Honor the Heroes of the Game, Preserve Its History, Promote its Values & Celebrate Excellence Everywhere
Jon Kendle is Director of Archives and Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His biweekly columns tell unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton in 1920 to the present day.
The 98th season of the National Football League kicked off on Thursday night when the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots hosted the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium. Today, football will bring millions of people together to enjoy Kickoff Weekend and cheer for their favorite teams and players. Whether it’s friends and families around the television rooting for a win or outside in the backyard tossing the pigskin, one thing will become crystal clear this afternoon; Football is family!
The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Archives, The Ralph Wilson, Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center, is home to over 40 million pages of documents related to players, coaches and contributors who helped build the game to what it is today. The archives staff maintains a variety of information pertaining to the history of professional football. For example, there is a list that contains names such as Farr, Hasselbeck, Kramer, Manning, and Klecko. It even includes Hall of Fame names such as Dorsett, Shula, and Winslow. The list I reference is one that documents the 233 father-and-son combinations who have played at least one regular season snap of professional football in the NFL, the AFL of the 1960s (that merged with the NFL), as well as the short-lived All-America Football Conference (1946-49).
Potentially several more combos will be added to the list after today’s games if, and when, rookies such as Jamal Adams of the New York Jets, Hardy Nickerson, Jr. of the Cincinnati Bengals, Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers and Zach Banner of the Cleveland Browns take the field this weekend. The distinction of a father-son combination to play pro football is quite an honor and will put these family’s names into select company. However, there are just three families who provide the extremely rare historical notation of having three generations from the same family play in an NFL regular season game.
Surprisingly, the Matthews family has that distinction twice. They just may be the most prestigious lineage of professional football players ever. It all began with Clay Matthews, Sr., a two-way lineman, who played four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers from 1950, 1953-55. His sons Clay Matthews, Jr. and Bruce Matthews not only followed in their father’s footsteps with their own NFL careers, they expanded on them. Clay Jr. played linebacker for 19 seasons in the NFL from 1978-1993 with the Cleveland Browns and 1994-96 with the Atlanta Falcons. His brother Bruce also played 19 seasons in the NFL as a guard, center, and a tackle for the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans from 1983-2001. He earned enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.
The third generation of Matthews family members made their way to an NFL field when both of Clay, Jr.’s sons suited up at linebacker, Clay III for the Green Bay Packers currently and Casey for the Philadelphia Eagles from 2011 to 2014. Bruce also has two sons, Kevin, who played center for the Tennessee Titans from 2010 to 2013, and Jake, presently the starting left tackle for the Atlanta Falcons.
“I can’t say I didn’t expect it,” Clay, Sr. said about his grandsons’ careers in the NFL. “I think there’s another three generations behind them that might be playing someday.”
The NFL’s first three-generation family happened when Matt Suhey lined up at fullback for the Chicago Bears in 1980. He followed his father Steve who had played guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1948-49, and his maternal grandfather Bob Higgins, an end for the Canton Bulldogs from 1920-21. Higgins’ teammates over those two seasons included Hall of Fame legends Joe Guyon, Wilbur “Pete” Henry, and Jim Thorpe.
The Pyne family became the second three-generation family and first family to have two genetic father-son relationships. The family’s first pro football player was George Pyne, Jr. who played one season with the 1931 Providence Steamroller. George Jr.’s son George Pyne III played the 1965 season with the AFL’s Boston Patriots. Finally, George III’s son Jim completed the Pyne family’s place in history during the 1995 season while playing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In all, Jim Pyne played eight seasons with four different clubs.
Football teaches so many great life lessons. As a game for life, it instills values like commitment, integrity, courage, respect and excellence in those who play. These are ideals that every parent wants their sons and daughters to develop. There is an adage “like father like son,” that rings true in the great game of football. As the family gather to participate in the NFL’s 2017 regular season kickoff, fans will be reminded that the when it comes to developing NFL talent, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”