Versatile Bruce Matthews was hard to ignore as Oiler and Titan
By BARRY WILNER, AP Football Writer
August 2, 2007
Except for the occasional holding penalty that negates a big play, offensive linemen are the anonymous creatures on NFL teams. That makes Bruce Matthews' immediate election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame somewhat remarkable.
It can take years, even decades, for blockers to get noticed by the Hall voters. Not Matthews, whose versatility and reliability for 19 seasons made him an easy choice in his first year of eligibility.
On Saturday, the outstanding guard-tackle-center for the Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans will join Thurman Thomas, Michael Irvin, Roger Wehrli, Charlie Sanders and Gene Hickerson in football's shrine. Matthews is the only inductee to make it on his first try this year.
"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.
And if you'd told Matthews -- or anyone else -- that he would play every offensive line position, well, that would have seemed absurd. Yet Matthews did so, and excelled at all of them.
In his 296 games, more than any full-time positional player in league history when he retired, Matthews spent 99 at left guard, 87 at center, 67 at right guard, 22 at right tackle and 17 at left tackle.
Nothing he did, including the skills and leadership he brought to the field, surpassed that unheard-of versatility. That's what most impresses Jeff Fisher, Matthews' teammate at Southern Cal and his coach for Matthews' final seven NFL seasons.
"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.
So while Irvin "the playmaker," and Thomas, the onetime MVP, get much of the airtime, the heaviest accolades go to Matthews.
"A lot of guys can't move around because mentally it's hard, especially to go from center to tackle," said former Matthews teammate Mike Munchak, himself a Canton inductee. "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."
Munchak will present Matthews on Saturday night.
"I don't think there'll be too many guys like him around again," Munchak said.
Hickerson is the other offensive lineman going into the Hall. He and Sanders were chosen by the veterans committee.
As a 248-pound guard -- about 100 pounds lighter than some guards today -- Hickerson played 15 seasons for the Browns and Cleveland never had a losing record in that time. He made five straight All-Pro teams (1966-70) and was a lead blocker for Hall of Famers Jim Brown, Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Kelly. In 1964, he helped Cleveland to the NFL championship.
"Gene was the leader of a great line," Brown said, "and the greatest downfield blocker in the history of pro football."
Sanders was a standout blocking tight end who became a pass-catching threat, as well. He was a three-time All-Pro who made 30 or more receptions in a season seven times and had more than 500 yards receiving in six seasons in an era when quarterbacks rarely threw to tight ends.
"He was one of the best that we ever faced," said Bears linebacker Dick Butkus, himself a Hall of Fame member. "He was big and had good speed and was a tough guy. He could make some great catches."
So could Irvin, who is the second member of Dallas' vaunted "Triplets" on offense to make the Hall, along with QB Troy Aikman. Running back Emmitt Smith, the NFL's career rushing leader, will be a slam-dunk when he becomes eligible.
Irvin was the top receiver on three Super Bowl champions, and he made the league's All-1990s team. As a rookie in 1988, he led the league with a 20.4-yard per catch average, and he had 11 100-yard receiving games in 1995, setting an NFL record.
Irvin had several off-field problems during his career and was voted into the Hall in his third year of eligibility.
"Mistakes will cost you. That's the reality," Irvin said. "You have to pay the price for your mistakes, but, also, don't give up. Keep going and try to overcome that. That's the reality, too. I like that it worked out the way it worked out."
Thomas was the 1991 league MVP and, like Matthews, was known for his versatility. A superb runner with darting quickness and surprising power, he also was a terrific receiver. He helped Buffalo win four straight AFC titles, but no Super Bowl crowns.
"People can say what they want to say," Thomas said. "We put Buffalo on the map. Whether you want to label us as losers or winners or what have you, there have been a lot of other teams that have never been to the Super Bowl."
One of only three Hall of Fame running backs, with Walter Payton and Marcus Allen, to have more than 400 receptions and 10,000 yards rushing, Thomas also set playoff records for career points (126), touchdowns (21), and consecutive games with a TD (nine).
Wehrli was one of the game's first shutdown cornerbacks and was a starter from his rookie season in 1969 through 1982 for the St. Louis Cardinals. He was elected in his final year of eligibility, even though he was a five-time All-Pro.
"He was overdue, I'll tell you that," said Don Coryell, who coached those "Cardiac Cards."
"He's a great one. He's everything you would want in a professional football player."