Dinosaurs still roam NFL fields

January 26, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

ATLANTA -- Growing up, Titans offensive lineman Bruce Matthews always competed with his older brother, Clay. They'd play one-on-one basketball. They'd play baseball with two-by-fours and darts. In later years, they'd tone it down and play pingpong.

It took Bruce 17 NFL seasons and a Ripken-esque consecutive-games streak, but he finally got to the one place that Clay couldn't. Clay played 19 seasons for the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons, but never made it to a Super Bowl.

Do bragging rights count when you're 38? Bruce's head coach, Jeff Fisher, was his teammate at USC. His offensive line coach, Mike Munchak, was his teammate with the Houston Oilers. His fellow Titans lineman, Brad Hopkins, tells him, "It must have been interesting blocking for Red Grange."

Now that's crossing the line

"I don't feel like I'm an old guy," Matthews said yesterday at Super Bowl Media Day. "It's funny how all of a sudden that transformation occurred. I've felt the same all along. Then all of a sudden, I'm this old guy. It always puzzled me. When exactly did that happen? Was there a day or a date when it happened?`

Start with Jan. 5, 1995, the day Fisher was named head coach. Fisher was three years ahead of Matthews at USC, a member of a secondary that included future NFL stars Ronnie Lott, Dennis Smith and Joey Browner.

He and Matthews never said much more than hello. But still, they were teammates.

"I just found that out last week," Titans tight end Jackie Harris said, laughing. "I was like, `Man, you played with this guy?' Too bad I didn't go to SC."

That's typical Titans humor, right up there with wide receiver Chris Sanders paying tribute to Matthews by saying, "He's 70, and he's going to his first Super Bowl!"

The 6-foot-5, 305-pound Matthews takes such ribbing in stride, having heard it all before.

"I don't think a lot of guys were familiar with the relationship Jeff and I had back at USC," he said.

"Then they would read the press guide. They'd come up to me and their jaws were hanging: `You played with coach Fisher?' I'd say, `Yeah. So what?' "

"Even now, with Mike Munchak, they'll ask, `Was Munch a pretty good player?' I'm like, `What? Are you kidding me? You don't know who Mike Munchak is?' "

Well, Bruce, it is a new century.

Rookie defensive end Jevon Kearse was 6 when the Oilers selected Matthews in the ninth round of the 1983 draft. Running back Eddie George was 9, quarterback Steve McNair 10. The Colts were still in Baltimore, for crying out loud.

Matthews is one of four active NFL players remaining from the 1983 draft, along with Miami's Dan Marino, Washington's Darrell Green and Arizona's Trey Junkin.

Matthews made history Dec. 5 at PSINet Stadium, breaking Jackie Slater's record for games played by an offensive lineman, a mark he has since increased to 264.

One more full season and he will move past Clay into third place on the NFL's all-time list of games played. His streak of 200 consecutive games, the longest among active players, dates to Nov. 8, 1987. If not for a contract holdout that season, it might be even longer.

The closest Matthews came to missing a game?

"I guess it was in '97, our first year in Tennessee," he said. "We were playing in Pittsburgh, and a guy fell on the outside of my knee and tweaked the MCL [medial collateral ligament].

"On Tuesday, I didn't feel good about my chances. As days wore on, it just got better and better. I thought, why not?"

Just like Ripken all those years.

Matthews has made the Pro Bowl at three positions -- both guard spots and center. His 12 selections are one short of Reggie White's record.

But for all that he has accomplished, he now recognizes that his career would not have been complete without a Super Bowl.

"I had resigned myself to the notion that if it happened, great; if it didn't happen, no big deal," Matthews said. "But I guess without being here, I wouldn't have realized what a great loss it would have been not to make it."

One Super Bowl shouldn't be too much to ask -- between Bruce; Clay, and their father, Clay Sr., a linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers in the 1950s, the Matthews family has given 40 seasons to the NFL.

Bruce can recall his makeshift baseball games with Clay, when the object was to "hit" a dart with a two-by-four.

"All it took was the first beanball and that game was retired by our parents," he said.

He can recall losing game after game to Clay in one-on-one basketball, and injuring Clay's ankle the day after his brother returned from his first season with the Browns. "Oh, my gosh," Bruce thought, "he's going to kill me."

So, how is Clay reacting to his younger brother's good fortune?

"He's excited," Bruce said. "When the Browns went to the AFC Championship Game three times, I was excited. I hurt more when they lost those games than any game I ever lost.

"I'm excited for my whole family. It's never been a family where we try to one-up each other although my kids want me to play more years than him."

It could happen -- Matthews has three years left on his contract, and his teammates liken him to a big kid, brimming with youthful enthusiasm.

He's an inspiration to little brothers everywhere.

Even at 38. And even at 305 pounds.

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