Commentary

Walking on to the Super Bowl

Updated: January 28, 2011, 4:53 PM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Clay MatthewsHoward Smith/US PresswireLong-locked Clay Matthews is eyeing his first Super Bowl win, but as Rick Reilly uncovers, he had to face his fair share of setbacks first.

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Before the human blender known as Clay Matthews was born, his mom and dad were on the TV game show "Family Feud," which is as good a way as any to get to know the one player in Super Bowl XLV who has no business being there.

Ready?

OK. ... The Most Eyeball-Rattling Thing About Green Bay Packers Linebacker Clay Matthews Is His ...

Time's up.

You answered ... Hair.

Nooo, nooo, sorry.

But Matthews' hair is medieval. It's blond and unkempt and flows out from under his helmet and over his shoulder pads. It's so Fabio-lous that it has its own Twitter page: ClaysHair, with over 500 followers so far.

"I guess that's cool," Matthews, 24, says. "But now there are other parts of me that want a Twitter page. My biceps aren't happy about it. We need to get working on one for them."

This is a very hairy Super Bowl, with Matthews' mane rival being Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu, whose mop resembles a black wooly sheep that mated with a bottle of Rogaine. Then again, Polamalu had a five-year head start.

Matthews may have grown up in the only house in America in which the dad yelled at the son, "When are you gonna grow your hair?!" His dad, Clay, played 19 years in the NFL, a lot of it long-locked. His brother, Casey, grew it long as a linebacker at Oregon and will probably keep it long as a pro.

It takes loads of work. Only his favorite LA stylist can cut it. He must wet it quarterly during the game with a squirt bottle. Guys pull it. It gets stuck on his mouthpiece when he's popping it in. But he has no plans to get rid of it.

As the long-haired linebacker says, "It's a Matthews tradition."

You also answered ... Family.

Nooo, nooo, sorry, but Matthews' family is royal. The Matthews are to football what the Kardashians are to posteriors. Clay's uncle, Bruce Matthews (19 seasons), is in the Hall of Fame. His dad, Clay Jr. (19 seasons), played 278 NFL games. His grandfather, Clay Sr., played four seasons for the San Francisco 49ers. His cousin, Kevin, is a center for the Tennessee Titans. His second cousin, Jake, starts at right tackle for Texas A&M. Brother Casey's Ducks came within a field goal of winning the national championship. Brother Kyle played for USC. Little brother Brian is a sportswriter at USC (the horror!).

And Clay could become only the third Packers player in history to win the AP Defensive Player of the Year award when it's announced. Yet "Little Clay," as he's called at home, gets zero love for his skills.

"When you grow up a Matthews, other Matthews are always telling you what you're doing wrong," he says. "The only story my grandfather tells me about his days in the NFL is how much better he was than me."

How about his dad?

"That 278 is impressive," he says. "I can't imagine that. Apparently, I'm soft and he's hard because I don't see myself doing that. If I can last half that long, I'll be happy."

Would he like to be a "Claymaker" someday?

"Well, yeah, but I don't know about naming [my son] William Clay Matthews IV," he grumbles. "Now you're getting way too regal."

You also guessed ... Speed.

No, sorry, but his speed is touch-the-stovetop quick. Matthews was second only to Percy Harvin at the 2009 NFL combine in the 10-yard burst.

"It's all in the hips," Matthews says.

Will Matthews be fast enough against the Steelers in the Super Bowl?

"I like his speed against Big Ben [Roethlisberger]," says Dom Capers, Packers defensive coordinator. "Then again, I like Clay against anybody."

Matthews' football career has seen more rejection than the fat kid at prom.

With the hair, the Cuisinart arm-flailing and the shrink-wrap jersey, quarterbacks must think they're being attacked by a Swedish raptor. Matthews has 24 sacks in only two seasons. Imagine if his hair wasn't stuck in his mouthpiece.

Is he good enough to get a street named after him someday in Green Bay, a la Lombardi Road, Brett Favre Pass and Reggie White Boulevard?

"I'd love that!" he says. "Maybe a 'Clay Matthews Dead End?'"

So what was the No. 1 answer?

Survey Says ...

Past!

Matthews football career has seen more rejection than the fat kid at prom.

This is the scrawny, headstrong boy who came out of high school with a no-star scouting rating out of five. On a list of the top 250 linebackers in the country, his name wasn't there.

Get this: Matthews was so little thought of as a linebacker at Agoura High School (Calif.) that his position coach didn't start him most of his career there. And that coach was his dad.

Matthews was so unheralded at USC that he had to walk-on.

His dad and uncle are USC All-Americans and still he got no scholarship. He spent more time on the bench than Thurgood Marshall. And every day, for four and a third seasons, he asked position coach Ken Norton Jr., "Why?"

"He told me all the time he was better than the guy ahead of him [Brian Cushing, now with the Houston Texans]," says Norton, now a coach with the Seattle Seahawks. "He'd bug me. 'Coach, is this my time? Coach, can I play?' But he wasn't nearly as good back then as he is now. He was young in the mind, young in the body. He wasn't ready."

Matthews texts Norton weekly from the NFL, but that scab still itches.

"Not ready?" says Matthews. "For more than four years? Not ready? If he had started me after three years, OK; he can get away with that answer. But not four. That was ridiculous."

When Norton finally put him in versus Oregon State, Matthews began chewing through blockers like baby food, and he hasn't stopped since.

"The weird thing is, I'm glad he held me out," Matthews says. "I wouldn't be where I am today if I had started earlier. It built a fire inside me. I mean, a walk-on ending up as a first-round pick in the NFL? Who would think that?"

"America sees Clay as this fantastic player, this amazing pass-rushing All-Pro," Norton says. "But I guarantee you he still sees himself as the walk-on who just wants to prove himself, the high school kid who finally wants to get those five stars."

"He's right," says Matthews. "He's absolutely right."

Sorry, he still doesn't get a prize.


Love the column, hate the column, got a better idea? Go here.
Want more Life of Reilly? Then check out the archive.
Be sure to check out Rick's latest project, "Go Fish."

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com