Former Texas fullback Will Matthews is photographed at his home on Oct. 6, 2020. Matthews is serving as the honorary chair for the "NAMIWalks Your Way Central Texas virtual Event" this Saturday. [RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Football

The Statesman Interview: Will Matthews on mental health, protests and the Longhorns’ backfield

Posted October 7th, 2020

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Saturday’s Red River Showdown won’t be the only event on Will Matthews’ mind.

The former Texas fullback will serve as the honorary chair for the “NAMIWalks Your Way Central Texas: A Virtual Event” on Saturday. That’s also World Mental Health Day.

Matthews, who played in 48 career games with the Longhorns from 2001-04 and then signed with the Detroit Lions as an undrafted free agent in 2005, recently discussed an array of issues, from mental health to this summer’s protests by UT athletes to the state of the current Longhorns running backs.

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How did you get involved with NAMI and this event?

A friend of mine was having a mental health event and she asked me to come out and just give my story. I didn’t know that NAMI was there. In a group of about 40 people, I gave my story and talked about the ups and downs and twists and turns of making it to the NFL and then all of a sudden it feels like the rug is pulled out from under you — you’re done, you’re at home, you don’t know if you’re going back. You’re early-20s, mid-20s and it’s just like, what do I do with the next 80 years of my life?

I met Karen (Ranus), who’s the executive director for NAMI, and she’s like, ‘we’re having this event, and I would love for you to consider being an honorary chair.’ And with these kinds of things, I take it very seriously. I feel like once you attach yourself to something, you’re kind of attached to it. And so, I went and talked with my wife and we looked and just got to know NAMI over a small period of time and really felt that this organization is doing something special in the Central Texas area to help really change the conversation surrounding mental health.

Backfield mates Cedric Benson, left, and Will Matthews celebrate a touchdown against Missouri during their 2004 game at Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. (Matt Rourke/American-Statesman file photo)

Going back to sharing your story, how would you kind of summarize your story?

In 1981, I was born. (Laughs) No, we don’t have to go that far back. Really, I remember walking into the locker room after being called to the general manager’s office in Detroit, and he let me know that I was done, which is a common occurrence in the NFL. You spend a little bit of time, you jump from team to team. But being that we had lost every game the season before and I had some injuries, it didn’t look good for me to continue my career outside of that.

And when you walk into the locker room and all your stuff is gone, there’s this immediate pit in your stomach. You’re no longer an employee, and they have security come and walk you to the front door. And you’re not allowed to cry. I mean, really, it’s the part of the job that is the most gruesome and the most human. I was in that space and then all of a sudden the paycheck is gone, the title’s gone, the team, the friends, and you can’t really support that MTV lifestyle. You’re 26 and, like, what do I do with my life?

That started me on a journey of discovery. I learned about mental health. I learned it’s OK to be a man, to be a Black man in America, to be a business person and to ask for help. You’re not defective or broken or weak. You’re managing your mental health just like I would have managed a knee injury. You go to the doctor, you get it fixed. You set a plan, you get stronger and when you’re ready you get to play again. And so, it was a journey that I had into learning and being OK with where I was in life.

Was mental health a taboo subject when you were playing in high school, college and the pros?

Nobody ever talked about mental health. I think it was a little more OK for a quarterback or a technical position to go and talk to somebody about the game, but there was never like this is your health inside of your mind, inside of your heart. I’d never heard that until I was out of the NFL and out of football. Mental health is health, there was never any talk about that. It was always get your mind right, (that) was the extent of your mental health conversation with your coaches. Suck it up, put all that stuff from off the field, put that down and get on the field and make it happen. Gamers make it happen. Men make it happen. You’re stone, let’s get it done. I guess that was your mental health talk right there.

From an early age, I learned how to stuff whatever else was going on in my life down to clear my mind so that I could play at the level I was at and then get to the highest level. But there’s only so much space down in that cavern to keep those emotions. And I feel like that’s why athletes end up acting out. Then they’re in the newspaper, not just for accolades on the field but for all sorts of other things that we shouldn’t have to get into.

In 2020, do you think that the perception of mental health has changed in sports?

Yeah, I think it’s OK for somebody to refer to it and say,  “Hey, there’s some stuff going on I need to take care of, I need to talk to somebody,” or  “I need to find a way to take care of my mind.” But I don’t feel like over the last 20 years we’ve done a good job of putting parameters around that so that people can say, “Hey, today I need to do this so that I can produce.” People say, “Hey, there’s something going on. I may go get some help,” but I don’t think that they’re actually being able to walk that out in practice and as a lifestyle.

At the end of the day, the emphasis is not always on the health of the player or the athlete, it’s on winning. As long as it’s on winning, it’s like, “I’m cool with you seeing whoever you need to see or do what you do what you need to do, but on Sunday, whatever that looks like, you need to be on the field.” Even though there is a shift in maybe the rhetoric surrounding it, the focus is still the same.

The Texas football team marches to the Capitol from UT’s stadium in a demonstration against racism in Austin on June 4. (Lola Gomez/American-Statesman)

READ MORE: In show of unity and force, Texas athletes call for changes to address UT’s racial past, future

Clearly, there are not just Black athletes at Texas. But specifically, what would your advice be to the young Black athletes at your alma mater in 2020? In addition to the normal on-field stress, they are also having to deal with the coronavirus, social issues and an election year.

I’m very blessed to have had 20 years in hindsight to look at it. I don’t know that I always did it well or did it that amazingly. If I were to look at me 20 years ago, I would probably sit myself down and look myself in the eyes and go, “You got a whole life ahead of you. This is a chapter in a long book. Manage it well while you’re here, forgive yourself, let your losses fall, make friends, but let them go when it’s time to go and be confident in yourself and your decisions. You’ve got this.”

