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When Clay and Bruce Matthews get together for a little brotherly competition, it's best to have an ambulance on standby. Boxing matches can turn into knock-down-drag-out fistfights; in Bruce's wedding pictures, you can see a scratch on his forehead that came from roughhousing with his brother. They play video games until 5 a.m., calling it quits only when they no longer can keep their eyelids from twitching. When they go knee-boarding on Castaic Lake in Southern California, pulled side by side behind a speedboat at 40 mph, they jump the wake and try to land on one another. A simple game of one-on-one basketball on Clay's backyard court usually turns into a shouting match, or escalates into so much banging and shoving that one of them gets a black eye, bloody nose or cut lip.
"We find losing so disgusting that we refuse, by sheer effort, to lose," Clay says.
"With time, effort and the will to win, we prove ourselves in the long run," Bruce says. "No matter what the sport is, if we play long enough, we will beat you."
Their sport of choice, naturally, is football. And while they may sound like a pair of burr-headed teenagers, Clay, 34, is the Cleveland Browns' left linebacker and Bruce, 29, is the Houston Oilers' right guard.
Of the 140-plus brother combinations who have played pro football since the 1920s, none can match the Matthewses' overall achievements. Both received All-America honors in high school (Clay at New Trier East in suburban Chicago, Bruce at Arcadia, Calif.) and in college (while seniors at Southern Cal). Both were first-round NFL draft choices, the Browns making Clay the 12th overall pick in the '78 draft, and the Oilers choosing Bruce ninth in '83. And they are the only brothers ever voted to the same Pro Bowl team, having both been chosen for the AFC squad in '88 and '89.
Clay and Bruce admit, however, that their intensity on the football field has wavered 14 times in the past seven years. On those occasions they lined up across from each other as the Browns and Oilers, members of the highly competitive AFC Central, squared off. One brother does not enjoy seeing the other made to look foolish in front of a screaming, sellout crowd and millions of TV viewers.
In 1986 in Cleveland, Clay blew past Bruce and sacked Oiler quarterback Warren Moon for a nine-yard loss. A great play? Not according to Clay, who had difficulty sleeping that night. "I felt like Judas, like I had turned in someone from my family for the sake of a game," he says. "My teammates wanted to exchange high fives, but I felt terrible. I want to beat Bruce in anything I do, except football."
Last year in Houston, with the division championship on the line, it was Bruce's turn to feel the tug of family ties. With about five minutes left in the fourth quarter and the Browns clinging to a 17-13 lead, Moon lined up in the shotgun formation at the Cleveland 15, and the ball was snapped over his head. Clay scooped up the ball and began to run, but an Oiler grabbed him.
"Everything seemed out of focus on the field except for Clay's eyes," Bruce recalls. "I'll never forget that sensation. He was looking at me. All of a sudden, he threw the ball, and I swear, it was coming right toward me. I thought I was having a flashback to my childhood, as though we were playing football in the backyard."
Actually, Clay had attempted a lateral to Chris Pike, the Browns' 6'8" defensive tackle, but the ball sailed over Pike's head. It landed four feet in front of Bruce and then trickled through his legs. Oiler Ernest Givins recovered at the Cleveland 27, and on the next play, Moon threw a touchdown to Drew Hill, putting Houston ahead, 20-17.