- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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HARRISONBURG, Va. -- It is two days before kickoff, and James Madison assistant coach Clayton Matthews is playfully ripping his wide receivers during their position meeting.
As seven players gather in a classroom in the school's Plecker Athletic Performance Center on Thursday, Matthews turns on film from the previous day's practice and offers a review that would make Roger Ebert blush.
"Who's this athletic guy up here?" Matthews asks, as one of the Dukes receivers falls down while running a route. "What did you do, get shot?"
"You like staying healthy?" Matthews asks freshman Rockeed McCarter. "If you run that route 5 yards in the game, that guy is going to knock the [crap] out of you. When I ran that route, I was only a yard deep. I liked my health."
And when junior L.C. Baker fumbles after catching a short pass, Matthews turns his head from the projection screen.
"What is that?" he asks. "It's an embarrassment to all receivers. What are you trying to do? Get me fired?"
So it goes for the next 30 minutes. Matthews corrects his receivers on how to fight off defensive backs at the line of scrimmage, when to cut off routes and how to attack the zone coverage they would face against Northeastern in Saturday's Atlantic 10 Conference opener.
Matthews knows he can't waste much time during the short meeting. Because when the Dukes take the practice field less than an hour later, the first-year receivers coach can't show his players how to run pass routes crisply. Matthews can't demonstrate how to run a crossing route to avoid getting your head knocked off, nor can he show Baker how to protect the football before getting tackled.
Matthews, 24, used to be able to do it all. He was a star quarterback who led his Georgia high school to a state championship, and later became a versatile player at James Madison, starting games at quarterback, receiver and kicker on Dukes teams coached by his father, Mickey Matthews.
But now Clayton is confined to a wheelchair. He can't run routes. Can't throw passes. And can't show his kickers how to keep their hips behind the football.
In the span of nine months, beginning in August 2003, Clayton Matthews' life was shattered by not one but two tragedies. Improbably, Matthews broke his neck twice in separate car accidents, leaving him paralyzed below the chest.
Suddenly, his perfect life -- star athlete, good student and son of a successful college football coach -- was ripped apart by two violent collisions.
"I thought my life was over," Matthews said.
On Aug. 3, 2003, two days before Matthews was to begin his junior year at James Madison, he was moving into a new apartment. He had just made the difficult decision to quit playing football -- team doctors discovered a neck injury, which, ironically, could cause paralysis if he was tackled the wrong way -- and chose to become a volunteer coach.
Late that night, after dropping off a few friends, Matthews lost control of his Ford Mustang while driving home. His car plunged down a hill near campus and came to rest in thick woods.
Matthews was thrown from the car and badly injured. A passenger was wearing her seat belt and was trapped inside. They lay in the woods for nearly an hour before Jerame Southern, another James Madison football player, drove by the accident and heard the girl's cries for help.
"I won a lot of games in a lot of sports in my life. I was not always the fastest and not always the best one on the field. But I was a winner because I had a fear of losing. I just hated losing. That's helped me during the last two years. I was scared to death to be a failure. I don't want to look back two years from now and say, 'I can't do this.'"
-- Clayton Matthews
Matthews was taken to a Harrisonburg hospital. He had broken his jaw, left ankle, left femur, six ribs and punctured his right lung. Worse, X-rays confirmed he had fractures of the T-4 vertebrae in his upper back and the C-6 vertebrae in his neck. Matthews was paralyzed below his chest and doctors told his parents that he might not survive.
"The doctors told us they thought they could save him," Mickey Matthews recalled. "I told them we'd take him back anyway we could get him."
Clayton Matthews underwent eight hours of surgery to insert two steel rods and screws into his broken neck. He had surgeries to set his broken leg and jaw and plastic surgeries to repair lacerations to his face. He spent three weeks in intensive care, falling in and out of consciousness, and didn't realize he couldn't walk until nearly three weeks after the accident.
Matthews spent months at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, where he began rehabilitation to learn to use his arms again. He also began traveling to Mexico for experimental stem cell injections.
The results of the controversial medical procedures, which haven't been approved in the United States, were encouraging. Matthews couldn't yet walk, but he had increased strength and balance.
