After Complicated Journey, Receiver Chris Matthews Makes Good At Kentucky
Natalie Matthews practically had to hide the bath towel from her son, Chris.
Growing up, Chris idolized the San Francisco 49ers’ Jerry Rice. When Chris got a towel depicting the Hall of Fame wide receiver, he wanted to use it every time he bathed.
“His mom would get so upset at him because he tried to use it every single day,” Darell Matthews, Chris’ father and LAPD officer, said with a chuckle.
Now 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, Chris is a versatile wide receiver at the University of Kentucky capable of beating defenses in a variety of ways, much like Rice.
On Saturday, Chris will play his final game in a Wildcats' uniform before graduating and potentially joining his former idol as a NFL draft pick. Like Rice, it took an unconventional route for Chris to get so close to the possibility of professional football.
In 1980, Rice was overlooked coming out of high school. He received only one football scholarship offer. It wasn’t from nearby Mississippi State – just 20 miles from his hometown of Crawford, Miss. The offer wasn’t even from a Division I-A school.
Instead, Rice accepted the opportunity to play in coach Archie “Gunslinger” Cooley’s prolific spread offense at Division I-AA Mississippi Valley State. He went on to re-write the NCAA record books. He was selected in the first round by the 49ers and re-wrote the NFL record books as well.
For Chris, his unique route has taken him from the seemingly never-ending urban sprawl that is Los Angeles to the docile atmosphere of the self-proclaimed “Horse Capital of the World,” Lexington, Kent.
Hustle and bustle to tranquility.
“It was a culture shock for me. The way people talk and react to things is a lot different out here,” Chris said in a phone interview. “It’s a lot slower here than Los Angeles.”
Despite the different environment, Chris has found himself at home in Kentucky blue. He has become one of the Southeastern Conference’s (SEC) top receiving threats. With only the BBVA Compass Bowl remaining, he has 897 yards receiving and nine touchdowns, which is tied for the SEC lead.
But Kentucky wasn’t in his plans as a high school senior at Dorsey High in Los Angeles. He received considerable looks from Washington, Arizona, San Diego and UCLA. He never considered leaving the West Coast.
Along with Dorsey teammates Jonathan Franklin and Rahim Moore, Chris planned to attend UCLA. Unfortunately, he did not qualify academically.
“I was disappointed he wasn’t able to come to UCLA,” said Moore, who is still close with Chris, talking to him on a regular basis and training with him when Chris comes home to visit. “Some people overlooked his talents, but I knew he had all the tools to excel.”
Undeterred, Chris switched gears and was prepared to head to San Diego.
“San Diego was pushing the hardest, but they decided to go with a [junior college] transfer at the last minute and left Chris out in the cold,” Darell said.
With his options trimmed, Chris chose to attend Los Angeles Harbor College – a junior college that offered him an opportunity to improve his grades and showcase his football skills for two years.
It was here he came under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Brett Peabody, who has since become the school’s head coach and stays in contact with Chris. Peabody immediately moved Chris to full-time receiver from the flex tight end/receiver position he had played in high school.
In a pattern that repeated itself at Kentucky, Peabody said Chris was “a bit wide-eyed his first year, but really picked things up his second year.”
Still, in his first season, Chris showed flashes of his elite combination of size, speed and athleticism. Top 10-ranked schools, such as Oklahoma and Oregon, sent representatives every week to watch him play.
But in the spring of his freshman season at Harbor, Chris didn’t put enough focus on his academics.
“When he struggled, all the big schools backed off,” Peabody said. “All the opportunities disappeared before his face and Chris realized. Chris has big goals -- big dreams. He knows if he wants them he has to work.”
Peabody saw Chris grow up, which made it even tougher to see him leave after an All-American sophomore season.
“He’s a special player and a great kid. He listened and really matured. When you see him growing and you respect him and his family, it makes it tough.”
During his sophomore season, he put up staggering numbers. In only nine games, he had 80 receptions (best among all 72 California junior college football programs), 1,235 yards and 11 touchdowns. Peabody said he was “probably the best wide receiver in the nation” because of his versatility.
“He can beat you deep, leap up above you and he’s also able to go across the middle. He did some things at 6-foot-6 that you don’t see from 6-6 kids, as far as making guys miss. And there was more than one occasion [when blocking] that he would drive an opponent off the field and sit him on our bench.”
Even with Kentucky star Randall Cobb taking him under his wing, Chris admitted he had trouble deciphering the playbook and the new terminology.
“It was hard for me, in my first year, to understand the playbook right off the bat. I made a couple of plays last year, but nothing compared to this year when I finally understood what was going on.”
There was also the adjustment from playing in the junior college ranks (where he was often the best player on the field) to playing in college football’s premier conference. Peabody said, at Harbor, Chris “frankly hadn’t had to compete that much.”
“He could completely dominate some of the guys he went up against,” Peabody said. “Now all of a sudden, there were no guarantees. [In the SEC], you are either going to compete or you aren’t going to play.”
“In the SEC, he has to use his athleticism, had to read the defense, adjust to the speed of the game and use his body well,” Darell said. “He has had to put the complete package together to become the receiver that he is today.”
Once again, Chris evolved rather than letting his dreams of playing professionally fall incomplete. Chris improved his work ethic and took on more of a leadership role. He stayed over the summer to work with quarterback Mike Hartline, Cobb and some of the younger players.
Chris got extra repetitions, but he said he was able to learn the offense better when he started teaching it to the younger players.
“It was about being an adult and maturing. I’m a leader out there on the field this year and everyone expects me to be that.”
He also showed his maturity in the classroom where his father said he now makes As and Bs after previously he “passed but was never an A-B student.”
This season, Chris was also challenged by his new receivers coach, Tee Martin.
Martin, who played quarterback at the University of Tennessee and in the NFL, challenged Chris face-to-face, man-to-man to step up and become more productive. Martin said he thought Chris had first-round draft pick potential.
“I tell him all the time, ‘I've seen guys take that kind of talent and do something with it,’” Martin told the Lexington Herald-Leader before the season. “That's what I expect out of Chris. I don't expect anything less. He can be a dominant receiver.”
Chris showed his play-making abilities against Florida early in the season, catching six passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns. What made the performance even more impressive was that for most of the night he was going up against Janoris Jenkins, one of the top defensive back prospects in the country.
He later had a career night in Kentucky’s 31-28 upset of South Carolina, then ranked No. 10. Chris had 12 catches for 177 yards and a 38-yard touchdown reception.
“[When he couldn’t get into UCLA], I told him to keep his head up. That it doesn’t matter what route you take, just to let God lead you…and he’s done that,” Moore said. “I’m so proud when I watch him play. He’s doing well and playing great.”
If Chris can continue improving his draft stock and maturity as a player maybe one day some mother will be chiding her son for trying to use a Chris Matthews towel every day.
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