Art `Cotton Top' Carlson: 101 and Counting
Courtesy: Cal Athletics  
Release:  11/16/2011

Complete Article in PDF Format Get Acrobat Reader

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 5 issue of Cal Football GameDay Magazine

By Anton Malko

When California traveled to Washington for its game against the Huskies in September, former player Art "Cotton Top" Carlson was there to root for the Golden Bears. Just a month earlier, the three-year letterman who earned the Andy Smith Award for playing the most conference minutes in 1931 had turned 101 years of age.

"Everyone played both offense and defense," explained Carlson about his era. "It was hard to play all the time, and I felt the fatigue, but kept playing."

Born in 1910 to Swedish parents who arrived in America in 1901, Carlson grew up in the Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles. Whereas today's toddlers might already be scrolling through their parents' smart phones (if not their own), Carlson was five before his family had electrical lighting, a telephone or a radio.

Art attended Manuel Arts High School, where he excelled in football and track and was initially recruited to play college ball for the Huskies. Short on some classes, Carlson attended finishing school at the Damon School in San Francisco, where his classmates included David Packard, a future member of Stanford's "Vow Boys" and, later, a co-founder of Hewlett-Packard.

Carlson then opted for Cal over Washington and joined the freshman football team in 1930. The following year he played every varsity game, winning the Andy Smith Award in the first of three varsity seasons under head coach Bill Ingram.

"I do not ever remember being substituted," Carlson said. "It did become a joke among my teammates because some were out resting and I was still working hard at playing football." He called the award, also dubbed the "Iron Man Award" by the media, "a great honor."

Always wearing number 13 and called "Cotton Top" for his signature blond hair, Carlson became a running guard (today's right guard) on offense and the short-side guard on defense for the 1934 season. His list of most-memorable games includes Cal's 19-6 win at Georgia Tech on Dec. 26, 1931, the Bears' 7-2 victory at USC on Nov. 10, 1934, and "all of the Stanford games." He played in three Big Games - one win, one loss and one tie.

As for today's opponent, the Cougars, Carlson remembered Washington State as "the only place where we played on a dirt field. Otherwise we played on grass." Dirt and grass were not the only natural fibers on the field in Carlson's era. Uniforms in the 1930s were made from cotton and wool. Helmets were leather, as were shoulder pads - stuffed with horse hair. As for recovery drinks: "We were each given a bucket of water with a cup."

Art met his future wife, Evaline "Coochie" Otis, in an English class at Cal. "She came up to me and said, `Hi, Art.' We dated from that point on," he recalled. They were married after his graduation, on September 13, 1934.

Also a Naval ROTC officer, Carlson had further bonds with Coach Ingram, who had played and coached at Navy, and assistant coach Clint Evans, whom Carlson assisted on the freshman team for two years after graduating.

In 1940, having settled in Piedmont, Carlson's first assignment as a Navy ensign was to create a football team for the Patrol Force of the 12th Naval District which would face the U.S. Army Air Corps from Moffett Field at Memorial Coliseum on Armistice Day. Carlson was the line coach for Navy and his sons, Bill and Ed, were among the spectators.

With the onset of World War II, Carlson served as a captain of a patrol craft whose responsibilities included San Francisco Bay, outside the Golden Gate Bridge and up and down the Northern California coast. He then became an executive officer on the ship Fomalhaut, which shuttled supplies between New Caledonia and New Zealand and supported major battles in the Pacific.

After retiring as a Lieutenant Commander in the '60s, Carlson worked for the Standard Oil Company of California. The Carslons stayed in Piedmont for 45 years, raising their four children. Mrs. Carlson passed away in 1992, just before their last grandson was born. Together, they have 10 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. Cal alumni who have descended from Art and Evaline Carlson include their twin sons, Bill Jr. and Edwin, and their daughter Nancy.

Since 2007, "Cotton Top" has lived in Ridgefield, Wash., with his daughter Susan, son-in-law Garey Bergeson and their children, Hillary and Jeff.

"My father was a natural athlete and he is still rock solid," said Mrs. Bergeson, who continues to enjoy tossing a ball and kicking a soccer ball with her father. Her memories of Cal football games with her father at Memorial Stadium are equally vivid. "There was always a light shining on him," she said. "He knew everyone and they knew him, and so, everybody knew me."

Message to Art Carlson: Darn glad to know you, too.