As difficult as it is to find a franchise quarterback, it can be just as challenging for NFL general managers to find someone to protect the quarterback.
For nearly 20 years, the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans didn’t have much to worry about in that department.
Bruce Matthews was a 6’5”, 305 pound lineman with scary athleticism and a football pedigree that played center, guard and tackle for the franchise.
61. Bruce Matthews, offensive guard – Oilers/Titans (1983-2001.) Southern California. pic.twitter.com/hEnV5Ov4kC
— Hansen Hillmer (@HansenThrillmer) June 12, 2015
He played from 1983 through the 2001 season and rarely missed a game, remarkable for someone who goes to battle on every single down.
While he played for the Oilers/Titans, Matthews protected the likes of Warren Moon, Steve McNair, Chris Chandler and even Archie Manning.
Matthews also opened holes for memorable runners Earl Campbell, Lorenzo White, Mike Rozier, and Eddie George.
Unfortunately, even with his longevity, Matthews only appeared in one Super Bowl during his career, an agonizing loss at the hands of the St. Louis Rams.
Despite the lack of a championship ring, Matthews is considered one of the best linemen in the history of the sport.
That was confirmed when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.
This is the story of Bruce Matthews.
A Football Family
Bruce Rankin Matthews was born on August 8, 1961 in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Happy 62nd Birthday to Bruce Matthews!
Houston / Tennessee Oilers / Titans (1983–2001)
🏈 Forced fumbles = 5
🏈 Fumble recoveries = 10
⭐ 14× Pro Bowl
⭐ PFWA All-Rookie Team (1983)
💯 #Titans/Oilers Ring of Honor
— JVAN (@VanderlansJim) August 8, 2023
Matthews’ future in sports was assured even before he was born.
His father, William Clay Sr., was a multi-sport star in college before becoming a defensive end/linebacker/offensive tackle for the San Francisco 49ers between 1950 and 1955.
RIP Clay Matthews, Sr. (1928-2017) pic.twitter.com/xy5JahtcGz
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) March 24, 2017
Clay Sr. and his wife, Daisy, gave birth to five children including Bruce and his older brother, Clay Jr..
After leaving football, Clay Sr. got into business and the family moved numerous times while the elder Matthews worked for seven different companies in 27 different locations.
Taking care of the brood was a full time job for Daisy, especially as she helped raise Brad and Raymond, Bruce’s educationally handicapped older brothers.
While their father worked, Clay Jr. and Bruce began playing sports, including football, and would compete against each other every chance they got.
Their dad liked the fact that his sons played ball, but he was more concerned that the boys give their all in whatever they did.
“My father loved the game of football, but it wasn’t so much about the specific game. He was more about teaching integrity whether through marriage, in a contract or whatever it was,” said Matthews in a 2017 interview.
“You try to teach your kids about morals, but you never know if it sinks in,” Matthews Sr. said in 1990. “I was interested in honesty, love and fair treatment of others. I wanted them to understand what brothers and sisters are for; they’re for each other. They’re somebody to rely on, to help and to protect.”
Part of that protection for the Matthews’ brothers was the inclusion of Raymond and Bruce.
“They aren’t mentally handicapped,” Clay Sr. liked to say. “They just don’t have the horsepower.”
Clay and Bruce treated their brothers the same as anyone else and all four would play vicious games of driveway basketball.
“There was no foul unless there was blood,” Raymond said in 1990.
“They hit hard, and so did we,” Brad remembered. “We never backed down. No pain, no gain.”
Bruce and Clay
By the time they reached high school, Clay and Bruce were already showing signs of their future athletic greatness.
Clay spent his prep career at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, where he starred on the gridiron for the Trevians.
He then matriculated to USC on a football scholarship.
Before Bruce entered high school five years later, the family moved yet again, this time to Arcadia, California.
While attending Arcadia High School, Bruce excelled at football and wrestling.
