In a refreshing kind of way, there was nary a mention of coach Albert Matthews’ 70-plus wins or the two state championship finalists he led. No, instead players’ fondest memories included the bond shared as Matthews’ friend — whether hunting or fishing with the former coach — as well as the example set for them those many years ago.
“One thing I remember, he taught a class in agriculture when we were playing football, and that was the first year they had built the North Cobb football stadium. So we’d go out there every day. Instead of learning a lot in the books, we’d go and pick up rocks. He taught us how to work,” said Tom Long, who played for Matthews at North Cobb, after the merger between Acworth and Sprayberry high schools in 1958. “He always would stress the [importance of] work ethic to us — not only on the football field but also off the football field. I always looked up to coach Matthews for that. He was a bottom-line kind of guy. He was a straight shooter. He never beat around the bush, he’d tell you like what he felt, and it taught me to do the same thing — to always be honest and be a straight shooter with everybody. That’s one thing I really admired about him.”
“He always gave us a chance to excel in anything we wanted to do,” added Long, who was born in Cartersville and spent 30 years in Nashville working in the music business.
If not for Matthews’ influence, some may not have gone on to the kind of successes or had the opportunities they have enjoyed as adults.
Said Harry Boone, a 1957 Acworth co-captain along with Jerry Austin: “I was a walk-on at Georgia Tech, and coach Matthews was the reason I was able to do that because he knew one of the assistant coaches at Tech. … He talked coach [Jim] Carlin into letting me have a uniform, and I tried for a couple of years and then I went to work in the training room as a trainer, student trainer, and that was the best experience. It was a wonderful experience. Coach Dodd was there, Bobby Dodd. For three years, I was treated like I was a member of the varsity football team and wound up with a scholarship and all that, and that was because of coach Matthews.”
“That was great. I mean, it was a wonderful experience. And that’s the kind of guy he is, still is,” Boone continued. “He really treated us like we were his sons, and I think Hal, his son, will tell you [that].”
Hal and his siblings, sisters Rhonda Matthews Dulaney and Jill LaVilla Matthews and brother Brett Matthews, must have felt like they had tons of siblings and knowing how players felt about his dad, the eldest son considered himself pretty lucky growing up.
“You’re seeing some amazing men here today — one of the greatest offensive lines I’ve ever seen in football. Most of them are here today. They were heroes to me when I was growing up. And my dad, all of them brag on my dad to me as if he’s their own father, and I got to grow up with him and live in the same house with a man like Albert Matthews. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that,” said Hal Matthews. “I just got an email from one of his players on the state championship team of 1960 … he asked me to be sure — by the way this was an all-state running back by the name of Richie Davis, one of the best I’ve ever seen — … and ‘tell your daddy that he is the man who influenced my life more than any human being and that he is the man that taught me how to be a man.’ And he said, ‘Please be sure and tell him that for me.’ I don’t think he could tell him on the phone; I think it was hard for him to say it.”
Albert Matthews likely elicited those types of emotions from many of his players through his acts of kindness, one which allowed a former player to take the field in the first place.
“You know, Acworth back when we were playing ball was just a small town. Everybody was a family; everybody was like family. Coach Matthews was a father figure for me because I was raised without my father. I just had my mother. We were dirt poor, and coach Matthews gave me a pair of shoes so I could play football,” said Donny Crowe, who traveled the farthest for the gathering — nearly 120 miles from Springville, Ala. “Of course football has been everything my whole life. It helped me get an education in college, not just in high school but in college, too. I just never forget it. He was one of the most wonderful people that I’ve ever known.”
“He’s a great guy and it wasn’t just me, it was a lot of other people that he helped. If he’d have never given me that pair … “ Crowe continued, breaking his train of thought as if pondering his life’s possibilities.
Because of Matthews’ presence former players do not have to wonder how their life could have turned out since the coach helped prepare them for their time away from the field.
“[He was] not only a coach but a mentor and somebody that was always encouraging people to perform at their very best,” said Butch Thompson, owner of Butch Thompson Enterprises, a construction company in Kennesaw. Thompson played for Matthews in 1961-62. “He’s a great guy. [He’s] one of those people, he demanded a lot and you performed and produced for him, but it wasn’t one of those deals where he made you do [it]. He was such an encourager that you wanted to perform for him.
“He expected a lot and he got a lot out of you without saying anything. He was not a harsh coach.”
Harold Turner, a vice president at Batson-Cook Construction and pastor at Crossroads Baptist Church, described Matthews as “a coach that never hollered and screamed, never acted like an idiot, but like a gentleman.”
Austin, the 1957 co-captain and organizer behind the annual get-together honoring Matthews, said his former coach was a disciplinarian who “demanded your respect without disrespecting you. [He] never used profanity, never raised his voice like they do now, you know. He wouldn’t put up with any kind of foolishness. They feared him like they fear God. They loved him but they knew [to] do what he said.”
Having put the event together for years, Austin acknowledged that he is pretty picky when deciding whom to invite, wanting to welcome former players who reflect Matthews’ core values as well as those that have the same level of appreciation for the former coach.
“I knew everyone of you loved coach Matthews and that’s why I invited you, and you proved [it] by how far some of you traveled,” he said prior to last Friday’s lunch at the Cartersville restaurant. Turning to Matthews, Austin — who presented his former coach and rabbit hunting buddy with a knife — said, “If you didn’t mean as much to us, we wouldn’t be here.”
Dulaney, Matthews’ eldest daughter, beamed when speaking of the admiration former players have for her father, a Springfield, Tenn., native and World War II veteran now in his mid-80s and living in Cartersville.
“At home, he was the wonderful, moral man that these men saw on the field. I just feel very honored and blessed to have been raised by such a fine man, and it means the world to us for them to honor Daddy because he loved them so much … he just loved them so very much. And he still remembers plays, games, and so many of these men consider him to be another father,” said Dulaney, who lives in Cobb County as do the rest of her siblings. “And of course, it thrills our hearts when we’re at the grocery store or out and about or at church and people come up and say, ‘How’s Coach? How’s Coach?’”