In December of 2002, 10-year old Jordan Matthews walked into the Oakland Coliseum with his mother and brother — as far away as possible from the stadium’s Black Hole. The Oakland Raiders were set to play the Denver Broncos, and most of the crowd was clad in silver and black, with a courageous few wearing navy and orange.
Matthews, though, clad in a muted black and gray shirt and jeans, stuck out: He wore a bright white San Francisco 49ers ballcap with the red and gold logo set above a red brim.
“I’ve got one brother, he wore a Raiders hat, but I told my parents, ‘I want him to sign a 49ers hat,’” Matthews said.
“Him” was Jerry Rice, then in the midst of a 1,200-yard receiving season for the Raiders. Rice was the reason why the 49ers — who signed Matthews to a one-year deal last Thursday — were his favorite team growing up. Not only was Rice Matthews’ favorite player, but he is also his cousin, and one of his biggest inspirations.
“We from the country now, so you start getting into numbers, but we are cousins, yes,” Matthews said last Thursday. “I feel like I’m going to get asked this question a million times while I’m here.”
Rice is a cousin of Matthews’ mother, Brenda, and gave her and her family tickets to the game that day. It was just the second time Matthews had ever been to the Bay Area. The first time he’d come to the Bay to see Rice at Candlestick Park with his family, he was too young to form any lasting memories.
“We came out, saw his house, it was crazy,” Matthews said of his 2002 trip. “It was family, but at the same time, you’re a kid, and you’re in awe. Your favorite player’s the GOAT, but at the same time, I’ve got to act cool with him, because he’s family.”
Matthews, who long wore No. 80 to honor Rice, has long admired the fact that his cousin was a master technician, and both on the field and off, he modeled himself in Rice’s image. The hard work, it seems to be in the blood.
In high school, he was a member of the National Honors Society, and graduated from Vanderbilt with a degree in Economics. Matthews’ mother is a computer engineer. His father, a contracting specialist in the United States Army. His older brother is a mechanical engineer for AT&T. Matthews maintains it comes from his country upbringing.
“My roots go back to Mississippi, that whole area, Crawford,” said the Huntsville, Alabama-born Matthews. “My grandma, she actually just passed away, but that’s where our whole family grew up was in that Crawford area. Everybody knows Starkville because of Mississippi State, but you drive about 30 minutes into the back woods, and that’s where my roots are, where my family is. B.L. Moor High School, my whole family used to run track and everything up there.”
During his two stints with the Philadelphia Eagles, Matthews was known for arriving at the practice facility at 6 a.m. to catch balls from the JUGS machine, for taking reps with the scout team and for running out every practice catch at full speed into the end zone.
What most attracts questions about his time in Philadelphia — and brief stints with Buffalo and New England — is his injury history.
After catching 225 balls over his first three seasons in the NFL — 10th in league history — he missed the final two games of the 2016 season with an ankle injury, then was traded to Buffalo. During his lone season with the Bills, he fought through thumb, ankle and knee injuries to catch 25 balls for 283 yards in 10 games. After having his right thumb operated on during the season, he underwent knee and ankle surgeries once it was over.
He then signed a one-year deal with the New England Patriots before a hamstring injury prompted his release with an injury settlement just days into training camp. He returned to Philadelphia, where he played in 14 games, catching 20 balls for 300 yards. All of that, Matthews said, is behind him. He’s taken up yoga to try and strengthen his body and add flexibility.
“I want to make sure that, as I get into 26, 27, 28 years of playing football, I’m making sure I’m working on my body, functional movement, so I’m checking all the boxes to play an extra 10 years in this league,” Matthews said.
Rice, of course, played until he was 43, and even at age 56, traditionally will go out to Santa Clara once a year and work out in full uniform with the 49ers. Over his past few injury-riddled seasons, though, Matthews, 26, has not reached out for advice.
“You’ve got to understand, I’m on the East Coast mostly,” Matthews said. “Even when I flew here, it’s like I’m flying to another country to all my family back on the East Coast. I think I’ll be able to have a lot more opportunities to have that relationship with Jerry, ask him questions. The most we talked, as far as advice-wise, was when I was coming out for the Draft.”
After 181 catches for 3,218 yards at Madison Academy, Matthews earned scholarship offers from Kansas, Tulane, Arkansas State and Jacksonville State, but planned to walk on at Auburn. Then, after wide receiver prospect and eventual Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby de-committed from Vanderbilt, he got an offer from the Commodores on Christmas Eve. While with Vanderbilt, Matthews caught 262 balls for 3,759 yards, both SEC and school records, while setting the school record for receiving touchdowns with 24.
After taking his degree, it was time to get ready for the NFL Combine. That’s when he called cousin Jerry.
“I got in touch with him. I said, ‘What’s the best advice that you can give me going into the Draft, Combine, Senior Bowl?’” Matthews said. “He said, ‘Everywhere you go, just tell yourself you’re the best person there, and that you’re supposed to be there.’”
Once a three-star receiver, Matthews could have been lost in a class that included Sammy Watkins, Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks, Marqise Lee, Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin.
At the NFL Combine, he put up 21 reps in the bench press, second among receivers, and ran a 4.46 40-yard dash, a fast time for a 6-foot-3, 215-pounder.
He wasn’t ranked among the top 10 receivers available before the draft, but wound up being the seventh taken, drafted in the second round, 42nd overall, by the Eagles.
“That’s what I did, and I’ve done that,” Matthews said of the advice from Rice. “I can use that advice in Year 5. That’s why, obviously, he’s the GOAT (greatest of all time).”
After all his injuries, when the opportunity came to play for his childhood favorite, the opportunity was too good to pass up. Beyond playing for San Francisco, it was a chance to show he can still be effective.
“When we heard from the 49ers, in my mind, this was the place I wanted to be at,” Matthews said.
Now that he’s in the Bay, he’s eager to play in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, which gives him freedom to make plays, citing the play of Trent Taylor, Kendrick Bourne and George Kittle.
“I think it helps guys get in space,” he said. “Some offenses are very rigid, but you see a lot of guys being able to be creative [with Shanahan] … I feel like they’ve been doing a ton of stuff to get guys in open space, and that’s what I pride myself on. I want to get open. I want to catch the ball. I want to help the team win. I’m excited about it moving forward.”
He’s also looking forward to working out a bit with Rice. Running hills, he said, wouldn’t be something to worry about: “I’d be excited for something like that,” he said.
Now that he’s back in the Bay, he won’t get to wear Rice’s number anymore, but he still has that hat, he said, the one Rice signed following their first meeting.
“That’s home,” Matthews said. “I got a couple pictures back at home, and I’ve still got the 49ers hat at the crib.”