Bottom line: Matthews deserves nod
This morning, a selection committee, mostly sportswriters, will gather in a meeting room near the site of the Super Bowl in Miami. Among the things they will consider, and will announce later today, is whether to welcome a big man, strong as a bull and soft as a teddy bear, into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Bruce Matthews will be home in Houston, pretending not to think about it.
“It’s OK either way,” Matthews said this week. “In some regards, I’m very excited. In others, I’m apprehensive about all the attention. That’s not me.”
You would hope that the voters have done their homework, as they usually do; that the required 80% of them say yea. You would hope that they had enough time to learn what made Matthews the mold for generations of NFL offensive linemen still to come. You would hope they found out what made him tick.
Matthews’ name may draw little more than a glimmer of recognition. He was long ago one of those labeled a “big ugly” by announcer Keith Jackson. As such, even in the NFL, he spent his career not being noticed. He made sure that running backs had holes to run through so your eyes would follow them. Or that quarterbacks had time to throw, so you’d focus on the spirals.
The public has always paid little attention to them, so they have become mostly the sources for savvy sportswriters, who quickly find out that the big guys up front know and articulate the game best.
Ideally, the voting panel knows about Arcadia High, where Matthews wore No. 72, was an all-star in the Shrine Game along with John Elway, and was a model student and person. Same thing when he went to USC in the late 1970s, wore No. 66, and was picked ninth in the first round of the 1983 NFL draft by the Houston Oilers -- now the Tennessee Titans -- for whom he wore No. 74.
He is 45 now, five seasons into a retirement from a career that included 296 games, more than any other NFL player except for kickers, and 14 Pro Bowl appearances, a record he shares with Merlin Olsen. For perspective, Jerry Rice made 12.
The only jersey ever retired by Arcadia High was No. 72. The only Titans jersey retired since their move from Houston to Tennessee, is No. 74. Paying attention, USC?
Matthews’ father, Clay Sr., is 78 and living in Mount Pleasant, S.C. He played four years in the NFL, as a linebacker with the 49ers. Bruce’s brother Clay Jr. is 50, lives in Agoura Hills, is defensive coordinator at Westlake Village Oaks Christian High, and played 19 years with the Browns and Falcons. His record of 278 games played was broken by his younger brother.
Bruce played for the same NFL franchise for 19 years, the first 14 as a Houston Oiler, the next two as a Tennessee Oiler, and the final three, 1999-2001, with the renamed Titans. When he got to the Super Bowl with the Titans in 2000, he was the first in his family to get to the league title game after 40 collective seasons of trying.
Those numbers are compelling. They also don’t come close to telling who he really is.
Dave Samarzich, a former teammate at Arcadia, a former business partner and a lifelong friend who lives in Upland now, can come closer.
“He is the godfather for both of my boys, Simon and Christian,” Samarzich said. “When he came for both christenings, he stayed with us, not in a hotel. He slept in one of the boys’ bunk beds.”
Simon’s middle name is Bruce. Guess the namesake.
Samarzich is among the many who think Matthews is a lock for the Hall of Fame.
“No offense to Cal Ripken Jr.,” he said, “but Bruce is the real ironman. A collision every play, 296 games.”
Besides Clay, Bruce had twin brothers, Raymond and Brad, and an older sister Kristy, whose daughter, Ashley Nick, plays soccer for USC. Clay’s son, also Clay, is a linebacker at USC.
The twins were born with developmental disabilities.
“We never really treated them any differently,” Bruce Matthews said. “They were just our brothers. We’d go shoot baskets, and square off, two on two. Clay’d take Ray, I’d take Brad. And we’d go at it.”
Ray and Brad both stayed busy, held jobs. One morning in the late ‘80s, Brad was on his way to work when he was hit by a car in the crosswalk at Santa Anita Avenue and Campus Drive in Arcadia. It was 5 a.m., and Brad was no more than 150 yards from his house. He lost a leg because of the accident and became a paraplegic. He eventually went back to work and fought his way back into life but died of complications from the injury seven years later.
The Matthews family had lost its mother, Daisy, a prominent area golfer, to cancer in 1984. She was 59. Minus a mother, Ray and Brad kept going, pushed by a loving family. Ray is 47 now, and lives near Bruce.
“I’ve learned more from Ray and Brad than probably anybody else,” Matthews said in a recent television interview. “They did more with what God gave them than Clay and I ever could or have.”
Matthews met his wife, Carrie, at USC. She was from Fullerton, a basketball cheerleader. Into their early 40s, Bruce and Carrie had five boys and a girl. All were active, healthy, athletic.
“My wife always said she wanted seven,” Matthews said. “I always felt that children were a blessing from God, and I was certainly not the person to say no to that.”
He said they knew all the risks of having another child late in life. The doctors wanted all sorts of tests, but Bruce and Carrie declined.
“We didn’t care if she had polka dots,” Matthews said.
Three years ago, Gweneth Matthews was born with Down syndrome. Her father calls her “a blessing from God.”
Matthews has a successful construction company, other investments, and the kind of life one has with seven children. The most durable offensive lineman in the history of the game now carries the title of assistant line coach at Elkins High in Sugar Land, Texas. He also had helped out with his younger sons’ football teams while he weaned himself from the NFL.
“The first year after I retired, I stayed in pretty good shape, just thinking if somebody went down, the Titans might need to call me back,” he said. “The second year, I was still pretty good, just in case.”
But in the third year, simply throwing the football during one of the practices, he slipped on an anthill and went down because of a torn quadriceps tendon, an injury so serious he needed surgery. Nineteen years in the NFL, almost no serious injuries, and Matthews was taken down by an anthill.
“There I was, flat on my back, looking up at a bunch of 9-year-olds laughing at me,” he said. “That’s when I knew I was officially done playing.”
Now, all that is left of Matthews’ NFL career is for those voters in the room to get it right. If they were listening, there have been plenty of tributes.
Former Oilers Coach Jerry Glanville said, “He’s the best. That’s it.”
And Titans Coach Jeff Fisher, who played with Matthews at USC, said, “People ask me if I’ll ever see another one like him again. The answer is no.”
Later today, we will know. So will Gweneth’s dad, who may get to put her on his lap and tell her all about a place called Canton, Ohio, where the family will be going Aug. 4.
Bill Dwyre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.
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