ARLINGTON, Texas — If this were a bedtime story, it would probably begin when the kid was a scrawny high school player. You know, the one who couldn't even break the starting lineup even though his dad was the defensive coordinator.
If it were a screenplay, it might begin at the University of Southern California when the young man was just another pretty face in the crowd. A walk-on linebacker who was still special-teams fodder at the beginning of his senior year.
The problem is this is a true story. And so it must begin here, at the Super Bowl.
Because otherwise, I'm just not sure you would believe Clay Matthews is real.
"I always thought I was going to play in the NFL. I was probably a little naive to think that when the actual percentages of playing in this league are so small," Matthews said. "I just thought it would happen. I put blinders on and took it day by day and year by year."
Today he is the best linebacker in the world. That became official this week when he was given the Butkus Award as the NFL's top linebacker. There are some who believe he was also the defensive player of the year. He finished two votes behind Troy Polamalu for that.
So, yes, Clay Matthews is for real. And so is his story, no matter how far-fetched it might seem.
"I know it sounds cliche, but my success is based on the fact I've had to scratch and claw for everything to get to where I'm at," Matthews said. "Even though I was a first-round pick and I'm a Pro Bowler, I'll never feel like I've arrived. There's always something to accomplish."
If you really want to stretch the imagination, you can go back to 1950 and the original Clay Matthews, who played four years in the NFL as a defensive end with the 49ers. He had two sons, Clay Jr. and Bruce, who each played 19 years in the NFL. Both made multiple Pro Bowl teams, and Bruce, an offensive lineman, was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Which means it had to be a humiliation for Clay III to be a second-string linebacker as a junior at Agoura High School in Southern California a little more than eight years ago. The problem was the kid was just too small. He entered high school at 5-5, 125 pounds. By the time his body filled out, he was a high school senior, and not many college coaches looked beyond the famous name.
He might have had a chance to go to a junior college or a Division II school, but Matthews figured he was destined for something greater. So he walked on at USC, where his father and Uncle Bruce had been major stars. He played well enough on special teams to eventually earn a scholarship, but Matthews was built for the 3-4 defense, and USC didn't line up in the formation all that much.
It wasn't until early in his senior season that the Trojans coaching staff started to figure out what they had in Matthews. He finally cracked the starting lineup and started showing up prominently in game tapes.
"After every season you get a list of kids to look at in preparation for the combine and the draft," said Packers outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene, who was one of the greatest pass rushers in NFL history. "You look at them, study them and see which one of these kids is going to fit into your system. I noticed Clay. I noticed he had a motor. He had athleticism. He was moving; he was hunting.
"I noticed from the film study that he wasn't a starter the first half of his senior year. I thought that was kind of strange. So I did some research, found out he was a walk-on and thought, 'I'm starting to warm up to this kid.' Because walk-ons have a mentality that they always have to prove themselves — scratch and claw and fight for everything. I thought this kid was a diamond in the rough.
"If I took off an edge here and polished a little here, this kid is going to shine."
Greene pushed so hard for Matthews that the Green Bay front office traded a second- and two third-round picks with the Patriots to get back in the first round and select him with the 26th pick in the 2009 draft.
And so, less than a year after he began his senior season at USC on the bench, Matthews was the key acquisition as the Packers revamped their defense from 4-3 to 3-4.
Since then, he's tied for third in the NFL with 23.5 sacks over two seasons and the Packers have begun moving him all over the field as a pass-rushing specialist. His shoulder-length blond hair has made him instantly identifiable on the field, and he has cashed in with a Suave shampoo endorsement and the attention of female fans across the country.
The kid who looked like he wasn't going to have a spot in the family's NFL photo album may now be the first Matthews to win a Super Bowl. Only three families have had three generations of players in the NFL — Bruce's son Kevin is a rookie with the Titans — and none has had three Pro Bowl players.
Yet for all the success, Clay Jr. never reached a Super Bowl, and Bruce lost in his only Super Bowl appearance, with the Titans.
"The Super Bowl has eluded our family for a lot of years now," Clay III said. "It'd be nice to finally get one for the Matthews family."
Check back on Sunday.
Perhaps that's where the story should start.