ATLANTA It only seemed fitting Tennessee Titans guard Bruce Matthews raised the AFC Championship trophy above the winner’s podium. After all, his family has waited longer than anyone in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl.
Bruce Matthews will start in Sunday’s Super Bowl XXXIV against the St. Louis Rams after 264 games, 17 seasons and 12 Pro Bowls. However, that’s 14 games less than brother Clay Matthews, the NFL leader in games played without ever reaching the “Dance,” played during his 19 seasons with Cleveland (1973-93) and Atlanta (1994-96). Father Clay Matthews Sr. didn’t make the All-America Football Conference championship as a San Francisco linebacker (1950, ‘53-55).
“Finally, one of the Matthews brothers makes the Super Bowl,” Matthews said. “If I didn’t make it to the Super Bowl, I had a pretty good career. I guess without being here I wouldn’t have realized what a great loss it would have been if I had never been here. It always irked me when rookies made the Super Bowl. I want them to understand this might not ever happen again.”
Said receiver Yancey Thigpen: “I think this game means more to Bruce than the Hall of Fame and all the Pro Bowls.”
Matthews, 38, is one of the few active players who remembers disco or the first time bell bottoms were popular. He played one season with Titans coach Jeff Fisher at Southern Cal and nine years with offensive line coach Mike Munchak.
Matthews’ 197 consecutive-game streak is the longest among active players. Aside from a five-game contract holdout in 1987, which ended a 63-game streak, he has never missed a game. A sprained knee ligament cost Matthews a couple practices in 1997, but he still played Sunday.
Matthews, the ninth pick of the famed 1983 draft known more for quarterbacks, has played all five offensive line positions, reaching the Pro Bowl eight times as a guard and four as a center. He has blocked for 26 running backs and 14 quarterbacks who produced eight 1,000-yard rushing and seven 3,000-yard passing seasons for the Houston/Tennessee franchise.
And there doesn’t appear to be any end to Matthews’ playing days. His 259 games are already a record for an offensive lineman, and it seems probable that he will catch Jim Marshall at 282 games for second overall. George Blanda seems impossible to catch at 340, but Matthews only wants to eclipse his brother’s 278 to earn the family title.
“My children are into it,” he said. “They want me to play longer than ‘Uncle Clay.’ ”
Clay Matthews will attend the game after losing three AFC Championships during his career that Bruce said “were more painful for me than any loss I had.” A childhood that had them relocating regularly kept the brothers close. Bruce and Clay grew up playing one-on-one from basketball to pingpong to batting practice using darts as the ball and a 2-by-4 as the bat.
“When we had our first beanball, our parents retired that game,” Matthews said. “He doesn’t like to lose to me. We don’t go quite as hard as we used to.”
Playing for Fisher doesn’t seem strange to Matthews. The two barely knew each other in college. Fisher was a senior defensive back and Matthews a freshman guard, so there was little communication beyond pleasantries. However, playing for Munchak forced Matthews to analyze his play.
“The first few months Mike was on the job we would talk about stuff that I never thought about, and it forced me to break the game down into steps,” he said.
Only once has Matthews regretted staying with the Titans. Three days after Matthews re-signed in 1995, the team announced it was moving to Tennessee. Still, he said playing in four different stadiums and three cities over four seasons was worthwhile.
“At the time we were going through the move, the small crowds and no real home-field advantage, you really started to question whether this was all worth it,” Matthews said. “At the same time, our success was directly attributed to what we went through. We have a mental toughness and edge from all we’ve gone through. We’re not conventional in the way we win. We don’t put up all the points like the Rams. We keep it close and find a way in the fourth quarter to win.”
But will Matthews be tempted to retire if the Titans win the Super Bowl like Washington guard Russ Grimm did after taking Super Bowl XXVI?
“I keep telling the kids to enjoy this,” Matthews said, joking. “My family has been through so much with the team’s move. This is a nice reward to all of us.”