The name ‘John Matuszak’ may not be familiar to you if you didn’t follow American Football in the 1970s, but the name ‘Sloth’ from the smash hit 1980s movie, The Goonies, is very familiar to many people indeed.
Matuszak played Sloth in the movie, though he was unrecognizable under a heavy mask of makeup and prosthetics.
Sadly, the giant footballing legend was never able to capitalize on the success of his time playing Sloth as a hard-partying lifestyle and crippling addiction to painkillers ended in tragedy.
Here is the sad story of the man who played Sloth.
The Man Mountain
‘Giant’ hardly begins to describe John Matuszak. The man was a mountain. Here he is with his lawyer, Bob Woolf, shortly after being drafted by the Houston Oilers back in 1973. Matuszak towered above most ordinary humans. He was six feet six inches tall. Now that’s what we call a big guy!
He Was Bullied As A Boy
Believe it or not, Matuszak wasn’t always a musclebound giant. He was bullied and mocked in high school for being a ‘gawky beanpole’. Tired of the jibes, Matuszak began lifting weights as a teenager and was soon big enough and strong enough to win the Wisconsin Class A State Championship for the shot put. It wasn’t long before word got out that there was a promising young athlete rising through the ranks, and colleges offering sports scholarships began to sit up and take notice.
Matuszak switched from shot put to football, and was soon playing for the Fort Dodge Junior College in Iowa and then the University of Missouri. After spending more time on the bench than on the field at Missouri, Matuszak transferred to the University of Tampa where he would make his name as a defensive lineman. When he became eligible for the draft, he was snapped up by the Houston Oilers for the ’73 season.
The Secret Deal
Matuszak quickly became dissatisfied with the contract he had signed with the Oilers, and secretly signed a new one with the WFL’s Houston Texans team. When the Oilers found out about this, they got a restraining order on Matuszak preventing him from playing with the Texans. He was traded at the end of the season to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Vodka And Valium
By the time Matuszak – who had gained the nickname, ‘The Tooz’ – transferred to the Chiefs, he already had a reputation for hard partying and womanizing. Chiefs coach Paul Wiggin once found the Tooz unconscious and not breathing after a night of heavy drinking and had to perform emergency CPR to save his life. He was quickly transferred to the Washington Redskins, but was cut from that team pre-season after Redskins coach George Allen grew tired of his behavior. Allen famously and sarcastically remarked that Matuszak seemed to survive on a diet of ‘vodka and Valium – the breakfast of champions’.
The Move To The Raiders
It was at the Los Angeles Raiders that the hard drinking, hard partying Tooz finally found a permanent home. The Raiders – who had quite the reputation in the 1970s, leading to the joke: ‘You didn’t have to be a convicted felon to play for the Raiders, but it helped.’ – fitted the Tooz like a glove, and he soon became a fan favorite. However, things were not all going his way. The big man suffered a series of injuries that should have kept him off the field. However, a shortage of players meant he battled on when he shouldn’t have done, aided by fistfuls of painkillers. This would lead to troubles in later life.
The Partying Continues
Complicit in Matuszak’s partying lifestyle was traveling roommate and fellow player, Pat Toomey. Toomey became known as ‘The Keeper of the Tooz’, and the two became notorious for their drunken escapades. One night, an inebriated Tooz was found wandering around the corridors of the hotel the Raiders were staying in, stark naked and blind drunk. The Tooz was hammering on doors and it took quite a lot of people to get him to bed and go to sleep. The next day, the Raiders beat the Browns by 26-10, and Matuszak showed no signs of being out of his mind on booze and drugs just a few hours before.
Matuszak eventually attempted to go sober, and for a while his results on the field improved considerably. However, he was soon bored with the sober life and so decided to enter the World’s Strongest Man competition, as you do. The Raiders giant couldn’t be bothered to do any training for the event. Regardless of this, he still placed ninth in the competition.
Winning And Partying Took Its Toll
By 1982, the Tooz was a beloved member of the Raiders, helping them win Super Bowl XI and Super Bowl XV. However, his partying lifestyle (his sobriety was short-lived) and his many, many injuries were starting to catch up with him. He did, of course, have a softer side, dressing up as Santa and visiting his sick sister in hospital, but to his fans he was the hard-drinking, hard-living giant with a fearsome reputation on the field. He played up to this side of his personality, and it would eventually cost him dear.
