Dec. 30, 2013
By Jerome Boettcher l Subscribe to Commodore Nation
While many highly touted recruits were scooting from one football camp to the next in an attempt to draw attention from top college coaches, Jordan Matthews spent most of his high school summers away from the football field.
“You can blame some of it on the parents,” Brenda Matthews said. “We didn’t take him to camps until between his junior and senior year. So his exposure was limited.”
But his experiences weren’t.
Though Brenda believes she “handicapped” her youngest son in the recruiting process, she instead broadened his horizons.
Jordan and his older brother Justin volunteered at the local library and hands-on science museum. They were busy with prior service obligations at Madison Academy, a Pre-K-12 college prep school just outside of Huntsville, Ala. The small Christian school offered immense service opportunities, including mission trips to Africa.
“We tried to make sure they were rounded kids,” Brenda said. “They were involved in the arts. They were involved in academics, and they were involved in community activities. Just to make sure they had an understanding that it wasn’t all about just sports. Understanding there was a lot more.”
Even as he continues to knock down record after record at Vanderbilt and in the SEC (he's the league all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards), 21-year-old Jordan Matthews remains humble. The senior wide receiver deflects individual attention. He shows gratitude for his opportunities and doesn’t take them for granted.
Four years ago, before his senior year of high school he went on an eyeopening two-week quest to Ghana. Along with more than 20 classmates from Madison Academy, Jordan joined his father, Rod, who had taken Justin the year before, in building a school for orphans.
“We thought we were going over to bless those folks, but it was the inverse,” Rod said. “They ended up blessing us. To go over there and see people who take baths in the same water cows defecate in and drink that same water and then to have joy. All they want from you is a hug and a bible. That’s enlightening.”
Rod remembers Jordan displaying hesitancy initially about the trip. He was worried he’d lose weight and miss out on time to train and attend football camps.
But his attitude changed when he reached Ghana. There he met Catherine and Vida, two teenage orphans he connected with and continued to write letters to after the trip. He wears two rope necklaces the Madison Academy students made for the trip —“I never take them off,” he said— even when he suits up for games.
“It made me appreciate more what I have here,” Jordan said of the entire trip. “Ever since I’ve taken that trip, I’ve made it a point to never complain. It doesn’t matter how hard camp gets, how hard school gets, it doesn’t touch on the things that those people go through and those kids go through at such a young age over there in a third-world country. Life is always good so you have to always act like that.”
Jordan and Justin, separated by 18 months, rarely stayed idle.
The brothers were involved in their school’s honor society. They served as ushers at their church. Jordan taught Sunday school classes. He participated in service projects through Madison Academy, including a day in which students were paired with children with special needs.
“They didn’t get paid for one job they had. They did a lot of volunteer work. It just kept them busy and diversified,” Rod said. “I think that contributes to Jordan’s work ethic. He is used to being busy and not having down time. Some of the stuff they didn’t consider fun. But we told them one day they’d appreciate it. Now it looks like we may be blessed with it paying off.”
His early introduction to the arts has not been lost on Jordan either.
In between practices and games, he also took piano lessons for four years and recalls performing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” at a talent show.
“That’s the one that has always stuck with me,” he said smiling.
But, of course, there were the sports. He played baseball, basketball, football and soccer. Rod had played basketball in high school, and Jordan can remember shooting hoops when he was two. He played on the same 2007 state championship basketball team at Madison Academy as his brother and former Belmont point guard Kerron Johnson.
It wasn’t until sixth grade some of his classmates in physical education encouraged him to try out for football.
“I probably had basketball dreams until my sophomore year of high school,” he said. “I got a letter from Southern Miss and that got me thinking about football. Then I got my first handwritten letter from (former coach Robbie) Caldwell here at Vanderbilt. Once I got that handwritten letter I was like, ‘OK, well, I feel like somebody is really watching me in football. There are people who think I can really do this.’
“Then I started focusing more on football.”
Football came naturally for Jordan. Perhaps it is in his genes.
His distant cousin, Jerry Rice, was a Hall of Famer and owns the NFL records for receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. Brenda’s grandmother and Rice’s grandmother were first cousins. Brenda and Rice were a year apart and attended school together in Mississippi.
“Of course, looking up to guys like my cousin and watching NFL games — every kid wants to play in the NFL,” Jordan said. “But with me I always took it one step at a time.”
Last January, that approach was challenged.
After a record-setting 2012 season his draft stock had risen. Some pundits believed he might go as high as second in the NFL Draft in April. The temptation to leave school early and enter the draft was there.
But Jordan comes from a family steeped in educational values. Rod’s father, Henrene, was the director of a Head Start program in racially segregated McComb, Miss. The small town played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement. Protests and bomb threats were prevalent. The Ku Klux Klan descended on the town. Rod and his twin brother participated in some of the first desegregations of elementary schools in Mississippi.
“It was something we had to endure,” Rod said. “It was something my father and mother thought was necessary for us to get the same advances as other kids.”
Rod, a director of acquisitions management, and Brenda, a systems engineer, both attended Jackson State in Mississippi. Justin, 22, is on track to graduate in May—a week after Jordan—with honors and with his degree in mechanical engineering.
So Brenda and Rod weighed the options with their son—finishing his career with many of the friends he came in with; helping his team continue to build something special; and, of course, at the top of mom’s list was earning that prestigious degree from Vanderbilt.
“Honestly, (education) is the bridge,” Brenda said. “You can do a lot of things without an education. But the world is open to you with an education. You can do so much more with that piece of paper.”
Jordan has cemented his legacy as the best receiver in Vanderbilt history, if not SEC history. But wrapping up classes in December will be just as significant.
Especially for those who raised him.
“To be able to end that Vanderbilt career academically is probably going to be a really good moment, especially for my mom,” Jordan said. “She is real big academically, and she wanted me to come back and finish. So that will be a Christmas present I can give her. I think she will be really happy with that.”