What were your thoughts about the issues that the Black women and men on campus faced this summer? Eyes of Texas, some of the other social issues.

I think it’s easy for people to believe that athletes — Black, white, all of them — are there for their entertainment and that they’re not human. I think the school got a really good wake-up call that these athletes care a lot about a lot more than just winning, which is a great sign. I think that they flexed their muscle. I mean, because at the end of the day, if they don’t play, it doesn’t matter. Everything is built on them playing. I’m very proud of them for doing that. I think history will look back at it and say that was a really great thing.

How the University of Texas handled it — sometimes great and sometimes not so great. I think the disadvantage that a lot of the people who are making decisions at the University of Texas is some of these conversations they’ve never had, they have never felt them. Those conversations don’t hit home for them. … It’s hard to have an extensive level of empathy for somebody’s walk if you don’t even know that what they’re saying is real.

With the coaching staff and with the AD, they jumped in and listened. And that’s really all you can ask. For me, Black Lives Matters is the beginning. I’m not even asking for better or Black lives are more important or more awesome or super extravagant. I’m just like, they matter, they matter to us. Starting that walk with the players is very important. They’ve got a lot of work to do. I don’t think they fixed everything, but I think they’re starting to listen. I think this is going to be a fight we’re going to be fighting for a long time.

Former Texas football player Will Matthews is serving as the honorary chair for “NAMIWalks Your Way Central Texas Virtual Event,” which aims to amplify awareness of mental illness. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman)

When you think back to your time at Texas, can you compare and contrast what you guys had to deal with? These athletes are dealing with social media and easy access to an ever-changing new cycle. Is it the same battle or is it completely different since a lot has changed in 20 years?

It’s the same fight, it’s a different battle. “The Eyes of Texas,” which I didn’t know at the time, 20 years ago touched a button in a lot of people. The University of Texas doesn’t have the best history in finding ways to connect with people of color. They’re good at getting in a lane and doing that, and it’s sometimes a little bit hard to move the ship.

Even at the University of Texas when I was there, I was profiled. You can walk into a conversation and hear all kinds of not-so-flattering words about who you are and why you’re there because of your ability. That was hard because I grew up in a community where that was a little bit under the rug. My parents helped educate me about what was going on and their experiences, but there is nothing like walking into a group and hearing a bunch of people laugh and say something super racially-charged and then look at you like, “I was caught.” That’s a deer-in-the-headlight kind of moment and that was things that happened throughout.

You can ask a person of color, and you can ask white athletes, “Did you ever walk into a conversation when that was happening?” and most of them will say yes, it’s just kind of what it was. These guys are dealing with that. The advantage and disadvantage is one of the guys can tweet and it can go around the world. We didn’t have that. We had ESPN. If you said something, it got to ESPN. That was kind of your Twitter. Right now the guys, they’re powerful and that is very amazing and kind of scary sometimes. We didn’t have that access to a platform to give our opinion, even though we had incredible talent and some incredible athletes.

One thing I’m continually impressed with about these athletes is the restraint they’ve shown on social media. How do you think these 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds have handled this situation? 

I think it’s beautiful because they are as adult as they are young men. When you listen to them articulate their life and their feelings, you can be moved to tears. They’ve got a point of view, they’ve got some life experience and they’ve got a lot of power to back that up. To watch the humility and restraint in some cases when grown people, which I would think over 30, who are belittling them because they have a view that interrupts their entertainment is gross.

I think a lot of times the people, they look at these players and they say you have talent and you have opportunity, what else would you want? Well, some want to feel comfortable in a space where I may be the only African-American person in a room of 400 who are not African-American and not people of color.  I’d like to feel comfortable and feel welcome. I would like that for my family and I would like my opportunity to not be an anomaly but to be normal for everybody from my community. A lot of the young men come from communities where they are the only person who has ever succeeded outside of high school. Until that is the norm, they’re gonna keep pushing. I really respect that.

The way that they’re doing and the actual restraint? Mike Tyson said it best that people get really brave over social media, and a 275-pound man who can run a sub-4 40 and could throw a car over a house, I don’t know if you would say those things to their face. As much as they are brilliant athletes, they’re still young men and they still have hearts and they still bleed like everybody else.

Has the topic of mental health become more accepted in the Black community?

In some senses, it’s starting to creep in. With news so readily accessible and with people starting to see, man, if I talk about this when I deal with it, maybe I can deal with it in a better way. So there is a logic. I think that has to do with this generation being so quick to Google it and figure it out. I don’t know how deep it’s implanting, it feels like it is. I hope that it continues.

What are you up to these days?

Besides being an honorary chair for NAMI? I live in Austin with my wife and two boys. I work in commercial real estate and finance, and I’m an advocate for social justice and mental health. I work with a couple of venture capital funds around here to work with other business leaders to talk about these things. I believe that conversations about race and mental health really, really, really open up relationships. I feel like with relationships, things will actually start to move the needle.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask someone who made his living in the backfield what he thinks about the running backs that Texas has this season.

Oh my goodness, I love it. They got three guys, and I think that the competition for that coveted “This is my job” will start to heat up even more as the season goes on. I think each of them has an interesting talent, so it’s up to the offensive coordinator to really call plays and get the guys in for the right time. I think I’ve seen a couple twinges of some greatness in there. What was a young guy, I think (Bijan) Robinson, who jumped over a guy? Ah man. For him to get up and walk, that’s super human right there.

I think they’ve got talent, that’s the thing about Texas. From Ricky to Cedric and Jamaal Charles and all the guys in between and Earl.  They’re gonna pull in a good running back.

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