HOF Profile: Bruce Matthews
Attention never motivated him. Failure did not discourage him. Success never distracted him. Bruce Matthews just played football. Switch his position. Change the offense. Bring in different coaches -- even some he played with. Introduce him to new teammates. Move the team. None of that mattered. “He could do anything and fit into any position,” said former teammate and coach Mike Munchak, himself a Hall of Fame guard. No. 74 played on and on -- at guard, tackle and center, in Texas or Tennessee, whatever, wherever. “I never considered it a job,” Matthews said. “It was a blessing for me.” Matthews did not set out to do anything special, but his impressive play over the course of 19 NFL seasons puts him in special company this weekend. The nine-time All-Pro takes his place among the game’s elite when he is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “If 25 or 30 years ago, you’d have told me that one day I’d play in the NFL ... get to do all of the amazing things that I was able to do,” Matthews said, “and one day you’d consider me for induction in the Hall of Fame, my jaw would have hit the floor, and I’d go, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ “ SETTING THE STANDARD Those who played alongside Matthews never doubted his place among the greats. “Bruce was one of the most dominating players to ever play the game,” former linemate Brad Hopkins told the Houston Chronicle after Matthews was voted into the Hall. “He was such an outstanding athlete who happened to play offensive line. “More than that, he was an outstanding ambassador for the game. He epitomized what being a professional football player should be, not what it is.” Munchak, who will be Matthews’ presenter for enshrinement, played alongside him for 11 seasons and coached him for seven. It still amazes Munchak how Matthews moved from position to position so smoothly. “He did things at such a high level of play wherever he played,” said Munchak, who picked Matthews as his presenter in 2001. “It had never been done before, and I don’t know if it’ll ever be done again.” Matthews becomes the ninth offensive lineman to enter the Hall in his first year of eligibility. He set a standard for longevity and tied a record for Pro Bowls, while being a versatile force up front for the Oilers/Titans, helping them reach the playoffs nine times. “He was the best center, the best guard, the best tackle and the best long snapper I’ve ever been around or ever coached,” former Oilers Coach Jerry Glanville said. “At any of those positions, there was nobody like him.” Matthews went about his business in a manner that usually kept him out of the spotlight. He didn’t get in trouble off the field. He didn’t make outlandish comments. He didn’t cause problems with teammates. “They don’t come better than Bruce,” said former Oilers assistant Chris Palmer, who later coached the Browns. “He’s a truly great guy. Fun to be around.” IMPOSSIBLE TO IGNORE When recognition did come -- such as a video montage and standing ovation during what became his final regular season game -- Matthews still tried to keep things low-key. “That isn’t something I really enjoy too much,” Matthews said after the tribute in his final game. “I like just playing and kind of being unnoticed.” Matthews made himself impossible to ignore during his lengthy journey to the Hall of Fame. He blocked for a young Marcus Allen in college and an old Earl Campbell in the NFL. He paved the way for Eddie George to become a dominant back a decade later. And in between, he helped Mike Rozier and Lorenzo White enjoy career years with the Oilers. Matthews arrived in the NFL a year ahead of Warren Moon, then protected the future Hall of Fame QB from various spots along the line for more than a decade. He left the NFL after anchoring the line that allowed Steve McNair to become an elite quarterback. When a trendy offense came to Houston, Matthews made sure the Run ‘N’ Shoot had the firepower in the trenches to light up scoreboards. When a traditional power offense returned several years later, Matthews provided the punch up front. “He was one of the most versatile offensive linemen to ever play the game,” Moon told the Houston Chronicle. SUCCESS IN HOUSTON Team success came each way -- a seven-year playoff run during the prime of his career and two more postseason trips during the twilight. Ultimate team success in the form of a championship, though, eluded Matthews. He ended up on the losing end of two of the league’s most memorable postseason games ‹ a Wild Card Game at Buffalo in 1993 and Super Bowl XXXIV vs. St. Louis in 2000. “Every year, especially in the early ‘90s, we were confident this was going to be our year,” Matthews said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. Yes, I wish it had turned out differently, but there’s so many things that are out of your control, especially as a player. You go out there, you do the best you can and hopefully you have more points at the end.” Matthews’ best allowed him to dominate at every position -- center, guard and tackle. In one three-week span early in his career, he started a game at each position because of injuries elsewhere. “I loved playing every one of them,” Matthews said. “The biggest thing I loved was the fact the coaches, when they asked me to switch, felt it would make the team better.” The ninth pick of the 1983 draft, Matthews joined Munchak (drafted in the first round a year earlier) up front. Along with 1985 first-rounder Dean Steinkuhler, they became the cornerstones of an outstanding line. Moon came on board in 1984. The offense picked up more weapons in the years to come with big-play receivers Drew Hill, Ernest Givins and Haywood Jeffires and versatile backs Rozier, White, Allen Pinkett and Alonzo Highsmith. The Oilers won two division titles and shared another in making the playoffs seven straight seasons. Their offense ranked among the league’s best each year. But for all their trips to the playoffs, those Oilers only had three postseason wins to show for it. They endured heartbreak at Buffalo, frustration in Denver and they were beaten by one of Joe Montana’s final comebacks. That last loss, against Kansas City in the 1993 playoffs, marked the end of that era. MOVING TO TENNESSEE By 1997, the Oilers were on the move, out of Houston and into Memphis and, later, Nashville -- a change that turned into “a blessing” for Matthews. “The family loved it, and we had a lot of success,” Matthews said. “The team moving kind of changed my focus. Especially the first year up there in ’97 with my family not being up there, I grew to appreciate my family a lot more. I think I appreciated playing football more, because I had the opportunity to get away from it, and my world was kind of rattled.” They gradually became a power again as the Tennessee Titans. McNair, George and Hopkins were on board, as were tight end Frank Wycheck and receivers Derrick Mason and Kevin Dyson. They turned the tables on the Bills with a memorable moment of their own: The Music City Miracle, a Wycheck-to-Dyson lateral on a kickoff return resulting in a game-winning TD in the final seconds of a Wild Card Game. Two more playoff wins landed the Titans in the Super Bowl. Matthews had reached one goal. But he and his teammates came up a yard short of the ultimate win. Dyson was stopped on the 1 after a catch and run on the final play, and the Rams had a 23-16 win. Matthews retired two seasons later as one of the game’s great elder statesmen, revered by a new generation of players. “He was humble, respectful of the game, a student of the game, and he involved his teammates in everything he did,” Hopkins said. “I relished working with him on a daily basis, and I looked at Bruce as a person and a player I wanted to emulate, because he had such a great formula. He was a great player, a great man and a person everyone in that locker room looked up to.” That respect among teammates and opponents translated to 14 straight trips to the Pro Bowl, tying Merlin Olsen’s NFL record. ‘THE BEST EVER’ Matthews’ endurance also was impressive. He retired with the league’s longevity record for a full-time positional player with 296 games. He ended his career by playing 232 straight games, the longest active streak when he retired after the 2001 season. “My brother Clay played for 19 years, and he began his career five years before me, so my longevity wasn’t a big deal,” Matthews said. “I was in my 14th year when he retired.” He played through back pain in 1986 that was severe enough to require surgery after the season. He had another surgery (left elbow) after the 1995 season and played through knee injuries in 1996 and 2000. Matthews amazed his coach as he prepared to play against Jacksonville in October 2000 despite a sprained knee ligament. Oilers Head Coach Jeff Fisher, a former teammate of Matthews at Southern Cal, told Pro Football Weekly before the game, “If it were you or I, we couldn’t drive a car. He’s thinking about playing.” Matthews played on. That’s how he was raised. “My dad and my brother set very high standards for the way you go about doing your business as a football player,” he said in 2001. “I think it helped a lot.” His father, Clay Sr., played in the NFL a generation earlier. His older brother Clay Jr. preceded him as a star at USC and in the NFL, where he played 19 seasons, mostly with the Browns. They were Bruce’s role models. “I had excellent integrity and hard work modeled for me growing up,” Matthews said. “I saw it every day at the house. ... It was more of an attitude. If you do something, give it your best.” Matthews’ best has him in Canton this weekend. “No one in America but a handful of us will realize who they are inducting or how great he was because he’s an offensive lineman,” Glanville said. “And they don’t write or talk about linemen. ... I know, and I think he knows, he was the best ever.” Reach Repository sports writer Chris Beaven at (330) 580-8345 or email@example.com.