As a young man, growing up and becoming an Adult isn’t easy. It’s often a journey filled with setbacks, bumps in the road and moments you wish you could change. It’s all a part of maturing and finding the Man you will eventually become. As a student-athlete, that journey is put on a pedestal for the world to gaze at and judge. That journey comes with incredible amounts of pressure and can take you from the highest of highs, to the lowest of lows. For NFL hopeful Tray Matthews, this is a path where he’s experienced just about everything. But with just over a month to go until the NFL Draft, it’s something that he’s ever thankful for.
The hard-hitting safety who posted 59 tackles for the Auburn Tigers in 2017 came from humble beginnings. At the age of nine-years old, a young Tray Matthews was playing Football with his Dad, who just happened to be the Head Coach. Having never put on a helmet and with his chinstrap loosened, he was instructed by his Father how to do the Oklahoma drill.
“My Dad explained the drill and told me to run full speed and hit the guy with the ball as hard as I can.” Matthews told me, excitedly as if he was reliving the moment in his mind. “I hit him, the dude went back and started crying. That’s when I knew I love Football.”
From there, Matthews would begin playing at Newton High School as a freshman. One player on the team caught his eye. That man was future second-team All Pro, Alec Ogletree.
“Everybody was talking about him and how he’s a hard-hitting Safety and I was like ‘I wanna be like him. I wanna be big, fast, strong and hit hard.’” Matthews said. “Next thing you know, I started knocking people out of the game and they moved me up to Varsity. I went up against him (Alec) a little bit but he gave me some headaches. He was making me better. Once he left, I started at Safety and scholarships started coming in. I knew at that point I could maybe do this at the NFL level someday.”
Matthews decided to pledge his allegiance to the Georgia Bulldogs, a decision that to begin with, served him well. Matthews started six games in 2013, tallying 36 tackles, one interception and a forced fumble. With 12 tackles against Auburn, he was a part of that memorable game that saw the Tigers win due to a hail-mary miracle. Little did he know that he would later end up on the other side of the fence.
The Safety was expelled from Georgia during his freshman season for double dipping into scholarship stipends. Taking him and his family by surprise, 2013 acted as a wake up call for Matthews.
“I learned that physically you can be ready for the game, but you have to be more mentally ready when the level gets higher. Just because I was fast, big and able to hit people, there’s definitely a mental part to the game.” Matthews told me. “You have to study your opponents more, watch out for tendencies, watch a lot of film. I was gifted as a freshman and I started, but once I got to Auburn is when I started to learn that film is more important and grew more mature. That was a younger version of me. Once I grew older, I started learning and catching onto things.”
The unwavering support of his parents is something that the young defensive back cherishes. In times of adversity, it was his parents who kept Matthews on the right path.
“My Dad didn’t yell at me, he just said ‘you’re no longer a Georgia Bulldog, you’re now an Auburn Tiger. You did alright there, now you have to move on, hit the reset button and start all over again. I hit the reset button. I got everything back on track. I got back to the Old Tray, the Tray my Mother raised me to be. I had time to reflect. I missed the game so much and I came back very hungry”.
“The game isn’t bigger than you.” Matthews said, showing wisdom and a new-found sense of awareness. “Taking advantage of every opportunity I have was important. I was blessed to receive scholarships from every single school after I left Georgia, I wasn’t going to mess it up this time.”
An Auburn Tiger. That would be the next phase of his career. Due to NCAA rules, Matthews would have to sit out the 2014 campaign as he itched to get on the field, watching his team go 8-5.
2015 would be the year of the Tiger, or the year of the underdog. Either way, Matthews was determined to make a statement. Given the starting reins at Safety, he intercepted Louisville’s first play and returned it 35-yards down the field, amassing 8 tackles in the process. Matthews continued to shine throughout the year as an established run-defender and hybrid safety who did much more than just pack a punch. Big games against LSU and Mississippi State showed just how electrifying he could be, with Matthews flying around the field. But then tragedy struck.
Matthews had to endure two shoulder surgeries in the same year, playing in just 8 total games. It wasn’t as easy as simply sitting out games due to a strained muscle. This was bigger than Football. Forced to sleep in a recliner, Matthews contemplated hanging his boots up once and for all.
“That was more heartbreaking than me leaving Georgia.” Matthews reflected. You could almost sense the agony in his voice. “I’ve never gone through that much adversity ever in my life. I got very close to God, closer to my parents. I was so sad, I wanted to give up. My Mom took off work for a long time and would lay in my bed while I was in the recliner just to stay with me while I was in Therapy. Their support is what kept me going. It’s crazy how God works. All that happened and I could have easily given up.”
