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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 ...

Don Matthews was 66 and the head coach of the Montreal Alouettes. It was summer, 2005, the last years of Matthews’s life in football. Stephanie Brown was 26 and had grown up in Montreal but was unaware the city had a football team, or that its coach was a CFL legend, an iconoclastic firebrand.

On Sainte-Catherine Street, Matthews going to lunch, Brown going to work, he stopped her. Like the attacking defences he oversaw during his 22 years as a head coach – and five Grey Cups – Matthews did not move slowly.

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“Don pulled out his Don Matthews swagger,” remembers Stephanie Matthews in an interview at the couple’s home in the Portland, Ore., suburb of Beaverton. “He just said, ‘You’re gorgeous, and I want to get to know you, and I want to buy you lunch.’”

They talked. They had dinner. At dinner, Matthews all-out blitzed: he invited Stephanie to move in with him. Stephanie said no. “He was just really sincere, and very persistent,” she says, giggling. “Very persistent.” They married in 2008. “I just fell in love with him. You can’t say no to Don Matthews.”

'What it is, it is’

The call came on a Sunday night, late last month. The doctors had detected cancer cells in the lymph nodes of Matthews’s neck, following a biopsy several days earlier. Another biopsy was conducted this past week. The doctors have not yet located the disease. Radiation will be intense if doctors take, as Matthews puts it, a “hand grenade” approach.

Yet over several hours on a recent Thursday morning, a crisp, pretty autumn day, Matthews is in buoyant spirits, and in relative good health, save for a bad back, and a right-knee replacement three years back. He jokes, sometimes a bit playfully crass. He is sentimental. He is a husband, and a stepfather to 9-year-old Blaze, Stephanie’s son.

Don Matthews is no longer a football coach. He is not the Don Matthews of CFL lore, for whom reporters always employed a cascade of adjectives to describe the man. A jerk to some, miserable SOB to others, a hero to his players, The Don was painted as larger than life, unpredictable, petulant, charismatic. He was brash. He loved women, marrying and divorcing four times. He inspired – conjured – confidence.

“He was so loud and obnoxious to everybody else, that he made himself the target,” says Doug Flutie, the star who quarterbacked Matthews’s back-to-back Grey Cups with the Toronto Argonauts in 1996 and 1997 – after the coach had taken over a 4-14 team.

“The players, we would just sit back and relax. If you played against Don, you couldn’t stand him, but if he was your coach, you absolutely loved him.”

When I first spoke with Matthews, by phone, after the first biopsy in late October but before the cancer news, Matthews apologized for coughing. He had a gash on the left side of his neck. “I’ve been yelling at players all my life,” Matthews said. “I have some issues in there.”

In his living room, which is absent of any football history, the 73-year-old sits on the couch, dressed in black. “How do I feel? No change. No change. I believe what it is, it is. I try to live.”

He speaks evenly. Sun pokes through clouds outside, and it’s warm in. Blaze runs around the house. Stephanie listens nearby. Badger, a livewire two-year-old cocker spaniel, bounds everywhere. There’s no spectre of death, even though there is.

“I’m not, you know I’m not stupid. I’m not saying it’s not going to happen. But if it does, I’m ready for it. And if it doesn’t, I’m ready for that.” Turning to his wife, he asks, “I don’t think it affected me, did it baby, do you think?”

Stephanie laughs.

“No: it’s given him energy,” she says. “He’s all walking around, talking on the phone, reminiscing with all the people who are calling and shooting the breeze and yelling and swearing and having fun. He’s not sitting around bawling or being sad or nothing. He’s just the same old Don.”

Talking about the cancer, Matthews speaks like a teacher – he studied education at the University of Idaho, where he was a star linebacker. The cancer is not in his lymph nodes, the cells found there have broken off from elsewhere and travelled through the lymph system. The radiation treatments will begin soon, five times a week, for six or seven weeks. Chemotherapy drugs may come, too.

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