Me and the Don: reflections on the great Don Matthews

Don Matthews knocked on my Hamilton hotel door on the morning of the 1996 Grey Cup game. The team he was coaching, the Toronto Argonauts, would win 43-37 over the Edmonton Eskimos. Afterwards, Don would have his usual, edgy banter with the assembled media, which included me, a writer for the Regina Leader-Post.

One year earlier he had led the short-lived Baltimore Stallions to a Grey Cup victory. On this morning, he had an armful of memorabilia — Baltimore hats, sweatshirts and T-shirts for my son, Austin.

“I signed a few of them,’’ said Don, standing in the hallway while handing over the collection. “Maybe they’ll be valuable. Some of them are too big for him, but maybe he can wear them for pyjamas.’’

Austin was nearly seven at the time; he slept in one oversized, signed T-shirt until it literally fell apart. Their friendship flourished from 1991-93 when Don was with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, one of six CFL teams he served as head coach during a 22-year career that included five Grey Cup victories (and five more as an assistant coach). He arrived as promised, a football nomad with a couple of suitcases, an unabashed cockiness, a rapier-like wit, street-smarts and the ability to challenge everyone around him. He also had an affectionate side, known to very few.

His nickname then was “Bucky,” likely for the disarming, bucktoothed smile he flashed. Our immediate instinct at the Leader-Post was to dub him “The Don” for his commanding presence on the sidelines, while riding his Harley-Davidson, during press conferences and in the speaking engagements he accepted province-wide to raise funds for a local charity known as “Chili for Children.” During his first offseason in Saskatchewan he raised $10,000, which was Chili for Children’s entire annual food budget.

And in the football world, oh boy, did he challenge us! In the process, I learned about football, about competition and the process of assembling a team. I’m not afraid to say my 2006 induction into the media wing of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame was because of the lessons he taught me. I’m also proud to say I share Hall of Fame space with Matthews, a 2011 inductee who died Wednesday at the age of 77.

Don had been diagnosed with cancer. When I called him months ago, he said there were other issues. Several friends, including current Hamilton Tiger-Cats general manager Eric Tillman, informed me this week Don was in his waning days. I sent Don and his family a text, recalling how he once stuck Austin in a garbage can during a Riders practice and thanking him for the affection he showed our family. And I immediately recalled some of his sayings:

“Football isn’t a democracy; it’s a dictatorship, and I’m the head dick!”

“If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.”

“Shit flows downhill, so it’s best to be on top.”

“This is a competitive situation.”

During a practice early in his Saskatchewan stint, Matthews summoned Hall of Fame receiver Don Narcisse to meet with another receiver, B.K. Williams. Looking at them both, Matthews said, “Depending on this week’s practices, only one of you will be playing in our next game. This is a competitive situation.”

Narcisse, in the middle of a record-setting streak for CFL games with a reception, couldn’t believe what he was hearing. What did he do?

“I went out and practised as hard as I could, and I did that every practice afterwards,’’ Narcisse said. “And I played the next game.”

As Matthews moved past Saskatchewan and we no longer sparred regularly with each other, we became pretty good friends. Although not good enough that I could tease him about Saskatchewan being the only place he didn’t win more than he lost, where he would get recognized while shopping for groceries in the small city of Regina and quizzed by fellow shoppers about his Rider strategies. Saskatchewan was too small for such a personality, so he left after 2 1/2 seasons to join the expansion franchise in Baltimore.

He told me once that answering questions about losses “embarrassed” him. Unlike other coaches, he never lied to me and explained it this way:

“If I can’t or don’t want to answer your question, I won’t answer it.”

Anyway, we would visit at Grey Cups and later share phone calls, laughing in particular about the time Don wedged himself between me and Herb Zurkowsky during a Grey Cup breakfast. Herb, a Hall of Fame writer with the Montreal Gazette, was one of Don’s finest combatants, so his insistence on sitting there flummoxed Zurkowsky.

There were so many famous battles with the media, who had to be well-prepared whenever they quizzed him. Matt Sekeres, a superb newspaper reporter and radio talk-show host, recalled one particularly memorable and cantankerous presser, after Matthews’ team had been caught and punished for filming Ottawa’s coaches in an effort to translate their signals; the head coach berated or answered every question. Upon leaving, he paused at the door and looked back at the assembled reporters.

“Don’t I make things exciting?” Matthews said, rhetorically. “You’re going to miss me when I’m gone.’’

Don, we do.

Darrell Davis has reported on the Riders for more than 20 years and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame media wing in 2006.