Congrats to Bruce Matthews @NFL @HOF Class of 2007 and Arcadia High School @ArcadiaUnified Class of 1972 for being named to #NFL100 ALL-TIME TEAM as an Offensive Lineman. #OnceAnApacheAlwaysAnApache pic.twitter.com/j4F0QLR0QF
— Cung Nguyen (@cung_nguyen) December 27, 2019
After his junior season in 1977, he was named a California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) third-team member.
The following year, Matthews played well enough that he was selected to play in the Shrine All-Star Football Classic.
One of his teammates for the contest was then-Granada Hills High School quarterback John Elway.
Years after he left Arcadia, the school retired Matthews’ number 72 jersey.
In 1978, Clay Matthews was drafted with the 12th overall pick in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns.
He would then embark on a 19-year career with the Browns and Atlanta Falcons before retiring in 1996.
Around the time his brother was beginning his NFL career, Bruce was deciding which college he wanted to play for.
It didn’t take much convincing and he chose the Trojans to follow in Clay’s footsteps.
As a freshman in 1979, Matthews played for Coach John Robinson and was part of a who’s who roster of future NFL players.
While he suited up as a center for the Trojans, Matthews played alongside guard Roy Foster and tackles Keith Van Horne and Anthony Munoz.
— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) December 14, 2019
He also blocked for running backs Charles White and Marcus Allen.
The Trojans went 11-0-1 and beat top ranked Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.
In 1980, Matthews remained at center and counted Ken Ruettgers and Don Mosebar among his blocking mates.
USC ended the season with an 8-2-1 record.
Playing on the offensive line has never been glamorous, but Matthews wasn’t in the sport for the glamor or the fame.
He continued to do his job well for the Trojans in 1981 and helped the team reach nine wins, though USC lost to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Matthews was named a first-team All-Pac 10 that year as well as his senior year in 1982 when he was switched to tackle.
After the Trojans went 8-3 in ‘82, Matthews received a consensus All-American nod and the Morris Trophy for the best lineman in the conference.
OTD in 1983, after trades with the Rams & Seahawks, the Oilers use the 9th overall slot to select USC All-America G Bruce Matthews. They would use their 2nd rounder on Cal T Harvey Salem, and an extra 2nd obtained from the Seahawks to nab Michigan S Keith Bostic #LuvYaBlue pic.twitter.com/pI5OQy0t6A
— 𝕃𝕦𝕧 𝕐𝕒 𝔹𝕝𝕦𝕖 (@BudsOilers) April 26, 2022
Even more impressive, he was graduating on time with a degree in engineering, no small feat for someone playing Division I sports.
“He was a BMOC, but you would never know it,” said USC professor Gerry Fleischer in 2007. “He took every engineering course on schedule, neither asked for nor got any special treatment, and graduated in four years. Successfully completing a top engineering school’s requirements within four years is a challenge for anyone, but doing it under the difficult time constraints of an elite football program is a remarkable achievement. To me, Bruce was more than an All-American athlete — he was an All-American student as well.”
First Round Pick
Former Houston Oilers head coach Bum Phillips took the franchise to the brink of a Super Bowl appearance in 1979.
After losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship, Houston returned to the playoffs in 1980 but lost in the Wild Card round.
Phillips was fired after the season and moved on to coach the New Orleans Saints.
With his departure, the organization struggled mightily.
Seven wins in 1981 was followed by one lone victory in the strike shortened 1982 season.
In the 1983 NFL Draft, the Oilers selected Matthews with the ninth overall pick in the first round.
🏈OTD in Houston Oilers History🏈
1983 – The Oilers use the 9th overall pick in the draft to select All-American T Bruce Matthews from USC
— 𝕃𝕦𝕧 𝕐𝕒 𝔹𝕝𝕦𝕖 (@BudsOilers) April 26, 2023
The ‘83 draft itself became memorable because of six quarterbacks taken in the first round, led by John Elway with the top pick.
Running back Eric Dickerson was selected second overall and no less than four of the top ten picks (including Matthews) would eventually land in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
As exciting as it was to be viewed so highly, Matthews was going to a losing football team.
However, there were valuable pieces on the organization’s roster.
In the 1982 draft, Houston took Penn State guard Mike Munchak in the first round.
