Clay Matthews Jr., whose career as a linebacker with the Cleveland Browns and the Atlanta Falcons covered 19 seasons and 278 games—the third-most games in NFL history—smiles when someone mentions his remarkable longevity. "It's all in the genes," says Matthews, who retired, at 40, in 1996. "I'd love to tell you it was hard work and dedication, but the truth is that God just gave my brother and me bodies that could tolerate a lot of abuse."
Younger brother Bruce, 38, who lines up at left guard for the Tennessee Titans and has played every position on the offensive line during a 17-year, 264-game career, comes to the same conclusion. "The ego says great workouts and diet," he says, "but I know it's the genes. God blessed my brother and me with bodies to be pounded on. You know, resilient."
Put their careers together and you have 542 NFL games. Add another 25 playoff appearances—14 for Bruce, 11 for Clay—and you're up to 567 Now throw in 45 more for their dad, Clay Sr., who spent four years as a tackle, defensive end, linebacker and a captain of the San Francisco 49ers in the '50s, and you've got 612 games for the Matthews clan. Clay Sr., a former boxer, wrestler, swimmer and diver, is still ramrod straight at 71 and carrying his NFL weight of 225 pounds on a 6'3" frame. He left the game to conquer the business world and did so with stunning success; he started out as an industrial engineer for an electricity company and went on to become president and COO of three major corporations, including Bell & Howell.
Is this the greatest accumulation of family service in football history? In the NFL, yes. But in the dim and murky past of pro football, shortly after the turn of the century, came the Nessers. There were nine of them total, millworkers and boilermakers, originally from the German city of Trier. They stare out of old team photos with fixed and murderous gazes, and who knows how many games they logged for the old teams of the early 1900s.
Until another pack like the Nessers comes along, the Matthews family reigns as the genetic champion of modern times, and if you ask Clay Sr. about it, he will produce a yellowed 1936 clipping from the Charleston ( S.C.) Star detailing the exploits of another generation, his father and hero, Howard Lynn (Matty) Matthews. A minor league baseball player, Matty had just reported to Macon, of the Class C Sally League in the spring of 1911 as a catcher. His speed would soon get him switched to the outfield, and one day, when Macon had turned its field over to the visiting Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox for an exhibition game, a newspaperman came up with a terrific idea: He set up a 100-yard race that matched Matty and the Tigers' Ty Cobb, generally regarded as baseball's fastest man, with Eddie Collins (not the famous second baseman) thrown into the mix.
Twenty-five years later the Star's John K. Cauthen wrote, " ' Cobb was just blossoming out in those days and I wasn't afraid of him,' Matthews says. 'But Collins had quite a reputation, and he was the man I was most afraid of.' When the dash was over, however, Cobb and Collins were neck and neck, and Matthews was three yards ahead of them."
"I love to read that story," says Clay Jr., who, like Bruce, has a great reverence for family history. "I keep a copy of it on my desk at home."
"Before he died, Grandpa Matty came to one of my junior league baseball games," Bruce recalls. "He couldn't see real well. I hit a home run. He gave me five dollars."
But there was another side to Matty. He was a boxer and then a renowned boxing coach at The Citadel from 1929 to '54, in the days when the little military academy would defeat such giants as Alabama, Maryland, Michigan State and Tennessee. "He designed his own gravestone, and it has a pair of boxing gloves on it," Clay Sr. says of his dad. "He'd work your ass off. Condition, condition, condition."
Clay Sr., whose credentials include two years as both Georgia heavyweight Golden Gloves champion and Southeastern AAU heavyweight wrestling champ, says, "My dad started me boxing at four, I had my last fight at 18, and I never lost."