“They’re going to test my toughness,” Matthews says. “That’s pretty damaging to your body. That’s when it starts getting ... that’s when it’ll change.”
Death and salvation
On the wall, beside the television, is a picture of Matthews and Blackjack, BJ, his beloved Rottweiler who died of bone cancer in March. In the picture, taken at an Als training camp, the two sit in a golf cart – BJ is big, and Matthews wears a ballcap and a white Fu Manchu mustache. BJ was diagnosed a year ago. Radiation and chemotherapy couldn’t save the dog.
Badger, something of a mutt – a “cocker scandal,” Matthews jokes, was on “death row” at the animal shelter when the family rescued him. It was part of the healing of the deep pain of BJ’s death.
“When BJ died, he was so close to me, that I had a hard time with it. And so for me to try to make sense,” says Matthews, before he calls Badger over, the dog bouncing up on me. “Badger, come here,” Matthews instructs, somewhat sternly, and then softer: “Come here.” He’s smiling. “Badger does that to me, that’s why he thinks he can do it to anyone. But BJ was, you know, I got him when he was a pup, I could hold him in my hands like that. So when he passed, I didn’t know how to make sense of it. First, it’s like a family member. So what we did, we said, ‘Okay, Badger’s on death row, BJ passed, so his passing now allows us to save a life.’
The winning run
Don Matthews grew up poor in Amesbury, Mass., outside Boston. He was one of six kids. His father was a labourer at a foundry, and some nights stomachs went empty. Football was Matthews’s salve. “The aggression, I had football. I could tackle people, and hit hard.”
After football season in his senior year of high school, he quit, and joined the Marines. He served three years, about half of it overseas in Asia. Coming home, Matthews finished high school at 20 – “probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done” – and on a tenuous connection to the University of Idaho, headed west on a one-way bus ticket. As a walk-on freshman, he won a starting job, and a scholarship. By his senior year, he was a captain, and the team posted a winning record, 5-4, the most wins for the school in a quarter century.
Idaho was the first in a string of teams through Matthews’s life where his arrival turned long years of losing into victories and championships.
He moved north to the CFL in 1977 when he was 38, coming aboard the Edmonton Eskimos as a linebacker coach, signed on by Hugh Campbell, whom Matthews had met during his early coaching years at high schools and college in the United States.
The next year, as Matthews became defensive co-ordinator, the Esks emerged as one of the greatest CFL teams in history, winning five successive Grey Cups. After the fifth trophy, Matthews scored his first pro head coaching gig in B.C., and in his first season, he led the Lions to the 1983 Grey Cup final, their first appearance in almost two decades.
The night before, however, two of his sons, teenagers, were in a car crash, and it wasn’t clear if they would skirt paralysis. Matthews was in the hospital the whole night.
“When I went to the game the next day,” Matthews says, “I told my coaches, ‘I can’t help you. My mind’s elsewhere. So all I can do is tell you to stay aggressive.’ They did a great job.”
The Lions lost at home, in the newly opened B.C. Place, by one point, 18-17 to the Toronto Argonauts. “I don’t remember the game very well. My thoughts went back to my kids in hospital beds, two of them.”
The boys recovered, and all three of Matthews’s sons played college ball, all linebackers, like their father.