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Jake Matthews brings strength of family to Falcons

The Manning family gets all the ESPN “30 for 30,” Saturday Night Live, Madison Avenue love. But they look like football dilettantes compared to the bunch that pulled up to 4400 Falcon Parkway on Friday.

It required a shuttle bus — one with a very stout suspension — to accommodate the Matthews Traveling Block Party. They hit Flowery Branch like a human tsunami, the Falcons’ 6-foot-5, 309-pound first-round draft pick, his Hall of Fame pops, three of his plus-sized brothers. The youngest, 14-year-old Luke, only goes about 6-2, 300. But give him time, he’ll grow.

Arthur Blank beamed as this procession entered the Falcons’ facility for Jake Matthews’ introductory news conference. His quarterback just got a little safer. And, looking at this group, the team owner had to suspect that season-ticket and concession sales were about to spike.

Not present was the defensive branch of the clan, like the four-time Pro Bowl uncle or the Super Bowl-winning cousin.

Sorry, Archie, Peyton and Eli, but football has another thriving and ever-growing first family.

“The Matthewses might have to move up to No. 1 now. I’m the seventh one (in the NFL). There has to be some respect for that,” Jake chuckled.

Someone else did the math. Three generations of Matthews men have given their connective tissue to football, playing a collective 753 NFL games over 54 seasons while accumulating 22 Pro Bowl invitations along the way.

There will be time for Jake Matthews to flesh out his own identity on the Falcons’ offensive line, but before he sticks one hand in the Bermuda turf of his new team’s practice field, he comes with the powerful endorsement of his surname. Family is an overwhelming, inescapable theme of Jake’s life. He couldn’t break from that even if he wanted to.

The Falcons didn’t just draft a tackle Thursday night, they acquired a brand name. And it is one zealously protected.

“I take a lot of pride in my name and where I come from,” Jake said. “I’m real happy to represent my family. I think we stand for all the right things. I’m going to continue keeping that image.”

“I think all us Matthews, males and females, are all very proud of what our cousins, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents have done. Jake definitely embraces that,” Bruce Matthews, his father, said.

Trace the football tradition back to Clay Matthews Sr., a 1940s-era lineman at Georgia Tech who did his post-grad work parachuting into the Korean Conflict with the 82nd Airborne. He also served for four years with a less demanding group, the San Francisco 49ers, as a 220-pound tackle.

He’s 85, a retired corporate exec who ran the camera/projector company Bell & Howell for a while, living now in Charleston, S.C. When telling the story of where all these Matthews men might have acquired a taste for the rough-and-tumble physical life, he’ll reach back yet one more generation. His father, Howard “Matty” Matthews, left the farm in Ohio to play a little baseball and coach boxing at The Citadel.

“My dad said anything you’re going to start, you don’t quit. That was the only rule he ever gave me. And one I tried to pass on,” Clay Sr. said.

A two-time heavyweight Georgia Golden Gloves boxing champ, who also swam and wrestled while playing football at Tech, Clay Sr. certainly put the rebar in the family tradition. Toughness and durability is a Matthews trademark. “Oh, I don’t know. We just did what we were told to do,” he said humbly.

Now we come to that part of the story where the begetting begins.

Clay Sr. begot two sons among his five children who fashioned long, distinguished NFL careers: Clay (a linebacker 19 seasons with Cleveland and the Falcons), and Bruce (a lineman 19 seasons with Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans).

The stretch of Bruce’s career was so long and fruitful that during his last season in Tennessee that the man who one day would be his son’s NFL head coach was a young up-and-coming defensive assistant in Baltimore going sleepless trying to scheme against him. “The scouting report on him had that thing you don’t like to say when you’re talking about an opponent: He’s going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer,” Mike Smith said. “His guy always was blocked.”

Each of Clay Sr.’s sons begot his own NFL-quality offspring. Clay Jr. had the long-haired Clay III, doing his quarterback seek-and-destroy act in Green Bay. His brother Casey was Philadelphia’s fourth-round pick in 2011.

Yes, yes, so difficult to keep straight. This family tree is as tangled as a 150-year-old Banyan.

Some women deserve more than one Mother’s Day per year. Carrie Matthews, Bruce’s wife, qualifies, just on volume alone. Two of her seven children — Kevin, with Tennessee, and now Jake, with the Falcons — have grown into full-scale NFL linemen. Mike plays on the line at Texas A&M. His father figures Luke, the ninth-grader, will grow to be bigger than any of them.

Everything a Falcon fan may want to know about their new tackle can be revealed in the context of family.

When Jake is described as a serious-minded technician — “a consistent guy on and off the field, a video junkie, prepares like a pro,” said B.J. Anderson, his line coach at A&M — it is like hearing the praises for Bruce echoed years later. Jake was so versatile that he was a long snapper his freshman season, and snapped for extra points after that. Just like dad.

He possesses “the best pass-protection set I’ve ever seen” Anderson said. His run-blocking ability is under-appreciated, the coach added. But why shouldn’t Matthews have these skill sets? “Jake was born and raised to be a legitimate tackle in this league,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.

The edge required to play a hard game was evident enough two years ago when younger brother Mike, a center, got into a practice-field scrap with a defensive lineman. As the defender began swinging his helmet wildly, here came Jake roaring at him from the sideline. It nearly took a restraining order to separate the two.

“I wasn’t going to let anyone mess with (Mike),” Jake remembered. “You got to have that mindset. Off the field you’re a different person. On it, you got to be an animal.”

That he stayed at Texas A&M for his senior season rather than leave for certain first-round riches last season was largely because of his desire to play one more season with his brother.

That there is a healthy sense of perspective in his life also can be attributed to one of his siblings, a member of the family who doesn’t make headlines on game day.

“Gwenny is a light in the dark world,” Bruce Matthews said of his seventh child.

“For our family, she has taught us. If you watch and see how my kids respond to her, she has really opened us up. We can be somewhat insensitive and it’s easy for us to find the corner of the room and back up and not engage. Gwenny doesn’t accept that.”

Gweneth, 10, has Down syndrome. She may be the youngest and the most vulnerable of the Matthews family, but she also occupies a ranking spot at its emotional core.

“No matter what it is, she just wants to love you with everything she has and to be loved,” Jake said.

“She has been such a great addition to our family. Really helps lighten things up. Sometimes things get so serious, then you look at her and she’s just so carefree, just has a love for life, especially for her mom and dad and brothers and sisters. I’m so thankful to have her for a younger sister. She has taught me so many life lessons.”

It requires so much more than football to bind football’s first family.

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