Clay Matthews Jr., whose career as a linebacker with the
Cleveland Browns and the Atlanta Falcons covered 19 seasons and
278 games--the third-most games in NFL history--smiles when
someone mentions his remarkable longevity. "It's all in the
genes," says Matthews, who retired, at 40, in 1996. "I'd love to
tell you it was hard work and dedication, but the truth is that
God just gave my brother and me bodies that could tolerate a lot
Younger brother Bruce, 38, who lines up at left guard for the
Tennessee Titans and has played every position on the offensive
line during a 17-year, 264-game career, comes to the same
conclusion. "The ego says great workouts and diet," he says, "but
I know it's the genes. God blessed my brother and me with bodies
to be pounded on. You know, resilient."
Put their careers together and you have 542 NFL games. Add
another 25 playoff appearances--14 for Bruce, 11 for Clay--and
you're up to 567. Now throw in 45 more for their dad, Clay Sr.,
who spent four years as a tackle, defensive end, linebacker and
a captain of the San Francisco 49ers in the '50s, and you've got
612 games for the Matthews clan. Clay Sr., a former boxer,
wrestler, swimmer and diver, is still ramrod straight at 71 and
carrying his NFL weight of 225 pounds on a 6'3" frame. He left
the game to conquer the business world and did so with stunning
success; he started out as an industrial engineer for an
electricity company and went on to become president and COO of
three major corporations, including Bell & Howell.
Is this the greatest accumulation of family service in football
history? In the NFL, yes. But in the dim and murky past of pro
football, shortly after the turn of the century, came the
Nessers. There were nine of them total, millworkers and
boilermakers, originally from the German city of Trier. They
stare out of old team photos with fixed and murderous gazes, and
who knows how many games they logged for the old teams of the
May 14, 2000
Until another pack like the Nessers comes along, the Matthews
family reigns as the genetic champion of modern times, and if you
ask Clay Sr. about it, he will produce a yellowed 1936 clipping
from the Charleston (S.C.) Star detailing the exploits of another
generation, his father and hero, Howard Lynn (Matty) Matthews. A
minor league baseball player, Matty had just reported to Macon,
of the Class C Sally League in the spring of 1911 as a catcher.
His speed would soon get him switched to the outfield, and one
day, when Macon had turned its field over to the visiting Detroit
Tigers and Boston Red Sox for an exhibition game, a newspaperman
came up with a terrific idea: He set up a 100-yard race that
matched Matty and the Tigers' Ty Cobb, generally regarded as
baseball's fastest man, with Eddie Collins (not the famous second
baseman) thrown into the mix.
Twenty-five years later the Star's John K. Cauthen wrote, "'Cobb
was just blossoming out in those days and I wasn't afraid of
him,' Matthews says. 'But Collins had quite a reputation, and he
was the man I was most afraid of.' When the dash was over,
however, Cobb and Collins were neck and neck, and Matthews was
three yards ahead of them."
"I love to read that story," says Clay Jr., who, like Bruce, has
a great reverence for family history. "I keep a copy of it on my
desk at home."
"Before he died, Grandpa Matty came to one of my junior league
baseball games," Bruce recalls. "He couldn't see real well. I hit
a home run. He gave me five dollars."
But there was another side to Matty. He was a boxer and then a
renowned boxing coach at The Citadel from 1929 to '54, in the
days when the little military academy would defeat such giants as
Alabama, Maryland, Michigan State and Tennessee. "He designed his
own gravestone, and it has a pair of boxing gloves on it," Clay
Sr. says of his dad. "He'd work your ass off. Condition,
Clay Sr., whose credentials include two years as both Georgia
heavyweight Golden Gloves champion and Southeastern AAU
heavyweight wrestling champ, says, "My dad started me boxing at
four, I had my last fight at 18, and I never lost."
"Not exactly true," says Bruce, who is better versed in family
history than even his father. "He lost a bout to 'Fan Ears'
Locklear. They called him that because he was always fanning his
ears with his gloves. My dad's mother had made Dad some trunks,
and in the first round the elastic popped and the trunks started
slipping. Every time he dropped his hands to grab his trunks, Fan
Ears would punch him. That's how Dad lost. He yelled at his mom,
'Look what you've done!'"
"We had a set of gloves at home," Bruce adds. "One day when I was
in high school, I was sparring with my best friend. He wore
braces on his teeth. The first thing my dad had taught me was a
left jab, and I kept popping him with it, and it didn't sit too
well with his braces. My dad came out of the house and took one
look at the guy's mouth and got real mad. 'All right, tough guy,'
he said, and he put the gloves on. I was pretty careful after
Except when he squared off with Clay. They'd put on the gloves
occasionally, but their taste in competition was usually more
exotic. "We'd make up games," says Bruce. "Dart baseball--darts
for the ball, a two-by-four for the bat. Make the dart stick in
the board, and it's a hit. I don't think either of us got maimed,
but there were brushbacks."
"I took one look at that one and ended it in a hurry," Clay Sr.
Clay Jr. then recalls another of their games. "Knee football," he
says. "Just like it sounds--tackle football played on your knees.
Everything up the middle, nothing wide. We wouldn't let our older
sister, Kristy, play because she was too competitive, but our
twin brothers would get into that one." Raymond and Bradley, two
years older than Bruce and three years younger than Clay, are
mentally challenged but vigorous participants in the family wars.
