When Bruce Matthews is officially inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, the only one who will be even slightly surprised by that is Matthews himself.
Matthews, who will be just four days shy of his 46th birthday when he is enshrined in Canton, Ohio, says he still has a hard time believing that such an honor has been bestowed upon him.
“I've always respected the game and when I was a kid, I dreamed like any kid, I think, of being a pro athlete,” Matthew said in an interview with the Associated Press last month. “If you would’ve told me then that one day I’d play in the NFL and one day I’d make the Hall of Fame, I would’ve said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. In a way, that’s still how I am.”
While Matthews may blush and show humility at the honor, those who have known him over the years know he is simply one of the greatest offensive linemen in NFL history.
Matthews’ best friend and presenter Mike Munchak, himself a Hall of Fame inductee in 2001, knows Matthews perhaps better than anyone except family. The two were not only teammates with the Houston Oilers, but Munchak was Matthews’ position coach for the final five seasons of Matthews’ career. Matthews presented Munchak to the Hall of Fame six years ago.
“I don’t think anyone was real surprised by [his election to the Hall],” Munchak said. “I know he was kind of keeping quiet and he didn’t want to talk about it ever, when someone would bring it up. … But I think when you play 19 years and make 14 Pro Bowls and play all the positions and do all the things he’s done, it was pretty obvious he was going to get in.”
Assembling an all-time NFL team is a tedious chore that would create much debate at almost every position, but from Munchak’s perspective, Matthews would be a part of his all-time NFL team, considering not only his longevity and ability, but also his versatility.
Matthews, the Oilers’ first-round pick in 1983, spent time at all five positions on the offense. Matthews played 99 games at left guard, 87 at center, 67 at right guard, 22 at right tackle and 17 at left tackle as part of a 296-game NFL career, the longest in history by a non-kicker.
“Bruce would never say he’s the best lineman, and I would never say that either, because there are a lot of great offensive linemen, but I think he’s probably the most valuable,” Munchak said. “And I think if you’re picking an all-time team, you’d probably fight over who the first quarterback should be, but I think the first lineman would be Bruce because he could play all five of your positions for you, which a lot of the great ones couldn’t do. That’s something he was able to do that no one else did, and that’s something that made him a little special.”
There are other qualities that made Matthews special as well. Not only was he a consistently top-level performer on the offensive line, he also served as the team’s long snapper on punts and field goals. He also was the emergency quarterback and punter.
“I got spoiled my first few years here. He was pretty incredible,” recalled punter and holder Craig Hentrich of Matthews’ ability to long snap. “I think in the three or four years I played with him, we only had one bad snap. So that’s saying a lot. That’s not an easy job when guys are trying to fly over the top of you. He was so good at it.”
But more than just on the field, Matthews is fondly remembered for his humble demeanor and the way he policed the locker room. There was always room for fun with Matthews around, but he seldom tolerated players who got out of line, and made sure everyone knew when it was time for business.
“He always came to work ready for some hard work and always came prepared every day,” Hentrich said. “I think the thing that made him last as long as he did was he had fun doing it. … Bruce made everybody happy, made everybody smile and made everybody work hard at the same time.”
Titans coach Jeff Fisher, who was Matthews’ teammate at Southern California before being his coach in Houston and Tennessee, echoed that about Matthews.
“He had a quiet influence on generations of players in this franchise who learned what it was to be a teammate, a professional football player and a family man,” Fisher said. “It has been an honor for me to play with him at Southern Cal and call him a teammate, and a greater honor to coach him here.”
Some of Matthews’ legacy continues among the next generation of Titans. The games Matthews and Munchak invented years ago are still played among the linemen today.
A painting of him can be found with other Titans players on the wall between the locker room and weight room, a fact not lost on linebacker Keith Bulluck, who says Matthews’ legacy endures.
“I think he was in year 18 or 19 when I first got here. I only had one conversation with him. I asked him what year he started playing football, and he told me probably when I was in about the second grade,” Bulluck said. “He was one of those guys that exemplifies what this sport is about. By him making the Hall and me being able to say I [actually] played two years with him, I’ll always remember that.”
And come Saturday, so will many other football players and fans. Still, in typical Matthews’ fashion, he deflects the credit away from himself.
“It’s very humbling to me to think I’m in a position that I'm going to be in Canton,” Matthews said. “It really makes it clear to me how much God has blessed me and my family. There are just too many things that have happened in my life. I’d love to take credit for it, and say I did it all by myself. It’s too obvious to me how blessed I’ve been.”