Over the years, Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews III and Atlanta rookie offensive tackle Jake Matthews competed at family Easter gatherings in Texas in basketball, pingpong, target shooting and even bonfire-building contests, hauling dead trees with tractors. The cousins, products of a hopelessly testosterone-rich culture, have been talking for weeks about what their first meeting on the football field means.
"Here's the deal with Jake," Clay said recently from the Packers' facility. "I watch his games, and he's having a nice season. I always wish him the best, but the problem is we actually have to play against each other."
Jake, speaking from the Falcons' complex, said, "Clay's a great player, and I'm really looking forward to it. It will be a good test to see what I can do. I was talking to my dad about playing against his big brother. He always says those were the most exciting games."
Yes, the fathers of these cousins are heavily decorated NFL brothers themselves: Clay Jr., an NFL linebacker for 19 seasons, and Bruce, an offensive tackle who went to a record-tying 14 consecutive Pro Bowls. Playing mostly for Cleveland and Houston in the AFC's defunct Central Division, they met a total of 23 times, including the 1988 playoffs.
"Wow," said Clay Jr., "I didn't know that. Time for the next generation, I guess."
Jake was selected No. 6 overall in the 2014 draft. That was six spots better than Uncle Clay Jr. and three better than his dad, Bruce. The fathers and mothers -- who all say they are rooting for a tie -- plan to watch Monday night from the same luxury suite at Lambeau Field.
"That might not be a good idea," said Carrie Matthews, who counts Jake as one of her seven children. "If things don't go well, we reserve the right to send the other side of the family out into those cold bleachers."
With all due respect to the Mannings, the Matthewses are the first family of pro football. They appear to be a dynasty in the making. The Mings ruled China for nearly three centuries, but they didn't put up these kinds of numbers: 58 seasons, nearly 800 games and 22 Pro Bowls. The Matthewses give you quality and quantity.
Jake is the seventh Matthews to play in the NFL, following his grandfather (Clay Sr.), father and uncle (Bruce and Clay Jr.), brother (Kevin, a center with the Carolina Panthers currently on injured reserve) and two cousins (Clay III and his brother Casey, a linebacker with the Philadelphia Eagles).
"As Carrie would tell you, we're proud of all of our children and each one of their accomplishments," said Leslie Matthews, mother of Clay III and four others. "It's a unique dynamic to have that many in the league. I never thought of it in terms of raising a football family. I thought of it in terms of raising a family of five children who each had their unique talents and gifts.
"And we just kind of rolled with it."
The Matthewses, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, represent:
• Six of the 207 father-son combos to have played in the NFL.
• Three of the 366 sets of NFL-playing brothers.
• Two of the 14 sets of brothers currently playing in the league.
They are only the third family to land three generations in the NFL; no pressure, Archie, but let's see what Peyton and Eli can do with that.
George Pyne II played with the Providence Steam Roller in 1931, his son George III was with the Boston Patriots in 1965, and George III's son Jim played offensive line for four NFL teams from 1994-2001. Running back Matt Suhey played for the Chicago Bears from 1980-89 and was preceded by his father Steve, who played with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1948-49, and maternal grandfather Bob Higgins, a member of the Canton Bulldogs in 1920-21.
"It never occurred to us that we were baking NFL babies," Carrie said. "Every year at the end of school, I would go through their little books with the kids and say, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?'
"And every time, every one of the boys would say, 'I want to be a football player.' And I thought, 'That's so cute. They want to be a football player like their daddy.'
"I guess it came true. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it."
A swashbuckling legacy
William Clay "Poppa" Matthews Sr., who came into the world 86 years ago in Charleston, South Carolina -- and still lives there today -- was one strapping, dashing fellow. Athletics came naturally to him; he was a Golden Gloves boxing champion and a pretty fair football player.
Clay Sr. stood a sturdy 6-foot-3, 219 pounds and played offensive and defensive line for Georgia Tech before getting drafted in 1949 by the Los Angeles Rams. After playing the 1950 season for the San Francisco 49ers, the Korean War interrupted his football career. He was summoned to Fort Bragg in North Carolina to train as a paratrooper for the Army's 82nd Airborne Division but was never deployed. He returned to play for the 49ers from 1953-55.
"Growing up, we had a tremendous amount of respect for him," Clay Jr. said. "He was a unique man, went on to become the CEO of Bell and Howell, a Fortune 500 company. He never really pushed us into sports. The only thing he asked was that we put our heart and soul into everything we did."
Clay Jr. was born in Palo Alto, California, a year after his father retired from football and Bruce followed five years later in Raleigh, North Carolina. The brothers, who both went on to play at the University of Southern California, were blessed with a rare combination of talent and longevity. Clay Jr. went to the Cleveland Browns in the first round of the 1978 NFL draft. At 6-2, 245 pounds, he became a four-time Pro Bowler who appeared in 278 games and finished with more than 1,500 tackles, among the highest totals in league history. He is the oldest player on record to record a sack, at age 40. Bruce, playing three inches taller and about 60 pounds heavier, was the Houston Oilers' first-round pick in the 1983 draft. He moved with the team when it relocated to Tennessee and matched his brother with 19 seasons. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.
