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For Titans' Matthews, a Long Time Coming

SB 34 Logo

Super Bowl XXXIV
Site: Georgia Dome
Kickoff: 6:25 p.m. EST Sunday
Line: St. Louis Rams by 7½
By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, Jan. 27, 2000; Page D6

ATLANTA, Jan. 26 – When Bruce and Clay Matthews were growing up in various places around the country, mayhem usually was not far behind in the childhood games they often improvised.

Take darts. Big brother Clay and little brother Bruce once invented their own unique version of the game in which each player was armed with a two-by-four, the better to ward off the flying darts thrown at each other's various body parts from close range.

"Yeah, [the darts] were metal-tipped," Bruce Matthews said today, with a mischievous smile. "The object was to catch the dart with the two-by-four. When we had our first beanball, our parents retired that game."

Retirement never has been a particularly popular concept for the Matthewses. Clay played pro football for 19 years as a linebacker for the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons before finally quitting at age 40 in 1996. Though he is third in NFL history with 278 games played, he never played in a Super Bowl.

That's one of the reasons Bruce Matthews, 38, has become the feel-good story of Super Bowl XXXIV this week. A starting guard for the Tennessee Titans and in his 17th NFL season – all with the same franchise – he is playing in his first Super Bowl.

His 267 games played are the most by an offensive lineman in NFL history, and while George Blanda holds the NFL record for games played with a seemingly untouchable 340, Matthews could get to No. 2, ahead of Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall (282), next season.

And this week is not just a crowning moment for Matthews and his brother, but also their father. Clay Matthews Sr. played six seasons as a linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers in the 1950s, also without participating in a championship game.

"I always thought if I didn't make it to the Super Bowl, I had a pretty good run," Bruce Matthews said. "I resigned myself to the fact that it might not happen. If it did happen, great, if not, no big deal. I was wrong. It is a big deal."

The Houston Oilers made Bruce Matthews, who played collegiately at Southern California, the ninth overall selection in the famous draft class of 1983 that also included quarterbacks John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly. Just like those three, he's almost certainly heading for the Hall of Fame, if he decides to stop playing.

Even the fellow who must play across the line from Matthews stands in awe of him.

"It's your worst nightmare," said St. Louis Rams defensive tackle D'Marco Farr. "This guy has seen it all. You don't play 17 years and not be an amazing athlete. The last time we played [Oct. 31, when the Titans beat the Rams, 24-21], it was a real learning experience for me. What else can you say about getting thrown on my face and pancaked by the guy?"

Matthews remains a solid 6 feet 5 and 305 pounds, with anvil arms and a Sequoia neck supporting a lean, chiseled frame that has allowed him to start 263 of his 267 games. He's never missed a game because of injury, and he has played all five offensive line positions.

In his only concession to Matthews's age, Titans Coach Jeff Fisher no longer asks him to be the Titans' snapper on punts, even though Fisher said "he's the best deep snapper I've ever seen. But to ask Bruce to snap the ball and run 40 yards with his head on a swivel is asking too much."

Running back Eddie George was just 9 years old when Matthews was a rookie helping Earl Campbell gain more than 1,300 yards in 1983. This season, Matthews helped spring George for 1,304 yards, and George remains appreciative, and often amazed, by what he sees in front of him every week.

"He's just an awesome blocker," George said. "He knows every assignment from tackle to tackle. And he's a phenomenal athlete. Those are the characteristics that have affected me since I started playing with him. Watching Bruce every day keeps me positive."

Matthews has a stock answer whenever anyone asks him to explain how he and his brother managed to perform at such a high level for so long in a league in which the average career lasts about four years.

"The good Lord gave me a body that could stand up to a lot of pounding, and my brother is the same way," he said. "It wasn't any workout routine or nutritional supplements we've taken. We're blessed with bodies that can play this game, get abused and bounce back, and I feel an obligation to use it while I can."

Matthews has started at least 17 games at each of the five offensive line spots. He's blocked for 15 quarterbacks and 24 running backs, becoming a part of eight 1,000-yard rushing seasons and seven 3,000-yard passing seasons.

He's been around so long, Fisher was a teammate at USC (Fisher was a senior when Matthews was a freshman). His offensive line coach, Mike Munchak, was a teammate on the Oilers' line for most of his career until Munchak retired after the 1993 season. He and Matthews always critiqued each other's performance in the film room, and nothing really has changed except Munchak's job description.

"Nah, I don't yell at him," Munchak said. "For what? He's still teaching me."

Said Matthews: "I'm doing what no other player in the history of the game has done. My head coach was my college teammate, and my line coach is my best friend. Younger guys come in and look in the press guide and see I played with Jeff and their jaws drop, like 'You're that old?'"

Matthews has no idea what he will do after he stops playing, probably because he shows no signs of wanting to stop. He has another year on his contract.

When he retires "it will have nothing to do with age or ability," Clay Matthews said. "I think it will be because he and Carrie have six kids, and those kids are important to him. They're growing up, and he has to move them back and forth from Houston to Nashville every year."

Said Bruce Matthews: "If someone told me 17 years ago I'd have played the game for 17 years, I would have wondered if I'd still be walking."

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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