To survive as a professional football player you have to be extremely lucky and superbly healthy.
It is widely known that the career of an NFL player is three years, at best.
That’s why, when an athlete plays a decade or more in the NFL, they are lauded for their durability.
For the Browns, Clay Matthews Jr. was just such a player, sticking around as a pro for three different decades.
After being drafted by Cleveland out of USC in 1978, Matthews played through the 1996 season.
Clay Matthews Jr. (Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons) 1978-96 pic.twitter.com/kVewW30vs9
— American Football 画像 (@AFpicture_japan) September 14, 2013
He was a model teammate, citizen, and a reliable piece of the franchise.
Matthews came from a football family and his progeny have continued to grace the rosters of NFL teams.
This is his story.
Football from the Start
William Clay Matthews was born on March 15, 1956 in Palo Alto, California.
🎉 RT to wish Browns alum Clay Matthews Jr. a Happy Birthday! 🎉 pic.twitter.com/ry04xQERCT
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) March 15, 2019
His destiny from the beginning was to play football.
Matthews’ father, Clay Sr., played college football at Georgia Tech.
He was then selected with the 247th pick of the 25th round of the 1949 NFL Draft by the LA Rams before being traded to the San Francisco 49ers.
Matthews Sr. played for the Niners during the 1950 season and then enlisted in the Army when the Korean War began.
After serving in the 82nd Airborne Division during the war, Matthews Sr. returned to the Bay Area to play three more seasons, 1953-1955.
The Patriarch – my grandpa, Clay Matthews Sr. He played for the @49ers from 1950-1951, then left the NFL to enlist in the Army as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division during the Korean War. He returned to the Niners for four more seasons. He began my family’s NFL legacy. pic.twitter.com/7D9IaeZ7JD
— Jennifer Matthews (@JennMatthews57) October 11, 2019
A year later, Clay Jr. was born.
After the family relocated to Illinois at an early age, Matthews was a standout on the gridiron for New Trier East High School in Winnetka.
He played well enough that numerous college football programs showed interest.
Matthews chose the University of Southern California (USC) Trojans and was later joined by his brother, Bruce.
While a member of the Trojans, Matthews was named an All-American in 1977, a two time All-Conference selection, and was on the USC National Championship squad in 1974.
60 | LB Clay Matthews Jr. | 2x All-Conference | All-American 1977 | National Champion 1974 pic.twitter.com/v1YowfcFsw
— Anthony Nelson (@TrojanEmpire) June 30, 2013
Together, the Matthews brothers helped cement the Trojans winning legacy during the late 1970s and early 80s.
With Clay Jr. on defense and Bruce on offense, USC never had a losing season while both played for the program.
Though he was not overly fast, Clay Jr. was a dependable, consistent presence on the USC defense.
Cleveland saw a future stalwart to add to their roster and pulled the trigger during the First Round of the 1978 NFL Draft.
With the 12th overall selection, Matthews was on his way to the Browns.
Matthews Becomes a Household Name in Cleveland
When Matthews joined the Browns, the team was mired in a playoff slump.
After years as a perennial playoff participant, Cleveland had not sniffed the postseason since 1972.
During the 1978 season, Matthews was slowly worked into the linebacking rotation, starting two games and registering 34 total tackles and one interception.
The Browns went 8-8, good for third in the AFC Central.
The 1979 season brought a roller coaster of emotions to Cleveland.
That year, Matthews was a member of the Kardiac Kids, who won numerous games during the final seconds.
The Kids helped turn the tide of expectations while compiling a 9-7 record, just missing the playoffs.
Matthews did his part by starting all 16 games and contributing no less than 103 total tackles and an INT.
Everything came together for the Browns in 1980.
Riding the Kardiac Kids magic once again, Cleveland finished the season at 11-5 and faced the Oakland Raiders in the Divisional Playoffs.
Although Matthews and his defensive mates did everything they could to stop Oakland, the Browns ultimately came up short.
In what has been called “The Mistake by the Lake,” quarterback Brian Sipe threw an interception while driving for the winning score.
The following year Cleveland came up short and the Kardiac Kids lost their mojo, reversing their win/loss total from the previous year to go 5-11.
However, Matthews had arguably his best season as a pro when he registered 128 total tackles and two picks.
From the Browns archive: Clay Matthews Jr. and Bill Cowher jumping rope together pic.twitter.com/ZNyt5fVYPO
— Nick Shook (@TheNickShook) September 20, 2019
After the strike-shortened 1982 season saw the team finish 4-5, Cleveland was a surprise entrant in the playoffs by virtue of a tie-breaker.
