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The Unfortunate, Real-Life Story of the Man Who Played Sloth on The Goonies

The Goonies is one of the most beloved classics from 1980s cinema. Directed by Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon), and written by Steven Spielberg (E.T., Raiders of the Lost Arc) and Chris Columbus (Gremlins, Home Alone), the film’s behind-the-scenes star power was matched only by its youthful and inexperienced, but nonetheless talented, stars on camera. Who didn’t have a favorite — Mikey, Chunk, Mouth, Data, Mama Fratelli… OK, maybe not her so much. But what about Sloth? How could you not love the sad story of Sloth, the deformed sibling left chained up in the basement? But maybe more tragic than his onscreen story is the heartbreaking real-life story of Sloth. Sloth wasn’t an “elephant man.” He was a regular guy, at least in terms of looking quite normal. Who was he? He was a hulking six-foot, eight-inches tall, 300-pound professional football player with an unquenchable thirst for booze, drugs, women, and excitement, but those who knew him called him the “gentle giant.” But his formula for fun would lead to an untimely death. Discover the heartbreaking real-life story of Sloth and the troubled giant underneath all that makeup.

‘Hey, You Guys!’

Our first glimpse of Sloth in The Goonies is after Chunk has been captured by the Fratellis and tied up in the basement. Chunk realizes he’s not alone and turns to say hello to the man sitting behind him. As the man turns in response, the deformed visage of Sloth lets out a bloodcurdling scream. The face was enough to inspire nightmares, but the person beneath was a far cry from what we saw on screen, a former professional football player named John Matuszak.

Hours of Makeup

During the 30th anniversary of The Goonies‘s theatrical release, the director, Richard Donner, revealed some never-heard-before stories from behind the scenes, including the painstaking process of applying Sloth’s makeup. Donner revealed that Matuszak would spend four hours each morning (waking up at 4 a.m.) in the makeup trailer to get all his prosthetics attached. What was worse, if the makeup got wet — which was bound to happen during the shipwreck scenes — Matuszak would have to go back to the chair to have his makeup fixed or completely redone. Another tough task for Donner? Keeping the kid actors from playing with Matuszak.

Big, Lovable Giant

Fans of the film know that Sloth was (almost) inhumanly strong. Who doesn’t love when he tears one shirt off to reveal his Superman T-shirt? It might be tough to tell how formidable Matuszak actually was onscreen, but the real-life “Goonies” found his size more fun than intimidating. According to Donner, the kids and Matuszak would go around the set playing practical jokes and play wrestling with their big, lovable Sloth giant. And no matter how stressful things became on set, Donner fondly remembered Matuszak as “a saint.” For those who knew Matuszak back in his NFL days, that description would have been far from the man they had known.

‘Sloth Love Chunk’

Due to their onscreen time together, it’s no secret that Chunk, played by Jeff Cohen, and Matuszak became incredible friends while filming. But at the time, Cohen had no idea of the reputation Matuszak had acquired during his pro NFL days. “John was really nice to me and it was fun to work with him,” Cohen recalled decades after filming. “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.”

Under the Mask

It may be hard to believe that the man beneath all that Sloth makeup was this giant guy, pictured here as he towers over his lawyer Bob Woolf. This was after Matuszak was drafted by the Houston Oilers National Football League team. But believe it or not, Matuszak was not always this much of a giant.

‘Beanpole’ Growing Up

John Matuszak was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His family was quite large — three boys and a sister — but Matuszak’s two brothers both died of cystic fibrosis at young ages. His sister also had the disease. Whether this was genetics or not, Matuszak didn’t always seem the picture of health. He was mocked in high school as a “gawky beanpole.” Such verbal abuse would actually change Matuszak’s life forever. This ridicule motivated Matuszak to lift weights, where he bulked up to a size that helped him win the Wisconsin Class A state championship in shot put. With his size and strength, colleges were quick to notice and began reaching out.

Set for NFL Stardom

Matuszak began his football career at Fort Dodge Junior College in Iowa. After a year, he was recruited to play tight end by the University of Missouri, where his lifelong struggle with booze and drugs would begin. Matuszak saw little playing time at Mizzou, mostly because the team’s starting tight end was more experienced, but also because Matuszak’s lifestyle began to catch up with him. He would transfer to the University of Tampa and become a star. By time he was eligible for the draft, Matuszak was his full six-foot, eight-inch, 280-pound frame. The Houston Oilers drafted him first overall in the 1973 draft. However, disciplinary problems would almost cut his NFL career short.

