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Don Matthews with his wife Stephanie at their home in Beaverton, Ore., last November: ‘I had no choice but to keep him alive,’ she says. ‘He’s my soul mate. It was not time yet. I just put my nose down.’ (John Lehmann/John Lehmann/Globe and Mail)
Don Matthews with his wife Stephanie at their home in Beaverton, Ore., last November: ‘I had no choice but to keep him alive,’ she says. ‘He’s my soul mate. It was not time yet. I just put my nose down.’ (John Lehmann/John Lehmann/Globe and Mail)

CFL

Legendary coach Don Matthews ‘making a comeback’ Add to ...

In the ever-changing rapids of the fight against cancer, Don Matthews has banged against the shoals of death. Diagnosed late last autumn, it was a dark winter. A biopsy scooped out as much of the cancer in his throat as possible. Then it was rounds of radiation. It was, however, a single session of chemotherapy that nearly killed him, sparking kidney failure.

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He came through. With his wife Stephanie, his pillar, by his side, through the long days and nights, ambulances, emergency rooms, and 34 blasts of radiation, Matthews has come through.

“I’m making a comeback,” Matthews says, his voice gravelly. His tongue is dry, his saliva glands burned out by radiation. There’s a feeding tube in his stomach. He’s lost 60 pounds and weighs 190.

The legendary CFL coach spoke Thursday morning by telephone from his home in a suburb of Portland, Ore., his spirit spry, shortly before beginning the trek north to Vancouver with Stephanie and their son Blaze. They made the drive in two parts, first to Seattle, then to Vancouver, for a weekend of celebration.

On Saturday night, the B.C. Lions will honour Matthews and quarterback Damon Allen on the team’s wall of fame. The honour is not the first for Matthews, who, among other accolades, was enshrined in the CFL Hall of Fame two years ago. The induction marked 22 years as a head coach in the league, five Grey Cup titles (and five more as an assistant), five times coach of the year, the second most wins of any coach.

The talk of old times enlivens Matthew’s spirit. His body, essentially, is free of cancer, but badly racked by the experience. He grows steadily stronger. Takes short walks in the hilly, forested neighbourhood around his home, a half-mile maybe, a mile at most, the family’s young, brazen cocker spaniel Badger bounding all the away along, tugging at Matthews, a smile on the old coach’s face.

“I’m relatively cured of cancer,” says Matthews, 74. “Now I’m being cured of the cure they gave me, the radiation.”

The feeding tube will be in his stomach for some time as doctors try to figure out how to restart saliva, so he can swallow food.

“Doctors can heal the body,” Stephanie says. “Your spirit is something harder.” This weekend in Vancouver, the old friends, the accolade, will reverberate. “Recovery,” she says, “is a lonely thing.”

B.C. was, as a pro head coach, where it started for Matthews. He had just come off the string of five successive Grey Cups in Edmonton, the last four as defensive co-ordinator. The Lions had not won, nor appeared in, the Grey Cup game in almost two decades, and he got the team there in his first year, 1983. It was in B.C. where Matthews – who was raised poor in Massachusetts, and was hardened in the Marines and as a linebacker in his playing days – began to forge his reputation. He was The Don, a firebrand iconoclast, an oscillating swirl of ornery, charismatic, agitated prowling on the sidelines.

In that first Grey Cup, B.C. played at home at the newly opened BC Place, losing by a single point, 18-17, to the visiting Toronto Argonauts, but his mind wasn’t there, as his teenage sons had been in a bad car crash the night before. The boys recovered.

Two years later, in 1985, Matthews led his team to Grey Cup victory, a 37-24 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Lions punter Lui Passaglia faced a collapsed line of protection and a certain blocked punt late in the first half when he scrambled for a first down, propelling the Lions to a touchdown and eventual victory.

Matthews and Passaglia were racquetball rivals, the contests daily and season-long.

“It wasn’t one day or two days,” Matthews recalls. “‘I’m three games up on you,’ ‘I’m five games up on you.’ The bet always was the loser, at year’s end, took the victor out for dinner at a posh restaurant.

“What I told Lui after I won one year, the restaurant I wanted to choose was in Honolulu, Hawaii. If you know how cheap Lui is: ‘Oh no!’” Matthews says with a laugh.

On the racquetball court, it was decisive: “I am undefeated against Lui Passaglia. I want to brag about.” Matthews says, and he laughs. “We did have a great time, Lui and I.”

During the worst of the battle against cancer, the kidney failure was what nearly knocked Matthews down. But the trials continued. Come spring, his blood pressure began to fall as his body struggled with medications. He suffered fainting spells. One left almost one entire side of his body badly bruised. The linebacker in Matthews took it as a badge. His wife was less impressed. Eventually, one night, another ambulance came, and seven days in the hospital ensued.

Today, things are good. His vitals are strong.

“Even though he’s been to the brink of death, he just wakes up every day and keeps fighting and keeps fighting,” Stephanie says. “I don’t think a normal person could do it.”

It has been an ordeal, as much for the patient as for the caregiver. “I had no choice but to keep him alive,” Stephanie says. “He’s my soul mate. It was not time yet. I just put my nose down.”

Today, summer is in bloom. Today, Don Matthews is lionized where his spectacular career as a head coach began, the worst of his banging against the shoals of death behind.

“We’re done,” Stephanie says, “with setbacks.”

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