"Our games were pretty rough," Clay Jr. says. "The twins wound up
getting technical fouls called on them when they competed in the
Special Olympics. They'd get thrown out of games."
For years the five-year age difference between Clay Jr. and Bruce
made it rough for Bruce to catch a break in their various
competitions, but one day in 1978 the size difference kicked in.
Clay was a 6'2", 238-pound rookie with the Browns; Bruce was a
6'4", 235-pound senior at Arcadia (Calif.) High, on the way to
his current 6'5", 295. "We were playing one-on-one basketball,"
Bruce says. "He always used to let it be close, and then he'd win
at the end. Years later he told me, 'You know, I wanted to let
you win one, but when it came time to do it, I just couldn't.'
But this time I was up 7-3 in a 10-basket game, and he was going
all out. Then Clay sprained his ankle, and the game was over. I
took it as my first victory. He called it a suspended game."
Clay had gone to USC despite some heavy recruiting by Georgia
Tech coach Pepper Rodgers, who'd been at Tech for a year with
Clay Sr. "Pepper came to our house on a visit," says Clay Sr. "He
was kind of a flaky guy. I told him, 'Don't kid around with this
boy; he's very straight.' Then I went into the kitchen to get
them Cokes, and I could hear from the living room, 'Boom! Boom!'
I came out, and Pepper was on his back on the floor, firing an
imaginary gun at the ceiling. He was showing Clay how he had
played a redneck trooper in the movie The Trial of Billy Jack.
That was it for Clay and Georgia Tech."
Bruce followed Clay to USC, where as a freshman Bruce joined one
of history's great assemblages of college talent. Every member of
the Trojans' 1979 starting offense was eventually taken in the
NFL draft. Five linemen, in addition to Bruce, became first-round
picks. The running backs were Charles White and Marcus Allen,
both first-rounders. The defensive backfield had two more
first-rounders, Ronnie Lott and Dennis Smith. "I learned about
tradition and excellence," Bruce says of his USC career, "and the
idea of letting your performance on the field do all the talking
He became the top draft pick of the Houston Oilers in '83, as
Clay had been of the Browns five years earlier. They ended up
facing each other 21 times during the 13 years that their
careers overlapped, from 1983 through '96. "First game I faced
him," Bruce says, "was in '83 in Cleveland. I'd been a Browns
fan because of Clay. It was unbelievable to me that I could look
across the line and actually see him there, and now I had to
block him on the first play, a counter trey, Earl Campbell
"He came out like a locomotive," Clay says. "All that fury on
his face, all those one-on-one games that I'd beaten him at for
so many years."
"No, not fury, just concentration," Bruce says. "Our offensive
coach, Kay Dalton, had told me, 'Bruce, you're going to get your
brother, and you're going to plant him.' In the huddle all the
guys were saying things to me. I was scared of looking bad, so I
went after Clay with everything I had, and he stepped about six
inches to the side. He tackled Earl like it was a warmup drill. I
wound up on my face, with a big chunk of mud in my face mask."
They had lively battles but echo the same sentiment: When Clay
got a sack off his brother, or when Bruce leveled Clay with a
block, it wasn't elation they felt but embarrassment, the idea
of making one's brother look bad. Now, with a full season ahead
and who knows how many more after, Bruce is on the verge of
surpassing Clay's mark of 278 regular-season games, third only
to George Blanda's 340 and Jim Marshall's 282. "Do I mind?" Clay
says. "Not a bit."
"I tell my kids [before every season], 'Make sure you enjoy it,
because the old man is hanging it up,'" Bruce says. "They say,
'You can't. You've got to beat Uncle Clay.'"
Clay, who resides in Agoura Hills, Calif., and lives off his
investments, retired with five Pro Bowl selections to his credit;
Bruce has been selected to the last 12. He says his body feels
fine, but it's a strange feeling to go, seemingly overnight, from
an All-Pro player to an old player. "People would meet him," his
wife, Carrie, says, "and it used to be, 'You're pretty big. Do
you play football?' Now it's, "Did you play football?'"
"Maybe it's a sign of getting old, but I love history, family
history and the history of the game itself," says Bruce, who
lives in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land. "Now it seems that no
one has any interest in it. Mike Munchak, my teammate on the
Oilers for 11 years and one of the greatest guards who ever
lived, is our line coach, and some rookie will come up to me and
say, 'Coach Munchak really knows what he's talking about. Did he
The Matthews brothers have nine boys and two girls combined.
Bruce's oldest, Steven, is 15 and already 6'2", 225 pounds--a
tackle, naturally. Clay's oldest boy is 17-year-old Kyle, a
6'1", 200-pound defensive end who's on his way to USC. The
youngest is Bruce's six-month-old, Luke, already a terror in the
Texas eight-months-and-younger league, and the rest of the boys,
in both families, all play football. Another Nesser clan
perhaps? Another invasion of the history books? Who knows? But
you can't beat those genes.
"We'd make up games," says Bruce. "Dart baseball. I don't think
either of us got maimed, but there were some brushbacks."
When Clay got a sack off his brother, or when Bruce leveled Clay
with a block, it wasn't elation they felt but embarrassment.