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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.

“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.

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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