Then the real insanity ensued.
The competitive gene
Clay Jr. married Leslie, and they raised five children in California and Georgia. Bruce and Carrie brought up seven children in Tennessee and Texas.
"I think my main role was keeping them alive," said Carrie, laughing. "If I told you some of the escapades that they've been involved with, you'd be kind of surprised they're here to play football. But I don't want to scare anybody off from procreating with my children."
There was the time she got a call from the babysitter, saying that Kevin was sitting on the roof. Yes, Carrie admitted, over the years they ran off a lot of babysitters. Or the time Mike, now a junior center at Texas A&M, was snapping the ball at Elkins High School with a broken hand. There were also shoulder and knee surgeries, broken feet and wrists, not to mention a serious staph infection.
"My house wasn't always in order," Carrie said, "but I tried to never miss a game. I have admitted to people that I'm afraid that they're kind of built out of sugary cereals. They got that from their father."
Once, Mike brought his dad to school for show-and-tell.
"Bruce was giving autographs afterward and I wondered, 'Hey, where's Mikey?'" Carrie said. "He had set up his own table -- and kids were lined up for his autograph."
Leslie focused on feeding her children, washing their uniforms and getting them to practice on time. One day she was approached by the teacher about her middle child Brian's too-rough behavior -- in duck, duck, goose.
"He tackled the poor kid, who was still crying," Leslie said. "That's what happens when you have four boys inside seven years.
"Unfortunately, I'm really competitive, their father's competitive. They get a double whammy of the competitive gene. You kind of need that for life, so it works."
Clay III, now 28, is old enough to remember his father and uncle playing in the NFL. As a kid, he always chose his dad's No. 57.
"My greatest role model was my father," he said. "Day in and day out, just go to work and be a consummate professional, on the field and off. That's where I got my work ethic."
Jake, 22, says precisely the same thing about his father.
"Both of us lived in that football life," Jake said. "I loved being part of a football family. Every weekend there were always two, three, four games to go to or play in. What could be better than that?"
Coaching them up
The Matthews men were all beneficiaries of both nature and nurture -- good genes and understanding the value of a relentless work ethic.
Clay Sr.'s father, Matty, was a boxing, baseball and track coach at The Citadel. He helped mold his son into a champion in the ring. Clay Sr. stressed effort and dedication to his sons. Clay Jr. and Bruce did the same. Both of them coached their kids at the youth and high school level (Clay Jr. also coached daughter Jennifer in softball) and offered a steady stream of advice.
"I can remember the day and time when I thought none of my boys would play football," Clay Jr. said. "We put them into soccer early because, moving back and forth, it worked better than football. One year we missed the soccer sign-ups in Georgia, and football was the only option left."
Said Carrie, "What's normal to you is what's normal -- whether your dad is a doctor or a fireman, or a football player. The fact that Bruce had that career in the NFL was such a long shot. How are you going to do that again?
"Bruce never encouraged it or projected that. He did his thing, the kids saw it and it rubbed off on them."
After coaching Kevin and Jake as a volunteer at Elkins High School in Missouri City, Texas, Bruce became an offensive assistant for the Houston Texans in 2009 and 2010. He was then hired by former teammate (and fellow Hall of Famer) Mike Munchak as the Titans' offensive line coach. Matthews coached in Tennessee from 2011-13 but was fired along with most of the rest of the staff after the team went 7-9 last season.
He's still being paid this season by the Titans, but when he's not volunteering at the local food bank or bible study, he's breaking down Jake's game film. The two talk specifics on the phone the week after every Falcons game. He does the same thing for Mike.
The next generation?
The older he gets, the more Clay III appreciates the man who also bears his name.
"My dad played for 19 years and excelled," Clay III said. "When you're an adolescent, the last thing you want to hear is advice from your father. Now, I find myself talking to him regularly about things he notices, things that I can improve on."
In Week 11, Clay III's Packers beat Casey's Eagles 53-20. Both were starters at inside linebacker and combined for six tackles and a sack (by Clay III). In college, Clay III faced off against Casey twice when USC played Oregon.
"He came in as a redshirt freshman and had a sack," Clay III said. "The next year, I started and played a pretty good game. We split the series, but always under the surface you're rooting for your sibling to have a great game."
Cousins? Not so much.
Clay III has made it clear that only true Packers fans will be allowed in his Lambeau Field suite Monday night. And, according to sources, there may be some side wagers on who will be more effective when one-on-one matchups occur between Clay III and Jake.
"He can let up a few sacks, and maybe I'll give him a few pancake blocks," said Clay III, laughing. "Sacks will win out, I have a feeling."
Jake responded, "Obviously, there will be more pancakes."
Clay Jr. isn't terribly concerned about the outcome.
"Playing my brother so many times," he said, "you realize that you win a few and lose a few -- as long as nobody gets hurt."
The elephant in the Matthews family room?
"Oh, man," said Clay III. "That's easy. I've been hearing about this a lot lately."
Said his mother, Leslie: "If I had a grandson, we could get to four generations. Wouldn't that be something?"