Booze and Drugs

Matuszak joined the Houston Oilers as a defensive lineman. He was reportedly unhappy with the contract offer from the Oilers, which may have led Matuszak to secretly sign a separate contract with the WFL’s Houston Texans football team. However, the Oilers discovered his rouse and quickly sent a restraining order barring Matuszak from playing in the WFL. The Oilers traded Matuszak away at the end of the season to the Kansas City Chiefs. If we told you his time with the Chiefs would be short lived, would you be surprised?

‘The Breakfast of Champions’

By the time Matuszak was traded to the Chiefs, he had gained a league-wide reputation for partying, booze, drugs, and women. He became commonly known as the “Tooz.” Still, his talent on the field gave coaches reason to try and overlook his off-field behavior. The Chiefs’ patience expired when a coach one day found Matuszak unconscious and not breathing. Paul Wiggin, coach of the Chiefs, reportedly found Matuszak one morning after a particularly heavy night of partying. Matuszak was unconscious and not breathing. Wiggin had to pound on the behemoth’s chest trying to revive him. After that incident, the Tooz was shuttled off to the Washington Redskins, but coach George Allen had absolutely no patience for the Tooz’s behavior and cut him from the team during the preseason, famously remarking that Matuszak seemed to subsist solely on a diet of “vodka and valium, the breakfast of champions.” Having burned his bridges with three teams in three years, did Matuszak squander his one chance as a professional athelete? The answer is no, and it seemed like the Tooz would finally find a fitting home.

A Home in Raider Nation

Football fans should be familiar with the reputation of the Los Angeles Raiders of the 1970s, but for anybody unfamiliar or those who just needs a reminder, this common joke of the time helps sum it up: “You didn’t have to be a convicted felon to play for the Raiders, but it helped.” For whatever reason, maybe Tooz had decided to cool things down on his own, or the tutelage of Hall of Fame coach John Madden kept him under more control, Matuszak’s first year with the Raiders went almost without incident. Almost. … Reportedly, Madden once had to reprimand an inebriated Tooz for trying to sneak two women onto the team plane (he had on other occasions succeeded in sneaking, as teammate Pat Toomey called them, “bimbos” onto the plane for a road trip). Tooz also was dealing with injuries, but due to shortages on the field for the Raiders, he continued to play despite the pain and used painkillers to weather the storm, a habit that would haunt him for the rest of his days.

‘Keeper of the Tooz’

One of the sources of Matuszak’s many escapades was Raiders teammate Pat Toomey, who was fortunate (unfortunate?) enough to be paired with Matuszak in their hotel during road games. The “Keeper of the Tooz,” as Toomey was nicknamed, regaled ESPN with stories of Tooz, including one of their first nights as roomies. In short: Tooz returned to their room around midnight. He was hammered drunk, barely able to speak or stand. The Tooz proceeded to take Toomey’s nice dress shirt for the next day’s game off its hanger and tried to fit it over his much larger frame. The shirt of course ripped completely, shredded to threads. Tooz then stripped down to nothing, literally nothing, and went around banging on doors down the hallway before returning to the room and collapsing naked into bed, trying to dial his ex-wife in Tampa. It took several hours and just as many trainers to get Tooz to finally pass out. The Raiders played the Browns early the next day, soundly beating them 26-10. Tooz showed no signs that less than a few hours before, he could barely see straight.

World’s Strongest Man

Matuszak had seemed to calm down (at least some) and focused more on football. The results were noticeable. He was helping the Raiders defense become one of the most formidable of all time, leading them to a championship in his second season with the team. During his rehabilitation, Matuszak had grown even more, if you can believe it. He bulked up to 315 pounds by this time, a move that prompted a “bored” Matuszak to enter the World’s Strongest Man competition. According to teammates of Matuszak, he never actually trained for the contest. He basically just entered on a whim. The results? Matuszak finished ninth place overall! Remember kids, all you need is vodka and valium to be successful! (Just kidding. Please don’t do that.) Matuszak seemed to be on top of the world at this point, but the demons of drug addiction were quietly securing an inescapable grasp over him.

Two-Time Super Bowl Champion

While Matuszak’s personal demons remained largely unknown to the public, he was becoming a beloved member of the Raiders. He’d spend until 1982 with the team, helping them win Super Bowl XI and Super Bowl XV. He never stopped partying, but he at least kept it in check enough to not drastically affect his play. But while the Tooz had one of the meanest reputations in the league (Sports Illustrated would eventually name him one of the top five all-time NFL “bad boys”), he showed his softer side in many ways, including dressing up as Santa, reading Bible verses, and coaching football for kids at a camp. He also often visited his sister struggling in the hospital with cystic fibrosis. He always wanted to talk about these things when reporters called him for interviews, but they mostly just wanted to hear stories of the “crazier” Tooz. And, unfortunately, the injuries on the football field would begin to mount up to an unsustainable level.

Sidelined by Injuries


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