There was also Elvin Bethea and Robert Brazile on defense, although they were on their last legs.
Matthews exited his first training camp as the Oilers’ right guard and started 15 games.
Bruce Matthews (former Houston Oilers) OG 1983-2001 pic.twitter.com/runfTzyMqD
— American Football 画像 (@AFpicture_japan) December 29, 2013
His most memorable moment was protecting veteran quarterback Archie Manning for the first few games of the season.
“Archie Manning was our quarterback in Houston,” said Matthews in 2017. “The first night of camp, he took me out to a steak dinner and I couldn’t believe I was eating dinner with Archie. It was a rebuilding situation for sure. We lost to the Packers 38-35 in our first game in overtime, but we gave up no sacks. Archie would take out the whole offensive line to a nice steak dinner at the same place and he would tell us that he would take us out to a steak dinner every time we didn’t give up a sack. Low and behold, that was the only game that season in which that happened.”
After three games, Manning was traded to the Minnesota Vikings and Houston went with quarterbacks Oliver Luck and Gifford Nielsen the rest of the way.
The end result was a 2-14 record.
Matthews played well his first year and was named to the PFWA All-Rookie Team.
Before the 1984 season, Houston outbid a number of other teams for the right to sign former Canadian Football League star Warren Moon.
Then, the team continued rebuilding in the draft and grabbed Nebraska tackle Dean Steinkuhler in the first round.
Houston also added Huskers running back Mike Rozier and Tulane tackle Don Maggs in the supplemental draft (although both went to the USFL first and did not become Oilers until 1985 and 1986 respectively).
Even with Moon starting at quarterback and Earl Campbell at running back, the Oilers lost the first 10 games of the season and ended the year 3-13.
74 days until Super Bowl LVII at Glendale, AZ. And # of @ProFootballHOF OL Bruce Matthews; named to record-tying 14 straight Pro Bowls, 7-time All-Pro with Oilers/#Titans@JulesForTheBlue @PfgVibe pic.twitter.com/TZvW8VKkoS
— Russell S. Baxter (@BaxFootballGuru) November 30, 2022
Campbell left for New Orleans by the end of ‘84, but Rozier was added to the roster in 1985 along with receiver Drew Hill.
The team did slightly better that season, going 5-11 and then repeating the same record in 1986 under first-year head coach Jerry Glanville.
Houston’s offense continued taking shape with the addition of Louisville receiver Ernest Givins in the 1986 draft.
Playoffs at Last
As a coach, Glanville liked two things.
One was a high-flying offense and the other was a smack-talking, brutal-hitting defense.
By 1987, he had both.
That year the Oilers finally climbed out of a six year funk and returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1980 with a 9-6 record in the strike shortened season.
Moon had more time to throw behind Matthews (who returned to the guard position after three years at tackle), Munchak, and Steinkuhler.
“Bruce was kind of a laid back, quiet guy, but he was very very competitive,” said Moon. “In the run and shoot offense, Bruce got the job done. Just a great athlete for a guy that huge.”
The quarterback could hand off to Rozier and rookie fullback Alonzo Highsmith and pass to Givins, Hill, and rookie receivers Haywood Jeffires and Curtis Duncan.
DYK⁉️ Former #Oilers and @Titans OL, Bruce Matthews, has played in more games (296) than any other offensive lineman in #NFL history! In fact, the only other non-QB/Kicker/Punter to play in more games, is Jerry Rice. #FunFactFriday pic.twitter.com/sAYIneWiYt
— PFRPA (@ThePFRPA) July 27, 2018
After an overtime victory against Seattle in the Wild Card round, the team lost to Denver in the divisional round.
In 1988, Houston added to its stocked backfield by drafting Michigan State running back Lorenzo White.
On defense, the Oilers boasted Sean Jones, William Fuller, Ray Childress, Al Smith, and rookie corner Chris Dishman.
Together, the team won 10 games and advanced to the divisional round before losing to Buffalo.
Matthews was finally recognized for his play by being selected for his first of 14 consecutive Pro Bowls and his first of nine All-Pro nods.