The End Of The Road
Matuszak’s catalog of injuries were enough to keep him on the reserves’ bench for the whole of the 1982 season. Realizing his injuries and his hard-partying had caused irrevocable damage, the Tooz finally called it a day on his playing career. So what would he do instead? It wasn’t long before he found a new interest …
In the late 1970s, Matuszak had begun making the occasional appearance in TV shows and movies. In 1979, he appeared in the football movie, North Dallas Forty. Two years later he starred alongside Dennis Quaid, Shelley Long and former Beatle Ringo Starr in Caveman. By the time he retired in 1982, he had already made several appearances on TV, including in an episode of M*A*S*H*.
Catching Richard Donner’s Eye
In 1984, Matuszak was starting to establish a name for himself as an actor. In that year he appeared in the cult sci-fi movie, The Ice Pirates. He followed this up with a long-running stint as a gay bar manager in Hollywood Beat, as well as appearances in Silver Spoons and The Dukes of Hazzard. It was when he was playing the character of George Grinsky in Hollywood Beat that he caught the attention of Richard Donner, who was putting together his new movie about some kids hunting for buried treasure. Donner needed a huge guy to play a part in movie, and Matuszak fit the bill.
The Goonies was released in June, 1985, and was a huge commercial and critical success despite the fact it featured hardly any star names. Audiences loved the adventures of the Goonies, and took the character of Sloth – played by the mighty Tooz – to their hearts. The movie grossed $61 million at the box office, and it looked like Matuszak was heading for great things. Sadly, this was not the case.
First Sight Of Sloth
We catch our first sight of Sloth from The Goonies when Chunk is being held captive by the Fratellis. Once the family leave, they leave Chunk in the care of Sloth, who scares the life out of Chunk when he first sees him. However, the two soon become friends and Sloth ends up being one of the good guys.
The Makeup Took Hours
Of course, the actor playing Sloth – former pro-football player John Matuszak – didn’t look like the character in real life. Sloth’s unique look was created by makeup artists. Director Richard Donner revealed that Matuszak had to get up at four in the morning and then spend four hours in makeup every day. If the makeup got wet – which it inevitably did in a movie involving underground caves and hidden pirate ships – the makeup would have to be retouched or even redone from scratch.
All The Kids Loved Him
Donner went on to reveal that far from being intimidated by the giant footballer in the hideous prosthetics, the kids playing the Goonies fell in love with him. Matuszak and the young cast were forever playing games and practical jokes on the crew and the director. Donner would later go on to describe Matuszak as ‘a saint’. People who remembered his playing career might be surprised to hear that!
A Gentle Giant With A Not So Gentle Past
Jeff Cohen, the actor who played Chunk, became good friends with Matuszak thanks to spending so much time with him on set. He had no idea of the man’s fearsome reputation on the field. “John was really nice to me and it was fun to work with him,” Cohen later recalled. “But it’s funny, when I was a teenager and I would start to watch the old NFL films and they would have films of John playing for the Raiders, he was one of the meanest players in the history of the league. He would just terrify people on the field, which was totally shocking to me. I knew him as Sloth, the nice, lovable giant.”
At the end of the movie, Sloth triumphantly rips his vest and other shirt off to reveal a Superman t-shirt underneath. It was an inside joke about director Richard Donner, who rose to fame after directing Superman: The Movie in 1978.
Errol Flynn Nod
The pirate movie he is watching while chained in the basement is the 1935 Errol Flynn adventure Captain Blood.
Life After The Goonies
Post The Goonies, Matuszak was in high demand. He appeared in shows such as Miami Vice, The A-Team and Perfect Strangers. Things seemed to be going well for the former NFL star, but it was all a facade. His struggles with drink and drugs were still an ongoing issue – coming into the public spotlight following a car crash in 1987 that saw Matuszak convicted of assault after punching the other driver involved unconscious – and he continued to be a heavy user of the painkiller Darvocet. His career may have been on the up, but the big man was on the way down.
The Tooz Releases His Autobiography
Following on from his assault conviction, Matuszak released his autobiography entitled ‘Cruisin’ With The Tooz‘. In the book, Matuszak claimed he had cleaned up his act. “I abstain from cocaine, and any other foreign substance, entirely now,” he wrote. “I take nothing, not even sleeping pills. I’ve hit damn near bottom. I don’t ever want to go back.” Sadly, he did go back, and it would all end in tragedy.
A Tragic End
John Matuszak was found dead in Los Angeles on the 17th of June 1989. An autopsy revealed he had died of an accidental overdose of the now banned prescription painkiller, Darvocet. He was also found to have traces of cocaine in his system despite claiming in his book that he was off the drug. A coroner noted that the star also had an enlarged heart at the time of his death. He was just 38 years old.