Once again, the Browns were sent home by the Raiders after a 27-10 loss during the first week of the postseason..
Matthews was one of the lone bright spots during the 1983 and ‘84 seasons.
Altogether, he made 214 total tackles (including 12 sacks in 1984) and started every game.
By this time Matthews was finally recognized as one of the best linebackers in the game.
Sam Rutigliano, Cleveland’s head coach during Matthews’ early years, had nothing but good things to say about him in a 2019 interview.
“Clay wouldn’t come out of the game,” Rutigliano said. “He was unique. He had no ego, really just a team player. I can’t remember in my seven years with him that I had anything to say that wasn’t the best praise I could give a player.”
At the conclusion of the ‘84 season Matthews was named a Second team All-Pro.
Looking back years later, former Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer also praised Matthews, among others, for their help in restoring Cleveland’s reputation.
“Our linebacking crew was really, really good,” Schottenheimer said. “We had (Dick) Ambrose and Robert Jackson and Chip Banks and, of course, Clay Matthews. Clay was a terrific, terrific player, vastly underrated in my view. One of the best linebackers I’ve ever been around.”
The 1985 Browns finished the season with an 8-8 record.
However, that was good enough for first place in the AFC Central and the team faced the Miami Dolphins in the Divisional Playoffs.
After putting a scare into Fins quarterback Dan Marino and his squad, Cleveland eventually succumbed 24-21.
Meanwhile after his eighth year in the NFL, Matthews was finally voted to his first Pro Bowl.
The Broncos get in the way of the Super Bowl
1986 began a four-year run of good football yet persistent heartbreak for Cleveland.
While Matthews collected 89 total tackles and two picks, the Browns ended 1986 with a 12-4 record.
In the Divisional Playoffs versus the New York Jets, Matthews and company harassed New York’s offense while Browns QB Bernie Kosar led the offense.
Finally breaking through the team’s first-round playoff slump, Cleveland advanced to the AFC title game after their 23-20, two overtime victory.
Toward the end of the AFC Championship game against Denver, Matthew and the defense tried to help Cleveland hang on for their first ever trip to the Super Bowl.
However, Broncos quarterback John Elway led “The Drive” and took his team 98 yards down the field and tied the game with only seconds left.
The Broncos advanced to the Super Bowl after Denver kicker Rich Karlis kicked the game-winner in overtime.
Clay Matthews Jr.: pic.twitter.com/BAazQkmcmi
— Fair Game (@FairGameonFS1) November 7, 2019
The Browns had another good year in 1987, finishing first in the AFC Central with a 10-5 record.
Matthews was named to his second Pro Bowl after a 72 tackle, three INT (including one for a score) season.
Cleveland returned to the AFC title game after defeating the Colts 38-21 in the Divisional Round.
Their opponent once again was the Broncos and, once again, the Browns looked poised for a trip to the Super Bowl.
However, on his way to a game-tying touchdown, Browns running back Earnest Byner was stripped of the ball.
“The Fumble” ended Cleveland’s year one game short of the promised land.
In 1988 Matthews broke triple digits in tackles with 101 and was named to his second consecutive Pro Bowl.
The Browns returned to the Playoffs after a 10-6 record and faced off against Houston.
This time, the Oilers tripped up the Browns and sent them home with a 24-23 loss.
CLEVELAND BROWNS WEEK
— 🇺🇸American Football Stories🏈 (@AmericanFBStory) June 27, 2020
Matthews racked up 113 total tackles and a pick in 1989 and went to Hawaii for his third consecutive Pro Bowl.
He also contributed a memorable moment in the playoffs that season.
Returning to the postseason following a 9-6 season, Cleveland faced off against Buffalo in the Divisional Playoffs.
The Bills were driving for the game-winning score and were positioned at the Browns two-yard line.
This was a Buffalo team that was on the cusp of destiny, featuring a potent offense and a nasty defense.
After already slicing the Browns defensive backs for 405 yards and four touchdowns, Bills quarterback Jim Kelly dropped back to fire a pass for the go-ahead touchdown.
However, Matthews stepped in front of intended receiver Thurman Thomas and sealed the victory with a timely pick.
Clevelanders dropped to their knees with joy after pulling out an exhausting win.
“It was a fun game to watch,” said Matthews after the game, “but not necessarily to play in.”
The following week, Cleveland faced off against their nemesis, the Broncos, for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
Perhaps still suffering from exhaustion from the track meet against the Bills, the Browns simply couldn’t compete against Denver.