Bruce and Clay, Part II
As an offensive lineman and linebacker respectively, Bruce and Clay were bound to run into one another on the playing field, especially since they competed in the AFC Central Division at the time.
As much as they enjoyed competing against each other, they didn’t want to succeed in spite of the other.
A throwback of my dad, Clay Matthews Jr, and my uncle, Bruce Matthews, at a Pro Bowl. Wish I could go back in time and see some of those Browns-Oilers showdowns. There were some epic battles at Cleveland Municipal stadium and the Astrodome. ❤️ pic.twitter.com/rwLntEiKUF
— Jennifer Matthews (@JennMatthews57) May 26, 2021
For example, there was the contest between Houston and Cleveland in 1986 where Clay sprinted past his brother and buried Moon for a nine-yard quarterback sack.
The result was Clay feeling bad for Bruce.
“I felt like Judas, like I had turned in someone from my family for the sake of a game,” he said. “My teammates wanted to exchange high fives, but I felt terrible. I want to beat Bruce in anything I do, except football.”
Then, in 1989, as Houston was headed to the playoffs with a 9-7 record, the tables turned, briefly.
In a Week 16 game, Cleveland was leading, 17-13, when Clay scooped up a loose ball.
As he was being tackled, Clay tried to lateral the ball to a teammate.
Instead, the pigskin sailed over his teammate’s head and was recovered by Houston.
“My teammates came up to me and said, ‘Your brother just won the game for us!'” Bruce said in 1990. “It was such a boneheaded play. But I really didn’t feel like celebrating.”
Minutes later, the Browns got the ball back and scored to win the game, 24-20.
“I said, ‘Man, I can’t believe we lost this game,'” Bruce said. “I was upset. Then, I thought, Well, at least my brother’s not the goat. He’s vindicated.”
The Matthews brothers teed off on one another for several more years before Clay hung up his cleats after the 1996 season as a member of the Falcons.
August 8, 1961: happy 60th bday Bruce Matthews. Always, always hated Oilers (so dangerous in those Moon years) but of course also always had to respect Bruce bc of brotherhood w/ Clay. What can ya do?- can’t diss Clay’s bro regardless of his team right? #Matthews #Brothers #NFL pic.twitter.com/3hGuSGZANn
— Mr. Cleveland (@MrCleveland_216) August 8, 2021
However, they were always complimentary of one another.
“He is the most unorthodox pass rusher in the NFL, and one of the smartest,” said Bruce. “His head, hands and feet go every which way. He looks like he’s being electrocuted. That wigwagging is Clay’s strength: It freezes guys. He gets opponents wondering, “What on earth is that guy doing?”
“He’s a good athlete in a position where there aren’t always good athletes,” said Clay. “Most linemen get a lot of mass going, but they can be easily misdirected. He has such a low center of gravity and good balance overall, that he very rarely leaves his feet. More than that, he has an incredible will not to be defeated. I’ve seen him dive backward to block guys.”
New Position, Same Results
In 1990, Matthews continued to hold down the fort at right guard, providing a buffer of protection for Moon, who was voted the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year after throwing for over 4,600 yards and 33 touchdowns.
Houston Oilers Hall of Fame offensive lineman and NFL ironman Bruce Matthews in the Astrodome.
Credit to Astrodome Memories for sharing the photo. pic.twitter.com/tdqNux53hr
— Astrodome Conservancy (@AstrodomeFans) September 12, 2021
After a Wild Card loss to Cincinnati in ‘90, the Oilers switched Matthews to center before the 1991 season and he never missed a beat.
“The thing that always impressed me, for a guy his size, was his feet…Very, very nimble feet,” remarked Moon. “Never got knocked out of technique, always balanced, always square.”
Houston went 11-5 in ‘91 behind their fourth ranked offense and sixth ranked defense.
Unfortunately, the team couldn’t get past the Broncos in the divisional round and failed to beat their first playoff opponents in 1992 and 1993.
The 1993 loss to Kansas City in the divisional round was viewed as a huge disappointment especially since the Oilers had the NFL’s fourth ranked offense and defense and won 12 games that year.
