SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS -- Mathis could have chosen sports, instead of singing, as a career. He was a stellar athlete — participating both in track and basketball — at SF State.
“Every kid, I think, who has ever won an event, as far as sports is concerned, had it in the back of their mind, ‘I wonder if I can do something with this ability that I have athletically?’” Mathis says. “My big claim to fame as a high jumper is that I broke (the record) of Bill Russell — the fabulous, great Bill Russell, the greatest basketball player, I think, who ever lived.
“I broke his high-jump record at a track meet that he and I went to in Reno. They made a big deal of it, because I was about half as tall as he was. Anyway, that was my big claim to fame in college as a high jumper. But I loved my athletics. It gave me a good start as far as keeping myself physically fit in order to sing.”
Mathis wasn’t at SF State for long before a record contract lured him away to New York, where he recorded a self-titled jazz album that was released in 1956. He recalls the Big Apple was “scary.”