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Twice the Agony, Twice the Effort

Former JMU Player Matthews Battles Paralysis After Pair of Car Accidents

By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page E01


On a rainy day in April, Clayton Matthews sat in the passenger's seat of his mother's car, preoccupied by his cell phone and the news from yet another doctor's visit. As the car started to make its way down Afton Mountain in rural Virginia, Kay Matthews suddenly looked at her son and screamed, "We're sliding!"

Clayton Matthews glanced up and felt their Mercury Cougar drifting across rain-slicked Interstate 64. The car hit the guardrail on the right side of the road, veered left and slid through the ditch in the median. The car spun around 360 degrees and headed the wrong way down the eastbound lanes. Kay Matthews embraced her son and prepared for the worst.

Clayton Matthews, who at times would rather sit by the computer than be outside, has received stem cell treatments in Mexico with encouraging results. (Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

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"I just closed my eyes," Clayton Matthews said. "For about three seconds, I thought I was dead. I literally saw my life flash before my eyes."

"How could this be happening again?" Clayton and Kay both wondered. "What did we do to deserve this?"

Until last summer, Clayton Matthews had largely lived a storybook life. A high school football star in Georgia, Clayton went to James Madison University to play for his father, Dukes Coach Mickey Matthews, and immediately became an impact player. He was popular in the locker room and on campus. His mother and older sister, Meredith Anne, were there to watch every game.

But in the span of eight months, Clayton's life was shattered by not one but two tragedies. Improbably, Clayton broke his neck twice in separate car accidents, leaving him paralyzed below the chest. His life is now a struggle to stay focused on walking again, through experimental medicine and sheer determination, and to avoid dwelling on the extraordinary events that took so much away from him.

"We had two bad car wrecks," Mickey Matthews said. "It's like being struck by lightning twice."

'Didn't Have Legs Anymore'

Clayton, 22, was a star quarterback at Oconee County High School in Watkinsville, Ga. He had lived the life of a college football coach's son, growing up in Texas, West Virginia and then Georgia, where his father was linebackers coach at the University of Georgia. Clayton wasn't the most athletically gifted player, but college coaches liked his toughness and versatility -- he could throw, catch and kick the football.

He also was a winner, leading Oconee County High to a 15-0 record and the Class AA state championship as a junior in 1999.

During his senior year of high school, after his family moved to Virginia, Clayton was offered football scholarships by Wake Forest and Elon College in North Carolina. But Clayton chose to play for his father, who was named the Division I-AA national coach of the year after leading the Dukes to the Atlantic 10 championship and I-AA playoffs in his first season in 1999. Clayton played quarterback as a freshman and also played wide receiver, punter and kicker as a sophomore.

"My biggest fault was I wasn't great at one thing, but pretty good at a lot of different things," Clayton said. "I moved positions every time somebody got hurt."

Before his junior season, Clayton injured his back lifting weights during the offseason. Doctors discovered that he had a fractured disk in his lower back. "One hard tackle," the doctors told him, "and you'll never walk again."

Clayton spent most of last summer mulling over his future. He considered having surgery to fuse the disk in his back so he could play football again, but his father thought the procedure was too risky. Only a few weeks before the Dukes opened preseason camp, Clayton finally decided to heed the doctors' warnings and stopped playing. The risk of paralysis was just too great.

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