The Times West Virginian

September 12, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN-The risks of playing big time football

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — There are times when football just doesn’t seem to mean very much any longer. Sitting here writing this is one of those times, the television broadcasting ceremonies honoring the victims of 9/11, a tragedy that equaled or surpassed Pearl Harbor.

But that is not all on this day that makes it difficult to write about games men play in a world gone crazy, for down in New Orleans a football player, Devon Walker, lies in a hospital bed recovering from spinal surgery, unsure if he will be paralyzed due to an injury suffered in last weekend’s game.

So catastrophic are the thoughts at the moment that the news of a simple shrug of his shoulders is cheered as signs of hope by Walker’s family, friends and teammates.

You may say, “Touching, but what does that have to do with the goings-on in Morgantown, where there is a tricky football game with James Madison awaiting the No. 9/8 West Virginia University Mountaineers?”

It is a legitimate question, although hardly on a par with those “why me?” questions Walker has to be asking himself, questions that tie in with the football game in which West Virginia is about to play for James Madison has a wide receiver coach Clayton Matthews, the coach’s son, who spends a good bit of his time helping people with spinal injuries and paralysis find a way to live a happy and productive life.

He should know. He coaches from a wheelchair, paralyzed from the neck down, the result of an incredible series of events where he broke his neck twice in separate automobile accidents in August of 2003.

If he was slowed down physically by the turn of events, he found ways to contribute to society perhaps even more meaningfully than had the misfortune not struck him.

“His tongue ain’t paralyzed,” is the way his father, Mickey Matthews, once put it.

Someone asked Mickey Matthews what he might say to Walker at this troubled moment if he were with him, considering what his son had gone through and turned into a positive.

“It’s an incredibly difficult situation,” Mickey Matthews began. “Clayton would have a much better conversation. He has spoken to kids who have done that, and he would do better than me.”

Indeed, Matthews tells those people that there is a life despite setbacks, that he went on after lying unfound off the road for over an hour, after too many surgeries to count and months upon months of rehabilitation to receive a college degree, to become a coach and to lead if not what we would consider a normal life, a productive life.

“The doctors told us they thought they could save him,” Mickey Matthews recalled for ESPN a few years back. “I told them we’d take him back any way we could get him.”

Matthews’ message is one of hope.

“Life is not over, “ Mickey Matthews said when asked what Clayton’s message is. “It’s different than it was. I hope this kid is not paralyzed. It’s a two- to six-year adjustment period. Clayton came out great.”

Indeed he did. He drives a car with hand controls and drives a receiving corps that is solid on the nation’s No. 5 team in FCS play.

This was possible because he was a strong, driven person, but also because he had support – support from family, friends, teammates, school, community.

“His mother was responsible for getting him down the path he took back,” Mickey Matthews said.

She had been driving him back from a trip to the medical center to attend to an infection following the first accident and surgery when the impossible became reality, the car his mother, Kay, was driving hydroplaning on Afton Mountain and sliding into a guide rail.

This is how the accident was explained in an ESPN story:

“Kay embraced her son during the wreck so his head wouldn’t slam into the windshield. But after the accident, his head was laying sideways against his shoulder. Clayton knew he had broken his neck again. The whiplash caused by the accident snapped the steel rods in his neck. He had again damaged his spinal cord, this time between the C-7 and T-1 vertebrae, a more serious injury.”

What Matthews has done to come back has been truly incredible and inspirational, the kind of inspiration that Devon Walker needs at the moment.

And when you ask Matthews of how he managed it, he turns ironically to the sport that put Walker in the position he’s in. Football, you see, is both devil and angel.

Mack Brown, the Texas coach, called it “a tough game, a vicious game” during the Big 12 coaches’ conference call, which it is.

But it also has another side, and Clayton Matthews got to see that side as he came back from his injury.

“I don’t want to say football saved my life, but the players on the team at that time and the coaches brought me back to a reality, to a sense of self worth,” Clayton told ESPN. “Without that, I would easily be staying at home six days a week and may not have graduated from college and moved on with my life if it wasn’t for football.”

Email Bob Hertzel at or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.