Toughness spans Matthews family's NFL legacy
The pictures were documented. Memories preserved for posterity. This was a day to celebrate, a game to remember.
Inside the Georgia Dome, the final "Matthews Bowl" was underway. Back then, Clay Matthews III didn't grasp the significance. The Green Bay Packers' All-Pro linebacker was 10 years old on that October afternoon in 1996. His fondest memories of growing up with a dad in the NFL were everything except the game itself.
Clay III remembers playing with his father and siblings on the field. They would hang out in the locker room, rub shoulders with other famous athletes. When Clay Jr. (a Falcons linebacker) and Uncle Bruce (a Houston Oilers left tackle) competed against each other for the final time, Clay III said his primary concern was probably the concession stand. What kind of pizza did he want? Which snack to go with it? These were the distractions stealing his focus.
"Growing up, my father was an NFL player. I didn't feel any different than anybody else," Clay III said. "I figured that was the norm, but little did I know."
The memories of this final, family football reunion didn't resonate with Clay III. He's seen the pictures, watched the video clips, but the details escaped him over the years. For his father and uncle, the memories remain vivid.
These were the dates the Matthews family circled on their calendars. Each time Clay Jr. and Bruce met on the football field, it felt like the biggest game of the season. Bruce compared it to a playoff environment. Clay Jr. agreed.
Each matchup was something special.
"It just had a different feel to it," Clay Jr. said. "Normally, you only get that if it's a first-place team, or the defending Super Bowl team. Or it's a game for first place, or a game to make the playoffs. If there's another family member involved, it kind of gives the game that kind of character. Even if you're the only person that feels it."
As he matured, Clay III came to appreciate his family's unprecedented accomplishments. The Matthews clan has produced more NFL players than any family. Seven members – and counting – have played professional football. Among them, there have been 58 seasons, almost 800 games, 22 Pro Bowl appearances, eight first team All-Pro selections and one Hall of Famer.
Clay III, the family's only Super Bowl champion, will get a glimpse of what his father and uncle experienced when the Packers host the Falcons for Monday Night Football at Lambeau Field. At left tackle, Atlanta will start rookie Jake Matthews, the No. 6 overall pick in this year's NFL Draft.
It won't be the first time since the days of Clay Jr. vs. Bruce a pair of Matthews play on opposite teams. Clay III and younger brother Casey Matthews (a Philadelphia Eagles linebacker) have competed against each other twice, most recently last month. Still, Monday night will be different.
For the first time in almost two decades, two members of the Matthews family will share an NFL field at the same time. Clay III and his cousin Jake will run into each other at some point, just like their fathers before them.
How will Clay Matthews Sr. watch the game?
"In fear and trepidation," he told Press-Gazette Media this week. "I pull for both of them. I watch individuals, and I pull for both of them. I'm not going to say I pick one or the other."
The patriarch has been asked so many times, he chuckles when the question is posed again. How does one family, two separate branches within that family, keep churning out professional football players?
Clay Sr. practically shrugged.
"We didn't know we were producing quality football players as we came along," he said. "We just kept playing and getting paid, and considered that a blessing."
The patriarch is 86 years old now. Life has taken him through four seasons as a defensive lineman with the San Francisco 49ers in the 1950s, interrupted by two years of service as a paratrooper in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division during the Korean War. He returned from Korea to play in San Francisco, but retired early to join the world of suits, ties and corner offices.
When he retired, Clay Sr. had plenty of athleticism left. As the story goes, his career change was inspired by an article in the Georgia Tech alumni newsletter. Clay Sr. read about a classmate receiving a promotion. In fear of being left behind, he decided to hang up his cleats early.
Clay Sr. soon started getting his own promotions. Eventually, he became the president of Bell & Howell, a motion picture equipment manufacturer.
"My dad, ironically, figured out it was more cost effective," Clay Jr. said. "He had other ideas on how to provide for a family. The NFL in the mid-50s was a lot different than the NFL now. It definitely was exciting and all, but it didn't have the salaries it does today."
It could've stopped there.
Clay Jr. and Bruce were yet to be born when their father retired from football. Unlike their sons, they have no memories of playing with their dad on the field after games, or hanging out with players in the locker room.
But raw athleticism is a family trait, passed down through the generations.
Clay Sr. got it from his father, Matty Matthews. Matty was a minor league baseball player who went on to have a distinguished career as a boxing coach at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C.
"He was something else," Clay Sr. said of his father. "I was scared to death of him, because I didn't want to fail."
Clay Sr.'s boys didn't box, but they could play football. It didn't take them long to figure out.
"They were naturals," the patriarch said.
These aren't the Manning brothers. Peyton and Eli have had long, successful NFL careers. The Mannings are football's most famous family, the face of a league. Their common thread is the quarterback position.
For Clay Sr. and Bruce, their bond is something entirely different.
Each of the seven Matthews who played in the NFL were either a lineman or linebacker. Toughness runs through their veins. Their lineage took a turn, but it never strayed too far from its roots. The physicality of the boxing ring carried over to the football field.
