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Don Matthews, near his home in Beaverton, Ore., is one of the most successful coaches in CFL history. He has cancer in his lymph nodes and is expecting a tough fight against the disease. (John Lehmann/John Lehmann/Globe and Mail)
Don Matthews, near his home in Beaverton, Ore., is one of the most successful coaches in CFL history. He has cancer in his lymph nodes and is expecting a tough fight against the disease. (John Lehmann/John Lehmann/Globe and Mail)

100th Grey Cup

Where are they now: Don Matthews' uncanny ability to win put to the test in cancer battle Add to ...

Matthews first came to the Portland area in the mid-1970s, taking over a winless Sunset High team and delivering, in three years, two state titles. Today, two of his sons live in Portland, and the third is in Seattle. He has six grandchildren.

Matthews had an uncanny ability to win. “I didn’t really have a formula. I just did. To be successful in football, or in anything, people have to buy in to what you’re doing.”

He seized his first Grey Cup in 1985, B.C.’s first since 1964.

On the field, Matthews’s CFL legend was made in the 1990s, appearing in four successive Grey Cups mid-decade, winning three – one leading the Baltimore Stallions, and two captaining the Argos. He cemented his stature in the 2000s, coaching the Als, winning his fifth Grey Cup, and setting a record for wins at 231 (since surpassed by Wally Buono).

Around the time of Matthews’s Grey Cup in B.C., anxiety began to percolate, an affliction he dealt with privately for years as a big-time coach until it finally overwhelmed him in 2006, when he left the Als. Two years later, after he had recovered from illness, his CFL coda was discordant. Joining the Argos midseason, Matthews booked eight losses in eight games.

He was, however, already stepping into his life after football. Matthews married Stephanie in a chapel in Montreal on a weekend, after a Friday night Argos loss.

Ask Wally Buono for a classic Matthews football story and Wally has an immediate answer. It’s 2005, mid-September, at B.C. Place, a couple months after, by chance, Matthews had met Stephanie. The Lions are 10-0. The Als are 5-5, and have just scored a touchdown with 50 seconds left to come within one, 27-26, the extra point to tie. “What would a normal coach do?” Buono asks. “He would kick the extra point.”

“Don goes for two – and doesn’t get it. To me, that’s Don. Unpredictable, unconventional, never the safe way.”

‘A sedate life’

Even in retirement, Don Matthews still has had something of a hand in the game. Last year, he mentored the son of former Edmonton Eskimo Dave Fennell, the Hall of Fame defensive tackle. Matthews helped move his son David from Calgary to Sunset High, where Matthews long-ago coached. David Fennell, also a defensive tackle, flourished against U.S. competition and was chosen all-state and defensive player of the year in metro Portland. With Matthews’s help, the young man landed at a big Division I school, Michigan State.

Stephanie, 33, is busy in competitive body building, an old dream of hers she only pursued a year ago – and has already won in amateur contests. She also started a business to design and sell suits for competition. Blaze, in Grade 3, plays football, but Matthews thinks he’ll be a basketball player.

The days are quiet. The days are good. Yet the cancer grows somewhere inside Matthews. He vows to fight like hell. For now, the battle remains at a distance, a shortening distance, on the near horizon.

“Yesterday, we were going to the movies in the afternoon,” Matthews says. “That’s our life. We’re simple people, enjoy our life together. It’s a sedate life with my wife and boy. I love that little boy. I love watching him grow up. We watch him go play football. He doesn’t want me to coach him. He wants me to be his dad.”

AT A GLANCE

Grey Cups

Five wins (B.C., 1985; Baltimore, 1995; Toronto, 1996, 1997; Montreal, 2002). (He also won five Grey Cups as defensive co-ordinator of Edmonton Eskimos).

Four losses (B.C., 1993; Baltimore, 1994; Montreal, 2003, 2005).

Teams

B.C., 1983-87; Toronto, 1990, 1996-98, 2008; Saskatchewan, 1991-1993; Baltimore, 1994-1995; Edmonton, 1999-2000; Montreal, 2002-2006).

Regular-season record 231-133-1 (.633)

Playoff record 19-13

Notable

Coach of the year 1985, 1994, 1995, 1997, 2002

Inducted

Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2011

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