SEATTLE --- Chris Matthews wasn’t supposed to be a Seahawk. He nearly bailed on the tryout. It’s hard to fault the 25-year-old as he recounts the story, about an hour after Seattle’s inconceivable 28-22 overtime win against the Packers in the NFC Championship. Who could’ve thunk it’d all lead to this?
“But anyway, here it goes,” he says, with an irrepressible smile. “It’s kind of crazy.”
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Matthews was a 6-foot-5, 218-pound wide receiver with a lukewarm scouting report. Heavy feet, coaches told him; a step too slow. So he went from a JUCO in California to the University of Kentucky to signing a free agent contract with the Browns. He was one of the last cuts at 2011 training camp. Matthews spent a year out of the game, latched on with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for two years, and spent his offseason working two jobs: one at Foot Locker, the other as a security guard. One day, around this time last year, his phone rings. It’s a Seahawks official, and they want Matthews to come to a tryout. Tonight. Matthews looks at watch, pauses, and says, “I don’t get off of work until 9 p.m. I don’t know if I’ll make it.”
“Alright,” the caller said. “We’ll let you know.”
A few minutes later, Matthews agent calls. “What are you thinking! Get yourself home, pack up and go. Are you out of your mind?!”
Matthews made the flight.
“Man, I almost messed up, bad,” he says, sheepishly, as he leans into his locker stall on Sunday. Then his grin returns. “And look at this now.”
With two minutes, nine seconds and a sliver of hope remaining in the Seahawks’ season (they trailed 19-14 at that point), Matthews snatched his team’s onside kick on the 50-yard line to extend the game -- and give his story a ridiculous twist.
He is barely alone. As the Seahawks return to their second Super Bowl in as many years, they have become defined by players like Matthews. Guys who were down and out, guys who people forgot about, guys people didn’t believe in. Well, most people.
“Everyone of us here belongs on the Seahawks,” says linebacker Bruce Irvin, who earlier reminded a reporter he went from homeless to two Super Bowls. “All of us belong here.”
The Complete Makeover: NFL Edition conducted by Pete Carroll and John Schneider has become well-known lore. Since the duo took over the franchise in 2010, they completely reshaped the roster, with a league-high 284 transactions in their first year alone. They took chances on NFL castoffs and handed the reigns to an undersized quarterback. That the likes of Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin have ascended to household names prove their system is working. That a second layer of players, like Matthews and rookie Garry Gilliam, provided season-saving moments in the most important game of the season shows the system they built is sustainable.
Gilliam, too, has a story to tell. In 1999, he was seven, living in a rough neighborhood of Harrisburg, Pa. when his mother sent him off to a boarding school more than an hour away. Gilliam didn’t understand it at the time, but the Milton Hershey School was a tuition-free school for low income families, and his single mother was having a hard time taking care of Garry and his younger brother, who had special needs.
Feeling abandoned and confused, Gilliam pored his energy into football and his studies. He earned a scholarship to Penn State, and was awarded six years of eligibility because of an infection he sustained after knee surgery. It was a long rehab back, and when he made it, the coaches switched him from tight end to offensive tackle.
Fast forward to Sunday’s third quarter, as the undrafted rookie lined up for a play designed specifically for him. A fake field goal morphed into a 19-yard loft by Canadian punter Jon Ryan, right into Gilliam’s hands in the end zone.
“I had been waiting for that play,” Gilliam said afterward, nearly as breathless and giddy as Matthews. In the locker room Gilliam spent a good amount of time on his phone, checking countless messages from family and friends. Among those who reached out: current students at the Milton Hershey School. Gilliam always encourages them to reach out, hoping he can be a role model.
And who knows, one day they might be Seahawks, too.