“I want to say that having your name mentioned with the all-time greats of the game is a tremendous honor and very humbling to me. It is a dream come true, and I’d like to thank everyone, once again, who had anything to do with getting me here. I’ve never been more aware of how much the Lord Jesus Christ has blessed me and loves me than at this very moment, and I want to thank Him again because that is where the credit is due. Thank you all for this amazing honor.” – Bruce Matthews
The life of Pro Football Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews has been epitomized by resilience and perseverance, stability and strength. The stats he produced as a fixture on the Houston-turned-Tennessee offensive line are legendary, and his name is a consistent example for line coaches who seek to inspire greatness in their athletes. And if those athletes never had the opportunity to see Matthews play, a quick reading of his accomplishments makes their jaws drop in awe.
Nineteen seasons without missing a game
Fourteen Pro Bowls
Three-time Offensive Lineman of the Year
When Bruce Matthews was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, Hall officials in Canton asked Matthews whom he wanted to present him at the August 4 induction ceremony. Matthews responded by saying he wanted a Hall of Famer, a friend, a coach and a teammate to do the honors. But he wasn’t asking them to allow four people to take the podium, just one: Mike Munchak.
Munchak, or “Munch” to Matthews, was both his roommate and the “other” star lineman for the Houston Oilers. Munchak also became his best friend, and then his offensive line coach when he transitioned with the franchise to Tennessee. The pair formed such a bond that, in 2001, Munchak selected Matthews to present him at the HOF induction ceremony.
Certainly, no one denies that both men deserve their places in the Hall of Fame. It seems the only thing up for debate is just which lineman is more responsible for getting them there.
Munchak, a devastating blocker who was elected to nine Pro Bowls in his 12-year career, gives the credit to Matthews: “As a teammate, [Matthews] was great to watch. We pushed and motivated each other on a daily basis. I tried to have the same level of play and work ethic that he brought to the table.”
Yet, in Matthews’ induction speech this summer, he spoke of Munchak as the one who most enabled him to perform at the highest level: “As great a player as Mike was—a Hall of Famer obviously—I believe Mike is an even better coach. I believe that he helped me become a better player each of the eight seasons he coached me.”
Now, though in different cities, the Matthews family remains close
with the Munchaks. Every Easter both families celebrate together at the Matthews’, and this Thanksgiving will bring everyone to the Munchaks’ in Tennessee.
Whether teammates, roommates, or player and coach, Matthews and
Munchak remain solid friends. And much like their accomplishments are
displayed in the Hall of Fame, such genuine friendship remains equally as
All-Decade Team (1990s)
Pro Football Hall of Fame, inducted in his first year of eligibility
If Matthews had his way, however, those athletes would be relayed a more important message when using him as an example: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
First and 10
With the ninth overall pick in the 1983 NFL draft, the Houston Oilers selected Bruce Matthews, an All- American from the University of Southern California. Little did they know the career they would harness. Not only are Matthews’ 19 seasons a lot to play in the NFL, but when those 19 seasons are played for one team, it is a feat almost unheard of. And the 14 Pro Bowls? They’re part of an NFL-record number, which Matthews shares with gridiron great Merlin Olsen.
It’s odd to think that there could have been more. But that’s the opinion of Matthews’ teammate-turned-coach, Mike Munchak.
“He would likely have been voted to the Pro Bowl 18 of his 19 seasons if he had stayed with one position,” he says. But part of Matthews’ legacy was his versatility along the line. By the time his career had ended, he’d played every position along the “O” line, making the most starts at left guard (99).
Matthews’ athleticism and willingness to help the team helped him to play each position at an All-Pro caliber. When his team’s offensive system switched from “smash-mouth” (a term Matthews coined) to
“run-n-shoot,” or when injuries sidelined his teammates, Matthews easily switched positions and blocking styles.
And despite living several years as a virtual nomad, he never sought greener fields through free agency. He stayed true to the Houston Oilers when they announced several years in advance that the team would be moving to Nashville, Tenn.—even after Matthews and his family had made Houston their year-round home—and then playing in Memphis for a year while the Nashville stadium was completed. It wasn’t easy, but Matthews remained loyal.
Second and Long
In his career, Matthews played more games than any other full-time position player in NFL history—296 to be exact—and never missed a game despite assorted injuries. The previous record of 278 games was held by his older brother, Clay, who also spent 19 years in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns and the Atlanta Falcons.
But Matthews credits more than hard work and good genes (his father also played in the NFL for the 49ers) for his amazing durability. He knows that it was all an act of God.
“Early on, before I really matured in my faith, I thought, ‘Sure, I work hard,’” he admits. “But honestly, there were so many guys that worked as hard, and in a lot of cases harder, who were injured. I’d see my teammates get rolled up and carted off to have knee surgery; and the same thing or worse would happen to me, and I’d get up and walk away. God just blessed my brother and me with these bodies to take all the pounding.”
FCA President Les Steckel, who coached Matthews in the NFL, agrees that Matthews had amazing resilience but states that there were equally important character traits, the foremost of which was his walk with Christ. Says Steckel, “Bruce is the most competitive, yet humble individual I’ve ever coached. He modeled his Christian faith to his teammates and coaches with such consistency and humility that he made an eternal impact during his career.”
One of Steckel’s most sentimental memories of Matthews is when the lineman stood in a team meeting to remind his Titans teammates of one of Steckel’s own key ingredients for success: cooperation.
Matthews said simply, “Remember what Coach (Steckel) said. ‘It’s amazing what will happen when no one is concerned about who gets the credit.’”
