Clay Matthews Jr. doesn’t like to talk about his achievements all that much. He’d rather remember his teammates and the bond they forged together during the Browns’ stellar seasons in the mid-to-late 1980s.
“The locker room, it's a magical place because you got all these folks from different type of back backgrounds," Matthews said during a recent Club 46 interview with Jay Crawford. "We got some wealthy folks, some not so wealthy, some smart ones, some pretty smart ones. But when you take these people and put them together in trying to get that common goal of winning a world championship, it's just amazing how it brings people together."
But there was one play that Browns fans will undoubtedly recall when thinking about No. 57.
The date was Jan. 6, 1990. The location: the ferocious confines of Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
The opponent: the upstart Buffalo Bills, who would eventually go on to win the AFC four straight times in the next decade. And the situation: a young Jim Kelly leading the Bills on what seemed destined to end in a game-winning touchdown.
The Bills had spent the entire afternoon feeding the football to second-year running back Thurman Thomas, who rarely caught passes out of the backfield -- he'd recorded 18 receptions in the entire regular season -- but had 13 receptions for 150 yards and two touchdowns in this playoff game. They went to him again during a drive in which Kelly drove Buffalo down inside the Browns' 12-yard line. Trailing 34-30, Kelly and the Bills faced third-and-10 with just 0:09 left to play.
Buffalo broke the huddle and lined up in an empty backfield, seemingly eliminating the possibility of another pass to Thomas. But there the running back was, lined up in the slot.
Matthews' assignment? Thomas.
Matthews will be honored during halftime of Cleveland’s Week 3, Sunday Night Football matchup vs. Rams
"They get down there and they come out in what's called an empty formation. No backs," Matthews recalled. "Thurman's right there and we were in some coverage where it was me man-to-man with no help, maybe on top. And I go, OK, he could go inside or he could go outside.
"And I don't remember guessing. But I played off of it a little bit and broke inside and I don't know, I felt faster than I normally did. I think it was absolute fear of giving up the winning score. And he throws the ball and I caught it and started to run and then I go, what am I doing? And hit the ground."
The interception sealed the win for the Browns and sent Municipal Stadium into a frenzy. It was a close call with a team that was on the rise. The next season was the first of four straight trips to the Super Bowl for Buffalo.
But on that frigid Saturday, it was the Browns who walked away victorious, thanks to Matthews.
The play was one of many memorable ones for a linebacker who played in an incredible 232 games for the Browns over 16 seasons. Selected 12th overall in the 1978 NFL Draft, Matthews was one of two first-round picks for the Browns. The other? Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome.
The son of a professional football player, Matthews comes from a long line of successful professional athletes. Eight Matthews have played in the NFL at some point, and his brother, Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans tackle Bruce Matthews, is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Plenty say Clay should be, too.
Matthews' efforts and fantastic career with the Browns, which included four Pro Bowl selections, 1,430 tackles, 62 sacks (a stat that wasn’t tracked officially until 1982), 24 forced fumbles, 14 interceptions and two defensive touchdowns, recently earned him entry into the franchise's Ring of Honor. Matthews was inducted as the only non-Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinee, a topic that remains contentious among the many Browns fans who watched Matthews patrol the second level of the defense every Sunday for Cleveland.
Check out photos of Clay Matthews' Ring of Honor Ceremony
But long before he was a star in the NFL or in college at the University of Southern California, Matthews was struggling to get on the field as a middle-school player. His father checked in with him one day to ask how football had been going, and he expressed frustration. His dad advised him to volunteer for the next available opportunity, and he did during a rain-soaked game in which his coaches suddenly needed a player for kickoff coverage.
Matthews volunteered, sprinted down the field and made the tackle. He started in every game from that point on.
Oddly enough, a similar story is what landed his son in the first round of the NFL draft. Clay III, who now plays linebacker for the Los Angeles Rams and was a star with the Green Bay Packers, walked on at USC and wasn’t thought to have much potential at all beyond his lineage. For a while, that appeared to be true. But he also found himself on kickoff coverage and wreaked havoc for an entire season. By his fifth and final season, he was starting at the midpoint of the campaign. Months later, he was a first-round pick.
Their draft stories were vastly different. Clay Jr. spent his morning in his little apartment at USC with his wife, waiting for a phone call, and was surprised to learn he was headed to Cleveland.
Clay III learned of his destination in front of television cameras, family, friends, his agent and his agent’s interns.
Their two careers continued to parallel each other, even if it was difficult to see. After 16 seasons with the Browns, Matthews moved onto the Atlanta Falcons. Clay III made his recent move from Green Bay to Los Angeles after 10 years with the Packers. And both Clay Jr. and Bruce ended up playing 19 seasons each.
Must be in the genes.
“I got to admit, I'm blessed,” Matthews Jr. said. “My brother played 19 years, I played 19 years. Those are anomalies … My son is in his 11th year and is physically in real good shape …we were blessed to have, you know, we can take a hit and get up and get going.”
Matthews owns the rare, perhaps unfortunate distinction of being one of very few Browns players who was on the field for all three of the heartbreaking plays that doomed Cleveland teams that seemed destined for greatness: Red Right 88, The Drive and The Fumble. Some might think that type of disappointment would be enough to send Matthews into an early retirement, but he was too committed — “to a degree this probably isn’t the right word, using the word addiction but I had an addiction” — to being the best player he could possibly be.
It was that and the camaraderie of the locker room that kept him coming back all the way through the second half of the 1990s.
“I love playing the game. I love the whole process,” Matthews said. “I love the coming in Monday and working out and getting started, getting started again. Prepping for that next game. I love game day. I love thinking, okay, you know when that team would be moving down and they're going to get ready to score and you're instead of thinking, wow, things are going to go bad.
“You start thinking this is an opportunity to do something good. And I loved that whole process. I loved the teammates. I loved the young guys, the old guys. I can't think of anything bad about it and even to a degree, the pain after a while you can push that aside and have a few golden moments.”
Golden moments, indeed. Perhaps they might also include a golden jacket and a bronze bust just down the road from the city Matthews once called home.