What Cliff Matthews heard on the recruiting trail over a decade ago is what Limestone College players are hearing now.
Matthews, a former All-SEC defensive tackle for South Carolina, signed with the Gamecocks in 2007 over pursuit from Georgia and Clemson. The four-star prospect and Cheraw native said he was swayed then by USC’s proximity to home, the staff’s relentless support and the chance to play for Steve Spurrier.
But that path to Columbia also came with inspiring words from his soon-to-be position coach.
“Knowledge, attitude and effort,” Matthews said. “That was from Coach Brad Lawing. It’s stuck with me.”
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Matthews, 29, is three years past his last appearance in an NFL game. It’s been seven years since he last suited up for South Carolina. Football, though, remains a driving force in his life as he’s into Year 1 as Limestone’s defensive line coach.
Lawing was around Matthews while he posted his 149 tackles, 15.5 sacks, seven forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries in garnet and black.
“He always told me to control what I can control,” Matthews said. “There’s a lot of things in life that you can control, but three things are knowledge, attitude and effort. And you can apply that on the field, off the field, everyday life. Any decision that you make, you ask yourself one of those three words. Is this a good idea? Is this smart? Do I have the right attitude?
“This is what I’m preaching to my kids now.”
Rivals ranked Matthews as the second-best player in USC’s touted 2007 class. He started more more games (47) than any Gamecock from 2007-10. As a senior, he was a captain for what remains the only Carolina team to win an SEC division title.
That 2010 run, Matthews said, was set in motion four years earlier when 20-plus freshmen arrived on campus.
“Everyone was committed,” Matthews said. “Because when we first got there, it was a little rough. We had guys not showing up to workouts, missing class and definitely not producing on the field.
“That class, we just took a stand. We wanted something different. We had seen the potential. We all knew everyone and I felt like the bond was tight. I wanted to be the man of my own state. It just worked. You just got to find a group of guys to make it all work.”
Matthews was selected by the Atlanta Falcons in the seventh round of the 2011 NFL Draft. He shared a locker room with Julio Jones for six seasons, always reminding the former Alabama star of what happened on Oct. 9, 2010, at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Matthews had four tackles and a quarterback hurry as the Gamecocks upset the Crimson Tide 35-21.
“They were No. 1 in the country,” Matthews said, “and Julio would always tell me that he was a little banged-up during that game. That’s why we won.”
Jones, now a six-time Pro Bowler, nearly helped deliver Matthews a ring two years ago, but the Falcons famously couldn’t hang on to their 28-3 lead over the New England Patriots and lost in Super Bowl LI.
“It’s hard to explain the feeling,” Matthews said. “Definitely some of the best feelings you’ll ever have in your life, especially being on that high of a stage. It’s second to none. It’s an extremely good opportunity.
“I wish that I could still play a few more years, but I’m getting old now. I’m an old man.”
Matthews graduated from USC with a criminal justice degree and had post-playing thoughts about exploring that field.
“But football was still ingrained in me,” he said. “I had to be around it someway, somehow. So that’s when I decided to get in the coaching game.”
Matthews was a high school coach in Georgia last fall before moving to Limestone in January. The ultimate goal, he said, is to get back on the South Carolina sideline.
“I would love to,” he said. “I’m doing some groundwork now. I’m just getting started. I got a lot of learning to do, a lot of experiences to come. And I’m just taking it one day at a time.
“I’ll be ready one day.”