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Versatile ironman made offensive line look easy playing each spot

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -Hall of Famer Mike Munchak freely admits he never could have done what former teammate and close friend Bruce Matthews did.

It's not that Matthews had more consecutive Pro Bowl appearances (14) than Munchak's 12; Matthews played 19 years and 296 games, more than any full-time positional player in league history when he retired.

What still impresses Munchak is how Matthews played each position on the offensive line so well that he spent at least a season's worth of games at each spot, switching whenever asked.

"I could've played the other guard, but I could never have played tackle," Munchak said.

"A lot of guys can't move around because mentally it's hard, especially to go from center to tackle. Not many guys in football can do that and also play center. Usually center-guard or guard-tackle, but not a guy who can play center, run the show and do all that for you, but if someone gets hurt can go to left tackle and finish the game."

That is why Matthews will be the only inductee Saturday elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, and just the 59th elected on the first ballot. The quiet ironman of the NFL calls the prospect very humbling.

"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," Matthews said.

Sports, particularly football, and family always have been a big part of life for the Matthews.

His father Clay Sr. was a defensive lineman in the 1950s for the San Francisco 49ers. Clay Jr., his older brother, played 19 NFL seasons himself at linebacker. Bruce dreamed of becoming a pro athlete as a child.

"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," Matthews said.

Munchak first saw Matthews in 1983 at the Houston Oilers' training camp. The ninth-pick overall out of Southern California, the 6-foot-5, 276-pound Matthews impressed immediately.

"Everyone was checking him out," Munchak said. "Those first practices watching him, the way he ran around the field and his athleticism and his quickness off the ball, his attitude running around the field was so different from anybody else I'd been around."

Matthews started 15 games that year at right guard. He started at center, right guard and right tackle in 1984 before playing all of 1985 at right tackle and flipping to left tackle for the 1986 season.

Munchak thinks Matthews' versatility probably hurt his friend early on because people didn't know where he played. Matthews' first Pro Bowl appearance was 1988 after spending the season at right guard.

But Matthews' parents raised him to listen to his coaches, a trait he said helped him take the thinking out of being a player. He said he never preferred staying at one spot and trusted they had his best interests in mind.

"Whenever I was approached about a move, I took it as, `Well, the coach has faith this is going to make the team better. The least I can do is believe the same thing,"' he said. "It never felt like a sacrifice or like I was doing anything special."

Matthews is the first offensive lineman elected to the Hall of Fame to start significant time at each position. The numbers are staggering: 99 games at left guard, 87 at center, 67 at right guard, 22 at right tackle and 17 at left tackle.

What impresses his older brother is that Bruce Matthews started his career by blocking for Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell; pass blocked in the run-and-shoot offense for Hall of Famer Warren Moon; and finished opening holes for Eddie George.

"He excelled in all of them," Clay Matthews Jr. said.

Jeff Fisher, Bruce Matthews' teammate at USC, coached him for his final seven NFL seasons. He ticked off other numbers: Matthews blocked for five Heisman Trophy winners, 11 quarterbacks and 27 running backs.

"More incredible in our business is the starts he had at each different position on the offensive line. That's incredible and to play at such a high level for so many years," Fisher said.

Matthews' biggest challenge came in 1997.

The Oilers relocated to Tennessee, and Matthews tried commuting back to Houston, where he had settled his family on a 50-acre ranch. He spent his one off day flying to Texas, with his family joining him in Tennessee on weekends.

He bought a house in Nashville in 1998 for his family to join him during the season, and Matthews got to enjoy the franchise's lone Super Bowl appearance in 2000 as the Tennessee Titans.

By 2001, Matthews knew it was his final season. He turned 40 during training camp and didn't want his oldest son splitting his senior year between two high schools. Also, the man whose worst football injury came coaching a youth football team after he retired, finally felt his age.

"Things were bothering me that had never bothered me before. I pulled a couple muscles, had a couple problems with my calf, and it was just very appropriate. It was time to hang it up," Matthews said.

He hasn't slowed down in retirement. He was almost late to hear news of his election because of a church retreat, and his family now includes seven children. His wife, Carrie, is coordinating travel to Canton for what will be a family reunion of approximately 250 people expected.

His presenter? Munchak, his former teammate, coach and business partner, will handle the honors for the man who was the first active player excused from training camp in 2001 to present Munchak for induction that year.

"I don't think there'll be too many guys like him around again," Munchak said.

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