Foe Calls Tailback 'Best I've Seen' : Detroit's Loss Is Fairfax High's Gain

Times Staff Writer

When Mario Mattison was a seventh-grader in Detroit, he was coming home from a boys club one day and was jumped by toughs. He came out of the fight with a concussion, and his grandmother, who had a strong hand in raising the fatherless youth, thought it was time he got out of town.

Mattison came to Los Angeles, moved in with his Aunt Shirley, and went to John Burroughs Junior High School for two years. He was a sophomore tailback for Fairfax High School last year.

After his banner year on the football field, opposing coaches and players might be forgiven for wanting Mattison to get out of town again.

The 5-10, 165 runner started last year on the B team, but he didn't stay there long. Fairfax Co-Coaches Ron Price and Earl Smith quickly noticed his talent at carrying a football and brought him up to the varsity before the team's opening game.

Though Mattison didn't see much action in the Lions' first three games, he played plenty in the next seven. He wound up rushing for 1,400 yards and scored eighth touchdowns, leading Fairfax to the championship of the City 4-A Metro League and into the playoffs.

He also excelled at defensive back, where he averaged three unassisted tackles and five assists a game and had one interception.

He seldom came out of the game, also playing on kickoff and kickoff return teams.

He did miss the second half of the final game of the regular season after he caught a helmet in the groin while being tackled. The next week he missed three days of practice but was ready for the Lions' first playoff game.

Unfortunately, Fairfax wasn't ready for its playoff opponent, powerful Banning. The Pilots shut down Mattison in the first half, ran up a big lead and routed the Lions, 41-24. Still, the Fairfax tailback finished with 136 yards and a touchdown, though he gained most of his yardage in the second half against reserves.

The loss to Banning was a bitter pill, but Mattison still is licking his lips, savoring a possible rematch with the Pilots in this season's playoffs. "I can't wait to play them again," he said.

Coaches Price and Smith can't wait to watch Mario in action again, breaking off a long run for a touchdown or bringing down an opposing runner with a clean tackle.

"He had big games against Hamilton, Westchester and Venice; he was very good against all those teams," Price said. "I can't recall that he had a bad game. Any time he touches the ball, he can go all the way. He's an incredible runner.

"He's an outstanding runner and blocker and has good hands. He is aggressive and is a very fine defender. There is nothing he cannot do. He has a perfect football personality and is still a good kid. On top of it, he's a fairly decent student."

Lest you think that Price is being partial toward his runner and extravagant with his praise, Mattison's abilities have been noticed by others--many others.

Street and Smith football magazine selected him as one of the nation's players to watch this year.

One opposing coach last year, though not wanting to slight his own top tailback, said Mattison may be "the best I've seen. He's outstanding. I can't believe he's a sophomore."

His grandmother can believe he's still a youngster. He said that she occasionally visits from Detroit and sees to it that Mario regularly saves part of the paychecks he receives from his part-time job as clerk at a sporting goods store. He got the job through a work-experience program at Fairfax.

Mattison may need his grandmother's guidance to remain a good kid; maybe not. He said his father died of leukemia when he was about 4 and that, though he lived in Detroit with his mother and a younger brother, "my grandmother practically raised me." She also got a lot of help from his mother and three uncles, he added.

He seems genuinely modest about his athletic achievements, both as a football player and as a hard-hitting center fielder on the Fairfax baseball team.

He said the yardage he gained last year may have been greatly reduced if he had not had good blocking from linemen such as Tico Justine, Brett Alter and Ronald Davis.

And he might have got a lot more yardage if he hadn't had to try to get past such Westchester players as noseguard Mario Goins, a senior last year, and Butch Hahn, who returns as a linebacker on this year's team.

Another player who gave him fits was Venice defensive back Erick McKinney, a senior last year. "Wherever I would go, he was with me," Mattison said. "He was there every time I got the ball."

He said his football exploits caused him to be well-known on campus last year, making it easier for him as a new student to get along with other students.

But being noticed wasn't all gravy. "It seemed like my teachers pushed me harder," he said with a smile.

He also found that it's tougher to live down a mistake when you're in the public eye.

Though he played baseball and was not a member of the track team last year, he got to run on the 4X100 relay team at the state championship meet when one of the regular relay runners was injured.

He sometimes wishes he hadn't run. He dropped the baton, and Fairfax was disqualified. "It took me two days to get over it. It (the news) was all around school."

If Mattison keeps running with the football the way he did last year, his error should quickly be forgotten. Instead of hearing catcalls from his friends, he'll be hearing calls from college scouts.

He wants to play college football, he said. "I like the college game. There are a lot of people in the stands, and my family would get a chance to see me." Among the colleges he would like to play for are USC, Michigan and Miami of Florida.

He wasn't always crazy about football. When he was 8, he said, one of his uncles enrolled him to play football on a Detroit Police Athletic League youth team. "I didn't want to go; I was scared."

But the next year he became the regular tailback, and he's loved the game ever since.

He has tried to model his running style after Eric Dickerson, the former Ram star who is now with the Indianapolis Colts. "I like the way he jukes people and his ability to break it (a long run) when you have to."

He dreams of becoming a pro football player, perhaps even playing both football and baseball like Bo Jackson.

If Mattison does make it big like Bo, you may see him on the same kind of television commercials that Jackson does. On the commercials, top athletes in various sports may be saying the same things about Mattison as they do now about Bo: "Mario knows football, baseball, tennis, etc."

And if Mario wants to parlay an athletic career into a life in show business, his aunt could give him a few tips on entertaining. Shirley Mattison, he said, has been a backup singer for such stars as Anita Baker and Tina Marie and is now a member of the Shirelles, a pioneer women's rock singing group.

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