North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.
Football has evolved to the point at which hybrid players have become the norm and most teams employ at least some variation of a zone blitz scheme. But that wasn’t the case in the early 1970s.
At least not until Bob Matheson joined the Miami Dolphins.
Although he was a standout linebacker at Duke who was taken by the Cleveland Browns in the first round of the 1967 NFL Draft, Miami defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger lined him up as a defensive end shortly after the Dolphins acquired him in a trade. Because Matheson was so athletic, he often dropped back into pass coverage in passing situations, confusing opposing quarterbacks that had never seen that done.
The strategy worked so well that it was nicknamed the “53 Defense” in honor of Matheson’s jersey number.
With Matheson and the rest of the team’s’ “No-Name Defense” leading the way, the Dolphins made history in 1972 — his second season in Miami — by becoming the first and only NFL team to go undefeated and win a title. The Dolphins then repeated as Super Bowl champions the next year.
The native of Boone played 13 professional seasons before returning to his alma mater as an assistant coach. He also served a tenure at Minnesota under a fellow Duke graduate, John Gutekunst, before returning to Durham to work at Duke’s Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Matheson was a two-time All-ACC selection who earned All-America honors as a senior in 1966. He was named to the ACC’s Silver Anniversary team and is a member of the Duke Athletic Hall of Fame.
His love for the Blue Devils never waned. Two days before he died of Hodgkin lymphoma in 1994 at the age of just 49, he called then-Duke coach Fred Goldsmith from his hospital bed to congratulate him on his first career victory at the school — a 49-16 win against Maryland.
“I was kind of surprised to get the call,” Goldsmith said a few days later. “His voice was strong. He was excited. While I was shocked to hear from him, I was delighted. I thought it was so neat that he derived so much pleasure from the kids playing well.”