Cleveland trailed the entire game and lost 37-21.
For the next four seasons, Cleveland went backwards, posting losing records each year.
Matthews continued to play well despite the Browns ineptitude in the win column.
Pro Football Reference placed him on the 1980’s All-Decade Team due to his stellar play.
Also, despite not being voted to the Pro Bowl, he continued to rack up double and triple-digit tackle totals between 1990-1993.
Surprisingly, after 16 years in Cleveland, and still seeming to be at the top of his game, the Browns released Matthews at the conclusion of the ‘93 season.
Matthews is a Falcon
Not long after his release, Matthews was scooped up by the Atlanta Falcons.
It did not matter to Atlanta that he was pushing 40.
Matthews was still the reliable, dependable, stop-gap in the middle of the defense that he was when he was in his 20s’.
During his first two years with the Falcons, 1994 and 1995, Matthews only missed one game.
He also made 153 tackles and two picks during those seasons.
During his 19th, and final, season in 1996, Matthews recorded 12 total tackles and started only one game as Father Time finally caught up with him.
However, during that season, he also picked up a sack, which set a record for the oldest player to accomplish such a feat at 40 years and 282 days.
Understanding that his day had come, Matthews retired at the conclusion of the ‘96 season.
He finished his career having played in 278 games, placing him in the top 25 All-time for game appearances.
Matthews had just under 1,600 (1,595) total tackles and 69.5 sacks in his 19 years along with 16 picks (one returned for a TD) and 27 forced fumbles (including one recovered for a score).
The #Browns Franchise Sack Leaders:
1. Clay Matthews Jr.
2. Michael Dean Perry
3. Rob Burnett
— BrownsNation.com (@BrownsNationcom) May 27, 2020
Continuing a Legacy
Since retiring from pro football, Matthews has continued to contribute to the game in more ways than one.
His most current bio has him living in Agoura Hills, California where he is the defensive coordinator for Oaks Christian High School.
Matthews and his wife, Leslie, have five children.
Three of their offspring, Clay III, Kyle, and Casey have followed in their father’s and grandfather’s footsteps as gridiron gladiators.
In 2009, Clay III was drafted out of USC by the Green Bay Packers in the 1st Round of the NFL Draft.
He went on to play in (and win) Super Bowl XLV and was named to six Pro Bowls.
Outstanding picture of Clay Matthews Sr., Clay Matthews Jr. and Clay Matthews III. pic.twitter.com/tywA95dYQ4
— Packers Fans (@PackersFans_) March 24, 2017
After playing in 2019 for the LA Rams, he is now a free agent.
Casey was drafted out of The University of Oregon in the 4th Round of the 2011 NFL Draft by Philadelphia.
He last played in the NFL in 2015 with the Vikings.
In addition to Clay Jr.’s sons playing in the NFL, his brother, Bruce, also saw two sons make it to the pros.
Kevin and Jake Matthews have spent the past few years in the league with Jake anchoring the left tackle spot for his uncle’s former team in Atlanta.
Ring of Honor
In 2019, the Browns contacted Matthews to let him know they were adding him to the Ring of Honor in FirstEnergy Stadium.
On September 22, during a game in which Cleveland faced Clay III’s Rams, Matthews saw his name added to the hallowed list of Browns greats.
Like father, like son 🧡
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) September 22, 2019
Before the game, he mentioned how surprised he was when contacted about the ceremony.
“I was completely surprised,” Matthews said of when he received the news. “There are some powerful figures in that Ring of Honor – figures that we as Browns of the 70s, 80s and 90s tried to match. We got close, but we never got the Super Bowl, which they had World Championships. Those were always incredible figures that we could not quite match up to but we were aware of them and their names and what they had done. When you look at that and the company, I am again just so humbled.”
Due to Matthews’ longevity and career stats, many NFL players past and present (including his brother) are clamoring for him to receive another honor, a bust in Canton.
Clay Matthews Sr hands down. Longevity and production. It’s down right criminal that he’s been overlooked and under appreciated!!! @JennMatthews57 @ProFootballHOF https://t.co/vpe6czkZCP pic.twitter.com/2ZMs4oWPaG
— BarkN Loud (@BarkN209) June 5, 2020
However, Matthews himself is too humble to seek the ultimate recognition for an NFL athlete.
“Gosh, I would love for that to happen,” Matthews said during a 2019 interview. “I just think it is something I am uncomfortable talking about because I realize anything I did as a player really required my teammates to be there. Any height I reached, they helped me get there. I have really become aware of how important that is and how much I feel about that.”