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NFL WEEK 13

Ironman

Tennessee's Bruce Matthews Showing No Signs of Slowing Down

December 05, 1999|TERESA M. WALKER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Bruce Matthews shuns attention, but it's getting harder for the Tennessee Titan to stay anonymous.

Matthews has been elected to the Pro Bowl 11 times and is among the most versatile offensive lineman in NFL history. Sunday, he'll make his 260th start, the most ever for an offensive lineman.

In typical fashion, Matthews plays down the accomplishment, crediting good fortune.

"I've seen so many good players, so many strong, big, just unbelievable specimens play on the offensive line, and I'm still playing.

"I've been blessed my body can stand up to it."

Jackie Slater, who set the record by starting 259 games as a tackle for the Rams, called Matthews' endurance "absolutely amazing."

"It's also a testimony to how he's obviously worked hard in the offseason to prepare himself," Slater said.

And it's a testament to the Matthews family's genes. His brother, former linebacker Clay, started 278 games over 19 years, and his father, Clay Sr., played four seasons with San Francisco in the 1950s.

Clay Matthews ranks third all-time for games started, behind Minnesota defensive end Jim Marshall (282) and Raiders kicker-quarterback George Blanda (340).

Matthews said he wishes his brother could come back and play enough games to pass Marshall.

"I'd love for him to be getting all this attention," said Bruce Matthews, who will answer any question about his teammates or how the Titans are faring, but becomes quiet and almost embarrassed when asked about himself.

Among current offensive linemen, Pittsburgh's Jim Sweeney is closest to Matthews with 223 starts. Even if Matthews retired after Sunday's game with Baltimore, Sweeney would have to play two more full years to catch Matthews.

But Matthews shows no signs of slowing down, much less retiring. He was a Pro Bowl selection last year, and has been an All-Pro at three of the five offensive line positions. Only Reggie White (13) and Jerry Rice (12) have appeared in more Pro Bowls.

"As long as this guy continues to play at this level and be a solid figure, not just someone filling out a jersey, but someone actually out there doing it as long as he's doing it, it's a great thing," Titans tackle Brad Hopkins said.

Matthews grew up in California, lettering in football, wrestling and baseball in high school. The anonymity of the offensive line is one reason he decided to concentrate on football.

He not only has the temperament for an offensive lineman, he has the body. He's literally a Titan -- 6-foot-5 and 305 pounds, up from 276 when the then-Houston Oilers drafted him with the ninth pick overall in 1983.

Matthews' versatility has been evident since early in his career. He spent his first season at right guard, but started switching positions in his second and has spent entire seasons at each of the five positions on the line.

This year, Matthews started at center before moving back to left guard due to injuries. He also is the Titans' long snapper on field goals.

"The flexibility there is something that you don't find often in the league," said Titans coach Jeff Fisher, who was a teammate of Matthews at Southern Cal. "There's a lot of things about Bruce Matthews you don't see (anywhere else)."

In his career, Matthews has missed only eight games, and those were due to a holdout in 1987. He played with a back injury in 1986 that required surgery at season's end, and he wore a brace in 1997 to play the week after tearing a knee ligament.

Playing through pain has allowed Matthews to rack up 192 consecutive starts, the most among current NFL players.

The only concession the Titans have made to Matthews' age is to give him an occasional day off. Otherwise, he usually is the first person out for practice.

How long Matthews plays is up to him. The Titans signed him to a four-year contract before this season, with the first two years guaranteed. He has said he wants to play long enough to go to his first Super Bowl, and the Titans could give him that opportunity.

Tennessee is 9-2 and closing in on the franchise's first playoff berth since 1993. Adelphia Coliseum, the team's new home, is sold out for every game and the crowds are boisterous.

That combination has Matthews happier about football than he's been in years. His teammates are happy he's still around to enjoy the good times.

Eddie George, one of the 24 running backs Matthews has blocked for, called him the heart and soul of the Titans line.

"We want to win a championship for him," George said.

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