But he didn’t. Tray tapped into his nine-year old self, remembering how far he had come. He wasn’t going to give up on a craft he’s worked his entire life for and his parents weren’t going to let him either, helping him along each and every step. Matthews returned to the field in 2016, but even then he was at a disadvantage.
‘I actually didn’t get through spring ball because I was still recovering from the surgeries. All the players got to impress in front of the new coaches, I didn’t get to do a thing. Once the Summer hit and the orange jersey came off (which meant full contact was to be resumed), that’s when I knew it was on. My shoulders felt great. I felt like the old Tray again. I’d been in the film room a lot.”
With a new sense of perspective, Matthews attacked the first team scrimmage by leaving it all out on the field. Kamryn Pettway, a running back standing at 6’0, 240 lbs, was the first to feel this refreshed Tray Matthews as he was sloughed to the floor, fumbling the football. Matthews sent a clear message to the coaches that day and set a tone for the rest of the year.
He would go on to lead the team in tackles, starting every game and shining brightest in Auburn’s biggest moments. Whether it was a team-leading nine tackles against LSU or a team-leading 11 against Ole Miss, Matthews became the heartbeat of the defense, the CEO. It was only fitting then that he would pick off a pass and record eight tackles against his former school.
“That’s when everybody’s watching.” Matthews responded when I asked him what it was about those bigger than life moments that make him shine so brightly. “When you prepare so much and give so much to the game, when the time comes you’re ready to perform at your best give it all. I know my Parents are there every game and I want to make them proud. They were there for me when I went through the surgeries and when my back was against the wall after Georgia, they were still in my corner. Having that support and preparation, it’s easy to shine on the bright stage.’
One year later, the 2nd team all-SEC nominee was just as dangerous. Two big games against Alabama and a PBU in the SEC Championship headlined a year that saw Matthews pick up a further 59 tackles, 2 tackles for a loss and an interception. Matthews doesn’t look back in anger however. Instead of regret or hanging on past actions, he channelled that energy into becoming a leader on Auburn’s defense.
“I know it helped a lot. It helped me be more of a vocal leader. Any time the game can be taken away from you. I’m very thankful for all that happened to me. It made me a better person, it made me a better player.”
Taking inspiration from Landon Collins and Keanu Neal, two up and coming physical safeties who blue the lines between what the new prototypical guideline could be, Matthews looks set to make a splash in the NFL.
“I think I’m suited to be that hybrid.” He said with confidence. “I see myself as a hybrid because I can play both positions. I want to matchup against big-time tight ends in the league, or cover running backs out of the backfield. I can play free or single-high.’
Matthews’ new mindset and maturity didn’t happen overnight and it’s not just on the field that we see this new humble and hungry personality. Not too long ago, Matthews sent out a video to a 13-year old girl who was being cyberbullied. The Auburn Safety used his position to change somebody else situation, taking time out of his day to make a difference.
“I feel like as football players, we have a very big platform and we need to use it in a positive way. There’s always some in the world doing worse than what you’re doing. It’s our job to reach out and look out for everyone because the world is cruel nowadays.
On the field, that maturity can be seen almost each and every week and with guidance from the likes of Eric Berry, he can only be expected to blossom further.
“I was training down with him in Boca Raton.” Matthews mentioned. “He was giving me a few tips. It definitely inspires you. Especially when you see how much he prepares. Seeing him workout, he’s very critical with everything that he does.”
From tips about the speed of the NFL and how to handle the mental side of things with far more film study and preparation, to physically seeing how the 5x Pro Bowler approached his workouts, it’s safe to say it rubbed off on the 6’1, 209 lbs standout.
Teams are already chomping at the bit to unearth one of the Draft’s most inspiring sleeper stories. Miami and Philadelphia are just two of the teams who have reached out to Matthews and with his Pro Day just around the corner, we can expect to see and hear a lot more from a true underdog. But what kind of player would an NFL team be getting? Matthews answered that himself.
‘They’re gonna get a hard-worker.” He exclaimed. A sudden sense of passion filled his voice, the pacing picked up and his statement almost became a promise to himself, to his parents, to the team that drafts him. “A hard-nosed football player who loves the game. A guy who is very physical and instinctive and smart. I watch a lot of film.”
The path has been winding and unpredictable for Tray Matthews. That nine-year old who was simply told to run and hit the man opposite him has gone through the highs of being labelled a four-star recruit, to being dismissed from Georgia and pushed to his very limits with two heartbreaking surgeries that left him unable to pick up even basic household items. He’s now set to dive into the world of the NFL…and that’s a story that’s only just beginning.
Mandatory Photo Credit: USA-Today Sports Images Galleries