mr. Remorse, Mr. Wonderful. The next day he was all over the floor: 'I'm sorry, I was high, I'll never do it again.'

"You know how it is. You want to hear it, so I went back with him and eventually moved in."

Does she know why he drank?

"Oh, yeah. The man was in a lot of emotional pain. He had a lot of childhood stuff to deal with. He had a lot of present-day stuff. He was like a book. He was a therapist's dream.

"God, I don't know where to start. . . .

"His size. He was very uncomfortable with it. It was almost like his enemy. He felt condemned into the body, not blessed with it. He liked being special but he didn't like feeling like a circus freak.

"His brothers' deaths. Why did he survive and they didn't? And pressure. Now I'm the only son. I'm the one who has to carry on the name. Everything depends on me. I'm the only one in the family who's a celebrity and the biggest breadwinner. He talked constantly about how he had to take care of them. He had to made sure his mom was taken care of, and his sisters and nieces. And me. He felt everything was on his back."

Shortly thereafter, Matuszak took the plunge and acknowledged his myriad substance abuse problems to Cozart.

He entered CareUnit at Cedars-Sinai, but ran out the door halfway through the 30-day program. Cozart says the hospital called her, that she called the limo company and found out that he was at a doctor's office, trying to get a prescription.

Cozart and her cousin, Andrea, drove to the office and surprised Matuszak. She says that when they got to the street, John tried to get at the limo driver, furious at the man "for ratting on him."

"John lunged at him," Cozart saids. "My cousin and I wedged ourselves between John and the guy. He wouldn't dare touch us. Neither one of us was afraid of him because we knew him so well. Matter of fact, I slapped the hell out of him."

They took Matuszak back to the house on Oak Glen, where another member of her family came over to spend the night with them, trying to cool Matuszak out. Once, says Cozart, John ran out the back door, but they got him back.

Matuszak finally quieted down, and for a while after that he pulled himself together as he never had before.

"He joined CA (Cocaine Anonymous)," Cozart said. "He played on the softball team. He went to hospitals and gave speeches. He was all anti-drug. He was in everything. We went to meetings; it was like our regular Friday night date, his favorite CA meeting. We got into AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). We went to family therapy groups.

"We started going to non-alcoholic parties. Oh my God, I could go to a party and relax and have a good time and not have to keep an eye on him and worry about him slipping off anywhere and doing anything. It was how I envisioned our life to be."

But it wasn't to be.

Matuszak nibbled around the edges for a while and took a hard fall off the wagon a year later, in the summer of 1986. Cozart called off their June 20 wedding; she says the stamps were on the envelopes with the invitations and she still has her dress.

This time, says Cozart, Matuszak checked into Beverly Hills Medical Center . . . and checked out early again.

In detox, they say that getting patients off drugs is the easy part; keeping them off is the problem. Without a new way to deal with the feelings that have inspired the addictive behavior, the patient is likely to return to his habit.

Matuszak had no gift for introspection, or more precisely, feared it. When the shrinks bored in, he dialed them out.

"The paranoia would set in," Cozart said. "(He'd say,) the doctor didn't really care about him, that he just wanted his money.

"I think, you know what it was? He got up against the wall where you have to give up a certain part of yourself to find out what the problem is. He'd get there and panic. I think he was terrified of what he was going to find out on his therapist's couch."

On June 24, 1987, the day they took his picture for his book's jacket cover, Matuszak was involved in an accident on Hollywood Boulevard, in which he was alleged to have punched the driver of the other car. He later pleaded guilty.

Asked about it later by a reporter, Matuszak said:

"Some guy purposely caused an accident."

Said Cozart: "To this day, if John came in and sat down at this table, and if I told him he could have the whole world right now if he would just stop lying about that, I don't think he would. 'Cause I told him the same thing when I canceled the wedding.

"He missed the point. He was wondering why I was making such a big deal over the wreck. I said, 'It's not the wreck. It's you admitting to yourself the truth.'

"I said, 'If you ever walk in here one day and tell the truth, I would lie to the rest of the world for you. If you'd just come in here and sit on the bed and look me in the face and say to me, 'It was my fault, I did it, I was wrong. I was high,' I'd forget it. I would never talk to you about it again. Just look in the mirror and say it to yourself, even.' "

Had he been high?