Following that meeting, the Titans earned a trip to the AFC Championship. But Matthews refuses to take credit for the inspiring words he shared, which rallied the team. He only says that what Steckel himself believed really hit him that day. “It brought everything in focus, everything the team had been through with moving and the circumstances,” Matthews says. “You see it so much in sports where guys say, ‘I’ve got to take care of me.’ I just thought, ‘Yeah, that’s how it works.’ When it isn’t about me, that’s when I am blessed.”
“It’s like the Gospel,” he continues. “The first time you quit thinking about yourself, that’s when you’re going to be blessed.”
Third and Short
FCA President Les Steckel calls Matthews "the most competitive, yet humble individual" he's ever coached.
Mike Munchak agrees that Matthews is a great example to others. He told The Canton Repository that Matthews’ priorities of faith, family and football, n that order, allowed him both personal success and considerable influence.
“He’s a great example to everyone,” says Munchak. He leads by example. It’s not about words or being a rah-rah guy. People see him and the way he does things and want to be like him. It could be football. It could be the way he’s a father or husband. Or they’ll see him in church and think, ‘I want to live my life like that guy.’”
Another of Matthews’ longtime friends, former high school teammate Dave Samarzich, says that his new Hall of Fame honor will not define, affect or change how Matthews lives his life. “Bruce Matthews
does not need to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame to define who he is,” he says, “but the Hall of Fame needs his enshrinement to define what it is and what it should represent.”
Fourth and Goal
Kevin Donnalley, who had a 13- year NFL career with the Oilers, Dolphins and Panthers, welcomed the opportunity in 1983 to join the “O” line of the Oilers— a move that would allow him to be mentored on and off the field by Matthews. Eventually it was Matthews who invited Donnalley to discover his own faith in Jesus Christ.
“[Bruce] is just a great guy,” says Donnalley. “[The NFL] is a tough world because you’re constantly being picked apart by the media. Strengths and weaknesses are constantly analyzed. So much of that view can dictate what you think of yourself as a person and as a team. And I think having strong Christian teammates you can depend on and who have your back—there’s nothing like it. It makes the game so much more enjoyable.”
Matthews himself came to Christ in his rookie season. But the Lord brought several elements together in order to transform him into the man he is today.
As Matthews describes it, he “went on cruise control” after he made his initial decision, yet God continued to bless him. Then in 1990 when Jack Pardee took over as Houston’s head coach and FCA’s Mike Meyers became the team chaplain, Matthews was first “directly challenged” to be more than just a casual believer.
A new milestone of faith came in 1997 when his family’s environment was turned upside down by the move from Texas to Tennessee. While in Nashville, with his family still in Houston, Matthews developed a deeper friendship with Munchak, who was now his line coach.
Added to that mix was FCA’s James Mitchell, the team chaplain at that time. He and Matthews talked together for a half-hour to an hour and a half every night.
And yet another piece of the spiritual development puzzle was the presence of Steckel.
“A big part was Coach Steckel and just having his influence,” he explains. “There were times when he was overt about injecting something in the team meetings that was unheard of, at least in my experience in the NFL. But it was so refreshing to see football done from that perspective. There were obviously guys who said, ‘What’s this garbage?’ But I appreciated it. And I think God honored it and blessed the team.”
The team was blessed and soon enjoyed a spectacularly successful first season as the Titans, driving all the way to Super Bowl XXXIV only to come up one yard short of victory against the St. Louis Rams.
| Bruce Matthews by the Numbers|
1 Round chosen in the ’83 NFL Draft
7 Number of children for him and his wife,
Carrie: Steven, Kevin, Marilyn, Jake, Mikey,
Luke and Gweneth
9 Times voted All-Pro
13 Number of Pro Football Hall of Fame members
from the University of Southern California—more
than any other school
14 Record-tying number of Pro Bowl selections
19 Seasons played in the NFL
74 Matthews’ uniform number with the Oilers and
296 Number of regular season games Matthews
played in NFL, a record for position players
While he worked hard all his 19 years in the NFL, Matthews doesn’t consider the absence of a Super Bowl ring all that important now. “Our definition of success is so skewed,” he says. “I honestly believe that ’99 was a great team. But there were teams that I played on that were 8-8, 4-12 or 5-11 where I think we might have been as successful, if not more successful, just because of what we were able to accomplish and overcome.”
Today, Matthews and his wife, Carrie, and their seven children live in Houston where he owns and operates a construction company, while also coaching his sons in football. He continues to support the Greater Houston FCA and lends not only his name to the FCA Bruce Matthews Golf Classic, but also, as Area Director Wade Hopkins says, “his time, energy and resources to help FCA advance the Kingdom.”
Adds Hopkins, “Matthews has a genuine desire to seek our Savior and to help others. He is one of the most humble men I have ever met.”
Matthews says the mission of FCA motivates him, because of the many parallels between sports and the Gospel. “The discipline, the delayed gratification,” he shares. “[FCA] is an amazing way to reach kids and especially hurting kids. The truth is that there is one answer and that’s Jesus Christ. And sports is a great way to introduce that.”
Playing football, running his company, leading his family or lending a hand to FCA— Matthews recognizes that none of it is about him, but about His Savior. “It’s only through my relationship with Christ that I rate. I think this has come in focus even more since I quit. Out of response for what God has done for me through Jesus Christ, He deserves my best. And I’ll be honest; there are areas of my life that are pretty hard to be excellent. Yet, I think if we’re truly living for Christ, we’ve got to be the biggest butt-kickers out there. There’s no other option … To step on that field and play for the Lord, I mean, gosh, I’m fired up now! Put me in for one more series!”
Now that’s the attitude of someone who belongs in the ultimate Hall of Faith.
*For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com