His long-term prognosis seemed much better.
But in April 2004, after visiting doctors in Charlottesville for an infection, Clayton and his mother, Kay, were making the hour-long drive back to Harrisonburg in a driving rain storm. As Kay drove her car up Afton Mountain in central Virginia, the car hydroplaned and slammed into the guard rail on the right side of the highway. The car then veered left and slid through the ditch in the median. It crashed into the side of the mountain and came to rest facing the wrong way.
Kay embraced her son during the wreck so his head wouldn't slam into the windshield. But after the accident, his head was laying sideways against his shoulder. Clayton knew he had broken his neck again. The whiplash caused by the accident snapped the steel rods in his neck. He had again damaged his spinal cord, this time between the C-7 and T-1 vertebrae, a more serious injury.
Matthews lost a lot of strength in his arms and underwent more surgeries to replace the steel rods in his neck. He was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital in Houston, where he spent two months. It was several more months before he could complete everyday chores like eating, writing and bathing.
"It was like starting from scratch again," Matthews said.
More than two years later, though, Matthews is defying the odds. He graduated in May with a degree in sports management from James Madison and was hired as a full-time assistant coach for the Dukes, the Division I-AA national champions in 2004. Matthews coaches the team's receivers and kickers.
Despite the tragedies, Matthews is determined to lead a productive life. And he remains focused on walking again, through undying hope and sheer determination.
"I won a lot of games in a lot of sports in my life," Matthews said. "I was not always the fastest and not always the best one on the field. But I was a winner because I had a fear of losing. I just hated losing. That's helped me during the last two years. I was scared to death to be a failure. I don't want to look back two years from now and say, 'I can't do this.'"
He faces enormous obstacles each day in his new position. When Matthews and James Madison assistant Chris Malone went recruiting at a local high school and Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia Friday, Malone had to lift his colleague from his car to a wheelchair.
"I've got to get in better shape," Malone said at one point. "I'm not as strong as I used to be."
Matthews struggled to wheel up ramps into the high school and then navigated his way through its hallways. At Fork Union Military Academy, he struggled to get across the school's grass practice fields. Sitting on the sideline, he worried about being run over when a pass route came his way.
"Coach, can't we throw to the other side of the field?" he joked.
In a meeting with three potential recruits on the JMU campus before Saturday's game, one of the high school players seemed surprised that Matthews coached wide receivers. But Matthews was very adept at answering the players' questions about the school, such as concerns about student-to-professor ratios, academic majors and admissions requirements. After all, he was attending classes at James Madison only a few months ago.
"I don't want to say people are shocked," Matthews said. "But when I say, 'Hi, I'm Coach Matthews and I coach receivers,' I think they're definitely taken by surprise a little bit. It's kind of like, 'That's interesting.'"
In practice, Matthews has found several ways to compensate for his disability. Because he can't throw passes to his receivers, he uses a Juggs machine. Because he can't show them how to run routes, he uses a lot of film in correcting his players. He initially used a red motorized scooter (complete with a sign on the back of the chair that reads, "Free rides. Clothes optional."), but opted for a smaller motorized wheelchair built with titanium for easier navigation on the sideline during games.
Matthews also drives on his own -- he recently purchased a 2005 Mercedes sedan with hand controls.
"It's all about technology," Matthews said. "Back in the day, you had a green chalkboard and nasty chalk. Now, we use our projectors and the majority of time our plays are on computer disc and our playbook is on disc. If this was 20 years ago, it would be pretty hard. I could still do it, but it would be a lot harder."
Dukes receiver Ardon Bransford said he has never seen Matthews get frustrated because he can't do more in practice.
"He has to do a lot of things where if he wasn't handicapped, it would be a lot easier," Bransford said. "But I've never seen him get frustrated. He does it to the best of his abilities. We watch a ton of film every day. He brings in film showing us how to do things right. He leads by example."
James Madison offensive coordinator Jeff Durden said Matthews is more organized than most young coaches.
"He's doing good," Durden said. "Clayton's strength is his knowledge because he's been around the game so long. I think he faces his biggest challenge when he gets in a meeting. He has to be super-organized and carry that onto the field because of his situation. He's certainly presented with a challenge every day with normal drills. He can't throw the ball to his receivers. When he teaches, he has to be dead on because he can't go out and do it.