Then, just as quickly as Houston had started a seven year playoff appearance streak, the team cratered in 1994 with a 2-14 record.
Head coach Jack Pardee was canned after a 1-9 start and replaced by defensive coordinator Jeff Fisher for the final six games.
It was a testament to his longevity as a player that Matthews found himself playing for Fisher.
The two had been teammates for two seasons at USC in 1979 and 1980.
Fisher then played for the Chicago Bears for five years before beginning a career in coaching.
His “interim head coach” tag was removed after the ‘94 season and he became the team’s head coach.
His first order of business was moving Matthews to left guard, which meant that the lineman had now started at every position along the offensive line (he was also used as the Oilers’ long snapper).
— Music City Miracles (@TitansMCM) July 1, 2015
Since Moon had left the organization after 1993, the team selected its new quarterback of the future in 1995.
Alcorn State’s Steve McNair was taken in the first round and he and Chris Chandler were both starters that year.
Houston posted seven wins in ‘95 followed by eight in 1996.
Then, to the horror of long-time Oilers fans, the franchise relocated to Tennessee before the 1997 season.
Matthews kept his offseason home in Texas, but moved with the team to Memphis.
At the conclusion of the 8-8 inaugural season in ‘97, the team moved across the state to Nashville before 1998.
A third straight 8-8 season followed.
Super Bowl At Last
In 1999, the Tennessee Oilers became the Tennessee Titans and the organization was finally back on top after five lackluster years.
That happened to be rookie defensive end Jevon Kearse.
Kearse’s size and athleticism led to his “Freak” nickname and his 14.5 sacks, leading to a Defensive Rookie of the Year designation.
The Titans were led by a seventh ranked offense and 15th ranked defense to a 13-3 record, the most wins in team history.
Then, Tennessee outlasted the Buffalo Bills in the “Music City Miracle” in the Wild card round before beating Indianapolis and Jacksonville in the next two rounds.
.@KTDyson87 returned The Music City Miracle in the 1999 AFC Wild Card because…
⚔️ KR Derrick Mason was hurt
⚔️ Backup Anthony Dorsett cramped up
⚔️ Bills' squib kick made third-string KR Isaac Byrd a blocker
This was Dyson's first return in the NFL. (1/8/2000) pic.twitter.com/hD0tsAohRO
— NFL Legacy (@NFLLegacy) August 21, 2019
At long last, the franchise was appearing in its first ever Super Bowl.
Watching the AFC Championship game from home, Clay Matthews (who never reached a title game in his 19-year career) was excited for his younger brother.
“It’s almost like I’m going and I don’t have to worry about playing,” Clay said. “There’s no jealousy, there’s no sadness that I didn’t make it. I don’t feel any of that. I just feel excitement for him and our family. Maybe I’m living through him.”
Super Bowl XXXIV
Super Bowl XXXIV would be a difficult matchup against the St. Louis Rams and its “Greatest Show on Turf.”
In the week leading up to the contest, Matthews had an opportunity to discuss his feelings about finally reaching the NFL’s biggest game.
“I always thought if I didn’t make it to the Super Bowl, I had a pretty good run,” Matthews said. “I resigned myself to the fact that it might not happen. If it did happen, great, if not, no big deal. I was wrong. It is a big deal.”
St. Louis defenders knew they would be in for a long afternoon trying to get past Matthews.
“It’s your worst nightmare,” said St. Louis Rams defensive tackle D’Marco Farr. “This guy has seen it all. You don’t play 17 years and not be an amazing athlete. The last time we played [Oct. 31, when the Titans beat the Rams, 24-21], it was a real learning experience for me. What else can you say about getting thrown on my face and pancaked by the guy?”
After the opening kickoff, the Rams scored just enough points to take a 9-0 halftime lead.
In the second half, St. Louis extended its lead to 16-0 after a Holt touchdown reception.
Late in the third quarter, George finally got the Titans on the board with a one-yard plunge.
Tennessee then went for a two-point conversion that failed.
George bagged another score in the fourth quarter and Titans kicker Al Del Greco added a field goal to tie the score at 16-all.
