The induction of Browns linebacker great Clay Matthews into the team’s Ring of Honor, which will take place at halftime Sunday night against the Los Angeles Rams, is deserved and overdue but also perfectly-timed.
Matthews will become the 17th name inscribed inside the ring of FirstEnergy Stadium. He is the first Browns legend honored who wasn’t previously enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The number 10,363 is inscribed there – signifying Joe Thomas’ consecutive snaps played streak – but not the Thomas name.
The honor could help generate more awareness of Matthews’ impeccable credentials for Canton just as another season of Hall of Fame balloting gets underway. Matthews has never advanced beyond the round of 25 semifinalists in 18 years of eligibility.
The Ring of Honor ceremony was scheduled purposely for the Rams game to accommodate the tightly-knit Matthews family – 17-strong, including 10 grandchildren and five children all over the age of 30 now. The family will enjoy the benefit of witnessing Clay’s second-youngest son, Clay III, play linebacker for the Rams against the Browns.
It will be the younger Clay’s third career game in the city that has never loosened the bond with his father since he was selected by the Browns in the first round of the 1978 draft. Matthews’ No. 57 jersey remains one of the most popular among fans of any age.
Coming from the sunny campus of University of Southern California, Matthews instantly took to drab, blue-collar Cleveland. The city’s fabled work ethic meshed perfectly with his style of play.
Matthews played 16 years with the Browns – spanning the eras of the Kardiac Kids, the Bernie Kosar AFC Championship Game teams, and the Bill Belichick regime.
Then he played three seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. He led that team with 6.5 sacks at the age of 40, noting, “The last play of my last game of my last year was a sack.” Matthews’ 278 career games are the most for a linebacker in NFL history.
“For me, growing up, I just thought it was commonplace that my dad played in the NFL for 19 years,” Clay III, 33, said to ESPN Cleveland in a phone interview this week. “It’s not until I started making a name for myself that I realized truly how difficult that is. Now I’m into Year 11 and I’m telling him, ‘No way could I play for another 8-9 years like you did.’”
Now, all of this hoopla is positively terrifying to Matthews himself, the worst nightmare of a man who hates attention.
“I think if it was up to him, he’d take a certificate in the mail and that would be that,” Clay said of his dad.
Matthews affirms, “I think I felt more comfortable on the field than I do potentially getting paraded around.”
To understand why is to understand the essence of Clay Matthews the football player.
No I in team: Matthews explained, “I’ve always believed in teamwork. That’s how I was brought up. To be perfectly honest, I’m a little uncomfortable getting called out for doing something.”
There may never have been a more cerebral defensive player in Browns history than Matthews. He would talk politics regularly with teammates, solve the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink virtually every day, and daydream of creating his own bizarre defensive schemes.
The appeal of the sport to Matthews, however, was hardly limited to the Xs and Os.
“I think it was everything, really,” he said. “No. 1, to compete at something. No. 2, you talk about the locker room. You’ve got folks from all different types of backgrounds, yet they come in and they’re working towards the common goal.
“If you talk to a lot of ex-players years after they played, they’re not going to be talking about the catch they made or the tackle they made or the interception. They’re going to talk about the things that went on in the locker room. That’s a magical place. I think a lot of us players try to find that locker room. I don’t think it’s out there, though.”
Replacing that magic is what drew Matthews to coaching after he retired.
A team was always family to him. And when his family -- his sons -- came of age to start competing, it was natural for Matthews to be there for them as their personal coach at every level through high school.
Matthews chuckles at the story of his first experience of coaching his oldest, Kyle, as a freshman in high school. Kyle told his coach that his dad was interested in helping out. But Kyle never mentioned his dad’s NFL background.
The coach approached Matthews one day and said, “So I hear you’d like to coach. What do you know about football?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Matthews said. “Where do you need help?”
The coach said offensive line. Matthews said fine.
“And he says, ‘Good, we’re starting practice right now,’” Matthews said. “So I go over there and I just started reverse engineering from what I knew from defensive line.”
Matthews said he thought about coaching his own high school program, but by then his two youngest sons, Clay and Casey, were on their way to USC and Oregon, respectively, and he’d rather follow them as their careers unfolded.
“I’ll tell you, playing is the easiest,” Matthews said, “because you’re so involved and you’re burning up everything, burning up all your energy and anxiety. Then coaching is the next worst one. And then being a dad and doing nothing, that’s the toughest one. You watch the game … there’s so many things you want for them – their team to do well, their defense to do well, for them to do well. It’s tough. It’s very rare that you get all those things to fall into a row.”
No regrets: When asked what he remembers most about his 16 years with the Browns, Matthews answers his teammates and the fans.
The deep disappointments of the three losses to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Games – defeats that may be affecting Matthews’ Hall of Fame consideration -- have faded over time.
“Would I have liked to have won three Super Bowls? Absolutely,” Matthews said. “You know, they hurt, but with the passage of time you can live with them. We showed up and did our best.
“That’s another thing. When you go on a run as a team, you’re so lucky to be involved in that. When you get on those runs, it’s magic because you win games you shouldn’t win and you come back from behind and everything’s good and you make a mistake and you just don’t think you can lose.
“So I look back on those runs as magical times, just wonderful times. And when we lost, it was almost disbelief that we finally lost. They’re just part of the deal.”
Clay III said he didn’t realize how great was his father’s career until he made it to the NFL. He’d meet coaches who played or coached against him, even broadcasters like NBC-TV’s Cris Collinsworth in game production meetings, who would tell him stories about his dad.
Invariably, they talked of his dad’s modesty, humbleness and selflessness.
“He went through many coaching changes, from a 3-4 to a 4-3, from inside to outside, from being the guy that dropped in coverage to the one who rushed the passer,” said Clay III. “He didn’t get the recognition he deserved because he did it all. When you speak with some of his peers that played against him and with him, it’s pretty cool to hear some of those stories.”
Matthews’ place in the storied history of the Browns is indelible. I asked him how he’d like to be remembered.
“I guess if there was something, it was that I’d show up,” he said. “I’d show up as often as I could and get after it. I didn’t need all the drama and everything. I enjoyed being with my teammates. I enjoyed trying to be the best football player I could be.
“To be honest, I think I got more out of it than everybody else.”