Matthews' persistence has made him one of NFL's best linebackers

Bob Cohn
| Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011

Clay Matthews thrives on setbacks. He makes the best of a negative situation, refuses to dwell on disappointment.

For example, after learning that Steelers' safety Troy Polamalu was named NFL defensive player of the year earlier this week, and not him, the Green Bay Packers' All-Pro outside linebacker found a way to top that. Literally.

"That's great," Matthews wryly said of Polamalu's award. "But there's no doubt I won the best hair on the defensive side."

Little can ruffle Matthews' flowing, blond mane. He recently signed an endorsement deal with Suave shampoo to rival Polamalu's Head and Shoulders commercials. Of more relevance to Packers fan, he has emerged as a leader of a stingy defense that propelled Green Bay from a No. 6 playoff seed to the brink of the franchise's 13th league championship.

Of course, the Steelers will try to prevent that today in Super Bowl XLV, but Matthews typically isn't worried.

"We feel good about where we're at," he said. "We'll be fine."

Matthews had 13.5 sacks this season despite missing one game and part of another. As a rookie last year he had 10. He is the first Packers player to record double-figures in sacks in his first two years since the statistic was introduced in 1982.

In 2009, the Packers picked Matthews 26th overall out of Southern California, where he walked on as a freshman before experiencing a stunning growth spurt. Now a chiseled 6-foot-3, 246-pounds, Matthews has been asked point-blank if he used performance enhancing drugs, a suspicion enhanced by his fellow USC linebacker, Brian Cushing, serving a four-game NFL suspension this year for a positive drug test.

Matthews vehemently denied any kind of drug use. Instead, he said, it was dedication and hard work.

"It's the simple fact that. . . .I've had to scratch and claw for everything to get where I'm at," he said. "So even though I was a first-round pick, a Pro Bowler, I never feel like I've arrived."

He even turned being denied a scholarship at first into a positive.

"I don't think I'd be in the position I'm at today if it weren't for all the setbacks and what-not, people telling me I couldn't do it," he said. "It's kind of what drive me to be great."

Kevin Greene, the Packers' outside linebackers coach and a long-haired sack master himself a generation ago for the Steelers, among other teams, said, "He's a worker and he understands that this is a blessing for him. He was a walk-on at USC. He has that walk-on mentality and he has maintained that this year. . . . He will always have the fight of a dog in his heart."

A third-generation NFL player, William Clay Matthews III carries a strong pedigree. His grandfather, the first Clay Matthews, played four years with the Los Angeles Rams in the 1950s.

His dad, another Clay, was a Pro Bowl linebacker during a 19-year career, 16 with Cleveland. His uncle, Bruce Matthews, played offensive tackle for 19 seasons with the Houston/Tennessee franchise. He was named All-Pro seven times and elected to the Hall of Fame in 2007.

Matthews also has a younger brother, Casey, a linebacker who just completed an outstanding career at Oregon.

For all their NFL years, Matthews' dad and uncle won just one Super Bowl between them. "We don't let a game determine our careers or how successful we are," Matthews said. Then he added, "It would be nice to get a win not only for myself and the organization but for the Matthews family as well."

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