A winning coach or a man who 'terrified' his wife?

January 13, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

It took 18 years for Damon Matthews to go from high school champ to attempted-murder suspect.

Sometime around 11 p.m. Wednesday, according to city police, Damon Matthews lost it -- breaking into his estranged wife's house and stabbing her 10 times in the back, wrist and head.

Harriette Matthews is in serious condition at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, and Damon Matthews is being held in lieu of $250,000 bail in the city jail, charged with assault with intent to murder, assault with a deadly weapon and violating a restraining order designed to prevent such a tragedy as Wednesday night's stabbing.

Nineteen years ago, I watched in admiration as Matthews -- then a superbly talented 119-pounder for Dunbar's wrestling team -- edge Lou Chiapparelli of Mount St. Joe in the most exquisite wrestling match I've ever seen. It was Matthews' second Maryland Scholastic Association title. The victory was the pinnacle of a season in which Matthews manhandled most of his opponents. As a former wrestler, I envied his talent, wishing I had even a smidgen of it.

Sixteen years later, he returned to his alma mater as the wrestling coach and led Dunbar's wrestlers to the highest finish of any city school in the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association tournament. In public, he was the consummate coach. Glenn Jones, coach of Lackey High School's wrestling team, told Sun reporter Lem Satterfield that Matthews was a "class act" who, in public, disciplined one of his wrestlers for unsportsmanlike conduct after a loss.

Hermondoz Thompson, a former Dunbar wrestler now attending Rutgers University, credited Matthews with healing a rift between him, his mother and his stepfather.

It was Matthews who took a lad named Martius Harding, who had never seen a wrestling mat before, and molded him into a skillful wrestler who later transferred to McDonough and now attends the University of Virginia. On Thursday, Harding expressed his shock.

"We stayed with [Damon and Harriette] before and after tournaments, and they welcomed myself and other wrestlers with open arms," Harding told Satterfield. "They seemed like the typical, loving couple to me. If there were any domestic problems, I never would have guessed."

Not many who admired Matthews' routine thrashing of mat opponents in the mid-1970s would have guessed either. Athletic heroes remain just that to us -- men especially. For some reason, we think they're incapable of sin. Mike Tyson gets charged with rape and guys (and, inexplicably, many women) rally to his support. O. J. Simpson gets accused of murdering his ex-wife and those who admire him refuse to even concede that he might be among that minority of men who lose it and do harm to their wives or girlfriends.

In September, Lawrence Phillips, a running back for the national champion Nebraska football team, was given the boot after assaulting his former girlfriend. Within a month, he was back on the team, with head coach Tom Osborne saying he had been "punished enough" and a teammate saying that Phillips "needed football." No, what he needed was to keep his damn hands off his former girlfriend.

Court records provide a glimpse of the private Damon Matthews, one not seen by the public or his wrestlers. In 1992, he was given two years' probation for beating his wife. Mrs. Matthews obtained one restraining order in August 1993 after, according to court documents, he threw a brick through her bedroom window, threatened her and held her hostage for four hours. Courts granted Mrs. Matthews another restraining order as recently as December of last year, after Matthews threatened to kill her, according to court documents.

Mrs. Matthews wrote in her 1993 request for a restraining order, "I was terrified of his presence" and literally pleaded for "help." In the most recent restraining order, she wrote, "I'm afraid for my life again." The events of Wednesday night proved she had reason to be, because, ultimately, this story is not about the rise and fall of Damon Matthews, high school wrestling champion and The Sun's Baltimore City/County Wrestling Coach of the Year in 1994.

It's about a terrified woman named Harriette Matthews, yet another victim of a man and a system that failed to protect her.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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