Shortly after, Warner connected with Bruce for a huge 73-yard touchdown to go back on top, 23-16.
The greats are clutch in the biggest of moments.@IsaacBruce80's Super Bowl XXXIV performance is just another reason why he's earned a gold jacket. (via @nflthrowback)
— NFL (@NFL) August 7, 2021
With less than two minutes left, Tennessee furiously drove down the field to get into scoring position.
The offense found itself perched on the Rams’ 10-yard line with seconds left.
When the ball was snapped, McNair tossed a quick throw to Dyson who was corralled by Rams linebacker Mike Jones.
If there was ever a game that proved that football is a game of inches, it was Super Bowl XXXIV.#OTD in 2000, the @RamsNFL won their first Super Bowl by squeezing out the narrowest of 23-16 wins over the Titans. pic.twitter.com/FZFcCeHY14
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) January 30, 2023
Jones pulled the receiver down a few yards short, and Dyson’s outstretched arm toward pay dirt wasn’t long enough.
St. Louis won the thriller, 23-16, and Matthews was denied his long awaited Super Bowl ring.
Tennessee followed up its Super Bowl appearance in 1999 with another 13-3 record in 2000.
Unfortunately, the Baltimore Ravens made sure they wouldn’t return to the title game by shocking the Titans, 24-10, in the divisional round.
That season was followed by a 7-9 record in 2001 and Matthews decided 19 years was enough, retiring at the conclusion of the year.
“Playing football for the Oilers and Titans was never a job for me, it was always a privilege,” Matthews said. “I’ve been blessed to play with great guys in great cities in front of great fans, but now it’s time to move on. I have no regrets.”
During his career, Matthews started 293 games and played in 296.
He played every position along the offensive line and went to the Pro Bowl as a right guard, center, and left guard.
“The good Lord gave me a body that could stand up to a lot of pounding, and my brother is the same way,” Matthews said near the end of his career. “It wasn’t any workout routine or nutritional supplements we’ve taken. We’re blessed with bodies that can play this game, get abused and bounce back, and I feel an obligation to use it while I can.”
Matthews was a nine-time All-Pro, a 14-time Pro Bowler (tied for second most in NFL history), and received the Bart Starr Award in 2001 for his outstanding character.
Additionally, Matthews has been selected for the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade Team and the league’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team.
He has been placed in the Titans/Oilers Ring of Honor and Matthews’ number 74 has been retired by the franchise.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame sends Happy Birthday wishes to Bruce Matthews!
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) August 8, 2023
In 2007, Matthews achieved immortality when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“He played during three different decades. He played over 300 games, including playoffs. He didn’t miss one game because of injury. You knew somehow he was going to be able to line up on Sunday, and he always did. I think he’s the kind of guy that could have played in any era. For 19 years, he was as good as anyone that’s ever played the game. His accomplishments speak for themselves. I don’t know if there’s ever been another player like Bruce Matthews in the NFL, and I don’t know if there will ever be another one again,” said Mike Munchak.
Life After Retiring
Apparently, Matthews couldn’t get enough of football and got into coaching shortly after retiring as a player.
He coached his sons high school teams, then spent two years as an offensive assistant with the Houston Texans and the 2011-2013 seasons as the offensive line coach with the Titans.
Matthews spent those three years working for his former playing mate and coach, Mike Munchak, who was the head coach of Tennessee until being fired after the ‘13 season.
Meanwhile, the Matthews clan continues to produce football players.
4 NFL First Round Draft Picks in my family:
My dad, Clay Matthews Jr: @browns – 12th pick (1978)
My uncle, Bruce Matthews: @Titans (Oilers) – 9th pick (1983)
My brother, Clay Matthews III: @packers – 26th pick (2009)
— Jennifer Matthews (@JennMatthews57) April 24, 2020
Bruce and his wife, Carrie, gave birth to seven children including sons Kevin, Jake, and Mike who all played college football for Texas A&M.
Kevin and Jake went to the NFL and Jake is currently the Atlanta Falcons’ starting tackle.
Clay Matthews’ sons, Clay III and Casey, also played pro football.