Clay Jr. became one of the NFL's best linebackers in the 1980s. Bruce finished his career among greatest offensive linemen to ever play. Two very different positions, linked only by brute strength.
"You know, you've gotta be smarter to play offense. We'll leave it at that," Bruce said, laughing before coming clean. "I actually tried to play linebacker, and I wasn't as well equipped for that as playing O line."
Bruce always looked up to Clay Jr., five years his elder. He played football at USC, just like his brother. When they entered the NFL, Bruce said Clay Jr. was always his favorite player.
Football was never a requirement for Clay Sr.'s boys. The father demanded his sons excel in life. He wanted them to find their own passion. Their profession was their choice.
Clay Sr. said he was a stern father. He pushed his boys, made sure they stayed on the right path. He was also there to provide plenty of support.
"I'd like to assume there's a lot of magic you can pass on to anyone, but the only thing I can say that I consistently tried to do was let them know that I cared. That's No. 1," Clay Sr. said. "I expressed it, and followed it up on the things I asked them to do or asked them to try. I tried to give them advice on what I thought they were doing right or wrong."
Before there were Pro Bowls, Clay Jr. didn't have any plans to make football his career. When he was younger, he said, he was "too small and slow" to think the NFL was a possibility. He had natural instincts, but physical talent lagged behind.
By his senior year of high school, he finally started to grow into his 6-foot-2, 245-pound body. He was faster, stronger, a late bloomer starting to blossom. Bruce would grow to be 6-foot-5 and 305 pounds, a body made for the offensive line. By Bruce's senior year of high school, he was ready to compete against his big brother.
Even if the game wasn't forced on them, their love was instinctual. The Matthews brothers played football all the time. Yes, the NFL was a shared dream.
"I think every kid who kind of gets exposed to baseball or basketball or football thinks, 'Hey, I'd like to play in the big show,'" Clay Jr. said. "So we played. We watched football on TV, and we played football inside – tag football and all that. Just like every other kid who wants to be a star athlete, I think we thought about it. But it wasn't like the family sat around and goes, 'OK, this is the plan.' It was just like any other kid."
THE NEXT GENERATION
Clay III followed his father's footsteps, which eventually led him to four Pro Bowls of his own. His father's path also made him a late bloomer.
Like the patriarch, Clay Jr. never demanded his sons play football. It was up to them to find their own way. His flexibility made acceptance easy.
Clay III wasn't much of a high school athlete, his father said.
"Clay was very small and slow his freshman and sophomore years in high school," Clay Jr. said. "There wasn't an agenda for him to play in the NFL. There wasn't an agenda by his parents of, 'OK, we'd like you to be an athlete.' We probably came to a point as parents where you go, 'Well, it looks like he probably won't be playing college football.'
"It wasn't, 'Look, he probably won't play in the NFL.' It was, 'No, he's not going to play in college.'
Even after he managed to walk on at USC, Clay III wasn't NFL material. In his first three years, he only had 40 tackles. Clay Jr. noticed a change in the spring before his son's senior season. Clay III was getting stronger, faster, a late bloomer starting to blossom.
He always had height. At 6-foot-3, Clay III covered a lot of ground without running particularly fast. That changed by his final college season. When Clay Jr. watched linebacker drills at USC's spring practice, he hardly recognized his son.
"It was just some drill where the quarterback drops back and dumps it off to the back," Clay Jr. said. "I saw him break, and I said, 'Wow, he's got a burst.' I watched football for a long time, and you can see when a guy has a little get up and go. That was probably when I first saw it."
By his senior season, Clay III molded himself into an NFL prospect. No one expected he'd become the family's third first-round pick, joining Uncle Bruce and, a couple years later, Jake.
Bruce admitted he always hoped to see the family lineage continue. He never imagined it would go this far, for him and his brother.
"It's kind of taken on a life of itself, the whole Matthews family and the NFL," Bruce said. "I'd like to say we have some magic formula, but we've been very blessed. I think the next generation of guys coming along realize that as well. It's not something they take lightly. They're proud of the last name on the back of their jerseys, and it's something they feel is important to live up to."
Now, Clay III grasps the significance.
He's hosting the whole family this weekend. His parents and Jake's parents will be at Lambeau Field on Monday night, along with siblings and cousins. Fittingly, it's the Falcons that made another Matthews family football reunion possible.
Clay III said it's been "interesting" to watch film of his cousin this week, preparing to beat a family member. He's sure it's the same for Jake. He knows it was the same for Clay Jr. and Bruce. The bottom line is winning, he said. The Packers are on a roll, winning eight of their past nine games, and home-field advantage in the playoffs is an attainable goal. Clay III doesn't want his team's momentum to stop.
He's also going to appreciate the moment. Before they meet in the game, Clay III and Jake will make sure to take pictures on the field with their dads. One day, when it's time to have their own children, the memories will be preserved for posterity.
"I'd like to imagine that somewhere down the line, Clay IV will probably follow in his father's footsteps," Clay III said.