"I think at first, a lot of the kids were like, 'Well, how is he going to make us better?' I think after three weeks, they found out he was making them better."
Mickey Matthews said he always knew his son would make a good football coach. He knew his son wasn't the most gifted athlete, but was smarter than most players.
"He always had more knowledge than ability as a player," he said. "He studies the game relentlessly and asks a lot of good questions. His work ethic is relentless. He's one of the first guys here and one of the last ones to leave. He has a good rapport with the players and they really like him. He's a very good teacher."
Mickey Matthews said hiring his son as an assistant has brought them closer. But it also has changed the dynamics of their relationship. At the office, Clayton is his father's employee. At home, he is his son. Clayton still lives in his parent's home. He has made a down payment on a flat apartment in a nearby development that is under construction.
"It can be interesting," Mickey Matthews said. "I try to keep everything at the office. But when we go home for dinner, I'm worse than he is about talking about plays or players. There can be some lively dinner conversations."
And there can be lively interactions on the sideline. In James Madison's season-opening 14-3 win over Division II Bloomsburg, the Dukes' offense was switching from a four-receiver set to one that required three wideouts and a tight end. The tight end never went on the field, and it was Clayton's responsibility to make sure he did. The Dukes were forced to call a timeout.
Mickey Matthews turned to his son and screamed.
"That's your fault!" he yelled. "That's poor coaching. Get the right guy in there next time!"
"I think a lot of the guys were surprised I was screaming at the coach in the wheelchair," Mickey said later.
Durden said he believes Clayton learned a valuable lesson.
"I saw it coming," Durden said. "There's a fine line between being someone's son and being someone's assistant coach. Clayton hadn't figured that out yet. When they're here, together, Mickey's the head coach, not his father. Clayton learned that the hard way."
Against Northeastern on Saturday night, though, everything went smoothly on the sideline.
Dukes tailback Eugene Holloman, a junior college transfer, scored on a 74-yard run on the second play from scrimmage for a 7-0 lead. James Madison got the football back, and quarterback Justin Rascati, a transfer from Louisville, threw a 71-yard touchdown to Baker on his first pass attempt. The Dukes led 21-0 at the end of the first quarter.
Clayton Matthews sits near the sideline in his wheelchair during games, always backing away from the field to avoid action. He wears a headset and is constantly in communication with Durden, who watches the game from the pressbox. Matthews spends much of his time making sure the right personnel is in the game, a valuable lesson learned indeed, and relays messages to Rascati and other players on offense.
During the second quarter, after Baker dropped what would have been an easy touchdown, Matthews told him to keep his head up and keep running the route because it would eventually work.
A few minutes later, Baker caught a 14-yard touchdown from Rascati that made it 28-0.
"He's very knowledgeable," Baker said. "He's still young and coaching receivers is new for him.
"But he's a great coach. He's very personable and knows how to deal with players. He knows the position."
James Madison led 42-0 at halftime, and Matthews had only a few words for his players in the locker room: "Just don't do anything stupid."
When the Dukes took a 52-0 lead early in the fourth quarter, they emptied their bench and Matthews spent time coaching the team's younger players. When sophomore Jason Pritchard shanked a 10-yard punt out of bounds with less than eight minutes to play, he tried to sneak by his position coach.
"Pritchard, what was that?" Matthews yelled as the punter walked to the bench.
After the final seconds ticked off in the Dukes' 52-14 victory, a win that alleviated their concerns about a sluggish offense and poor kicking, Matthews strolled his wheelchair to midfield and shook hands with Northeastern coaches. He made his way to the locker room, stopped short of the concrete ramp and said, "They make you look like a good coach when they play like that."
Matthews took an elevator to his office on the second floor of the school's athletic complex. He checked the score of the game involving Virginia Military Institute, this week's opponent, and began planning ways to attack them.
"Clayton is like everyone else who has gone through this," Mickey Matthews said. "I think he feels like he's a part of something and is important, which he is. He has a job to do and has a lot of responsibilities. I think it's given him a purpose."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.