"If you look at his book cover, you can tell he was high," Cozart said. "The girl who was modeling with him was a friend of ours and she told me he was high. He just had a six-pack of beer but for an alcoholic, that's all you need."

Within a year of that accident, Cozart moved out.

"I would say in all the (four) years that we were together, his ridiculous antics might have happened four times," she said. "I mean the things that hit the papers, or caused an uproar. They weren't regular events.

"He'd get high every couple of months. To give you an idea, I have a little velvet box at home. It's full of 30-day and 60-day chips. They give those out at the (AA and CA) meetings.

"His big goal was to get a 90-day chip . . . and he never got one.

"One time he got to 89 days-- 89 days! I ordered a cake. I was going to have it presented to him at the meeting. It was like a milestone for him. And he couldn't make it.

"I was waiting for him to give me a 90-day chip. I said, 'When you give me a 90-day chip, I'll set another wedding date.

"That's why we're not married today. I didn't leave him because I didn't love him."

TOOZ'S LAST CRUISE

Who will ever know what happened in those last hours?

On Friday, June 16, Matuszak had returned from West Germany, where he'd been promoting "One Man Force," in which he had his first leading role. Cozart says he called to tell her he'd bought her a gift that was too expensive to leave on the doorstep and would bring it over Sunday.

Cozart says Matuszak had been in great spirits when he left, but now wasn't feeling well. He had a cold and his back had given him trouble on the flight. The stewardesses had made a pallet for him on the floor of the plane, so he could lie down. The coroner's report says he got a shot of Demerol for it that Friday at Tarzana Medical Center.

Saturday afternoon, Matuszak took a nap. His new fiance, Rachel Toni, another makeup artist, looked in on him before going to work at 1:30. When she returned at 8:25, she didn't think he looked well.

She tried to awaken him and, said the coroner's report, "found him to be unresponsive."

Toni called 911. A Los Angeles Fire Dept. ambulance took Matuszak to St. Joseph's Medical Center in Burbank, where he was pronounced dead at 9:39 p.m.

The coroner's report ruled the cause of death to be an accidental overdose of Darvocet, a prescription pain killer, listing bronchial pneumonia and an enlarged heart as contributing causes. A small amount of cocaine was found in his urine; the report says that Matuszak "was also known to smoke cocaine and had recently done so as early as two days ago," but concluded that he was not "under the influence," and that it had "probably not" been a factor.

The fact that Matuszak had an enlarged heart gave rise to speculation about steroids. However, Matuszak's intimates are unanimous and insistent: he didn't use them.

Says Millen, who used to lift weights with Matuszak: "Never."

Cozart, who has freely described Matuszak's abuses of alcohol, cocaine and prescription drugs, said: "I know positively that he never took them. They were the one thing he was absolutely terrified of."

The death received widespread publicity and there began a certain competition to speak on behalf of the departed. The night Matuszak died, Dale Trevillion, producer and director of "One Man Force," and his wife, Sharon Farrell, who had co-starred, gave several interviews, noting that John had been upset about the lack of U.S. promotion of their film.

Farrell went so far as to say that Matuszak had been "distraught."

Cozart and other friends of Matuszak say he had been disappointed, but not distraught.

Trevillion says now that he and his wife were only trying to put out a positive message about John, whom they had been fond of.

"We never meant to insinuate that he was like suicidal," Trevillion said.

Before services could be held for Matuszak in Wisconsin, copies of "One Man Force" arrived at local media outlets, sent by the company that owned videotape rights, Academy Entertainment of Shelburne, Vt. The tapes had cover letters announcing that it was "accelerating" the release date.

On Wednesday, June 20, services for Matuszak were conducted in Oak Creek. Al Davis eulogized him, as did his old Raider training camp roommate, Mickey Marvin, a lay preacher. Also attending were his running buddies, Hendricks and Villapiano, plus Rod Martin, Mario Cellato, ex-assistant coach Lou Erber, Ornstein, Cozart and Toni.

Cozart says she sat by Matuszak's body, with the family and friends, for almost two hours the night before.

"I just wanted to touch his hair one more time," she said.

Rest in peace, sweet John, your dreams and nightmares are over.

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