It's a good thing the Canadian Football Hall of Fame doesn't ask its inductees to wear a ball cap to honour one team the way the Baseball Hall of Fame does. Don Matthews wouldn't have known what to do.
Should he have gone with the Edmonton Eskimos, where he won five Grey Cups as an assistant? What about the Toronto Argonauts, where he won back-to-back Grey Cups as a head coach? Or the Baltimore Stallions, the only American-based team to ever win a Grey Cup and take it south?
“I have too many hats,” Matthews said with a chuckle. “I was like Wyatt Earp. I'd go in and clean up the town.”
They cleared a spot for the old clean-up man. At 72, The Don is in the Hall. He officially earned legendary status at a Friday evening dinner that celebrated some special players (Terry Vaughn, Dan McManus, Joe Montford, Ken Lehmann) and two Canadian university standouts (coach Gino Fracas and quarterback Chris Flynn). As he so often did during his long association with the CFL, Matthews drew most of the attention. That's how he rolled.
As a head coach, he was brash and confident and knew what to do. When he took over a new team, one of his first acts was to release or bench a veteran to let the players know things had changed and that getting better was a priority. They got the message. Matthews's teams usually got better.
Overall, he appeared in 14 Grey Cups and won 10.
His players appreciated his straight-up approach. They always knew where they stood with him. The media and public never warmed to the act until the end of his career, when Matthews resigned from the Montreal Alouettes in 2006 because of anxiety and depression.
Suddenly, the sardonic cuss with the raspy voice was made human. He said getting through his issues was the hardest thing he's ever done.
“I went to [Alouettes owner] Bob Wetenhall seven weeks before I retired and said, ‘I can't do this any more.' I wasn't earning my pay,” Matthews explained. “I couldn't get myself out of my room.”
Matthews resigned, went home to Portland, Ore., and continued his battle. He was lucky, he insisted, because his wife, Stephanie, helped guide him along, ensuring that he took the right medication.
“She understood, no one else did. I don't let people in. That's probably one of my downfalls,” Matthews said. “I hid a lot of things. I internalized them a lot. [Admitting he had anxiety] surprised a lot of people. Their picture of me is different than what I am. I think they don't understand that I was a deflector for my players. I deflected criticism of my players by accepting it.
“I'd take the heat and they'd be left alone.”
The players who succeeded under Matthews loved his style. Defensive lineman Adriano Belli played for Matthews in Montreal and Toronto and recalled how his “favourite football coach” could read the team's mood and knew exactly what to do.
“It was a travel day,” Belli said. “We had to get up early and fly somewhere and usually we went right to the other team's stadium to have a walk-through. Don could see we were tired and said, ‘We'll go straight to the hotel if you guarantee me a win.' We said, ‘Damn right we're going to win.' And we went straight to the hotel.”
With so many accomplishments to choose from, Matthews insisted there is one that means the most to him. It isn't about a single win, he said; it has to do with staying relevant through so many decades, so many teams.
“The thing I'm most proud of is having success through the '70s, '80s, '90s and '00s, being able to change with the changing attitude of players,” Matthews said. “I think the Hall of Fame is meant for the skill and entertainment of the players. I've never lost sight of that. The heroes are the players.
“I am exactly [what he was inducted as], a builder.”