Matthews’ path from walk-on to NFL star


Six years ago, a scrawny kid from Agoura High dreamed of football stardom.

But in his words, the chance of playing collegiate football was “not applicable.”

Although his grandfather, father and uncle starred in the NFL, Clay Matthews III wasn’t the likeliest of candidates to follow in the footsteps of his family.

Only Division-I Football Championship Subdivision schools and community colleges saw the then-6-foot-1, 165-pound Matthews fit to play at their kind of level.

But Matthews thought differently.

Rather than settling, he chose to chase his dream.

Like his father and uncle before him, who chose the great Trojan tradition and left behind an even greater legacy, Matthews picked USC.

“I knew I was capable of playing with the best athletes in the nation,” Matthews told the Los Angeles Times. “I thought I could come in here, day one, and be the guy. Maybe I was crazy to have that mind-set, but obviously that’s better than saying you can’t.”

When Matthews joined the team during the 2004 season, his family legacy continued and a dream was fulfilled.

Finally donning the cardinal and gold, Matthews was an unheralded, unknown player among flashy five-star recruits.

That year, which happened to be the Trojans’ 2004 national championship season, gave Matthews a chance to play, albeit only in garbage time.

Playing time is playing time, but it was far different to Matthews.

The waning minutes of a blowout game are designated for non-scholarship players who put in arguably twice as much work yet receive only minimal reward.

It was at this time that former coach Pete Carroll and former linebackers coach Ken Norton always looked Matthews’ way, asking if he desired to play.

But when Carroll asked, Matthews turned him down.

Every single time.

“I knew that I was capable of so much more,” he told the Times.

To preserve another season of eligibility, Matthews redshirted that year.

Then, he watched as the Trojans signed one of the greatest linebacker classes in history, including Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing.

Matthews, however, was undeterred.

Still just an ordinary guy among extraordinary talent, his abilities proved worthy enough for Carroll and the rest of his coaching staff to give him a greater opportunity.

Through hard work and an unquestioned desire to improve, he earned an athletic scholarship for the 2006 season, making his presence felt on special teams and as a reserve linebacker.

Three years out of high school, Matthews started making a name for himself.

“I wanted to be the best, and I knew it was going to take hard work, but I was willing to do that,” Matthews said.

By his senior year at USC, Matthews went from being an unheralded walk-on player to a well-known NFL prospect.

He went from a 6-foot-1, 165-pound kid to a 6-foot-3, 240-pound man.

He also went from the relative obscurity of a walk-on to a significant member of the Trojans defense, which boasted arguably one of the best core of linebackers in collegiate football history.

When his USC career came to an end, Matthews was recognized by the team, becoming the first and only player in team history to earn three consecutive Special Teams Player of the Year awards.

Next up: the NFL.

Matthews impressed scouts so much in pre-draft workouts that the Green Bay Packers traded up to draft the USC standout with the 26th pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.

What was once an afterthought became a reality.

The Packers’ defense improved immediately and Matthews certainly played a role in that success.

The 2009 squad finished second in total defense and first against the run, after it was 20th and 26th in those categories in 2008.

Now, in the two years since being drafted, Matthews has been selected to the Pro Bowl twice and developed a reputation as one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL.

Earlier this season, Matthews became the first player in Packers history to have consecutive three-sack games, and the NFL’s first player to accomplish the feat since Seattle’s Patrick Kerney in 2007.

Anchoring a defense that ranked fifth overall in total defense in 2010, the blonde, long-haired Matthews has become the “mane” man in the Packers’ defensive scheme.

It is because of this defense, and Matthews himself, that the Packers are the first sixth-seeded team to reach the Super Bowl.

Matthews was bred to play football, but it didn’t come easy at all.

“I feel very fortunate to be the player I am today, and I can pretty much say that it was all because of hard work,” Matthews said.

Like his grandfather, father and uncle who starred in the NFL so long ago, Matthews is finally getting a turn.

Six years ago, the same scrawny kid from Agoura High nearly didn’t get a chance.

Now, he’s living the dream.

“In The Zone” runs Thursdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Trevor at trevor.wong@usc.edu.