AUBURN, Ala. — It was a gesture that went mostly unnoticed.
Tray Matthews answered one final question in a room of local Auburn media and walked out of the auditorium. Like most seniors, he visited with Auburn’s sports information staff outside the door for a minute and started on his way.
That’s when Matthews got in the elevator heading to a different part of the Auburn Athletics Complex and started talking with a custodian. As he went to hold the door open for the older gentleman, Matthews realized the man was loading giant black trash bags onto the elevator.
Without being asked, Matthews extended a helping hand.
The interaction was brief, but telling. Matthews wasn’t acting. The few people in the vicinity weren’t paying attention. Matthews was just being kind — he was going about things the right way.
That’s not exactly how he began his college football career, though. After spending a tumultuous freshman year at the University of Georgia, Mark Richt dismissed the Newnan, Ga., native from his program. The coach’s words, usually concise and complimentary, were harsh.
“We are trying to make room for guys who want to do things right,” Richt said in a June 2014 statement.
The best version of Matthews was always there, of course. Yet several public and private challenges within a four-year period transformed him from boy to man, and eventually to CEO.
When Auburn takes the field in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday, the Tigers will have a chance to knock off No. 1 Georgia, largely because of Matthews’ defensive unit. It’s his last chance to be on the winning side in the rivalry.
Defeat will bring heartache and frustration while victory will propel Gus Malzahn’s team one step closer to the College Football Playoff. Regardless of the outcome, Matthews will be where he’s supposed to be with his future as bright as ever.
“Tray is the perfect example of what a student-athlete is,” Daryle Smith, executive director of Newnan/Coweta Boys & Girls Club said. “I think Tray’s challenges have molded him from a piece of coal to a diamond. He had to go through the pressures.”
A mischievous middle schooler
All these years later Carlos and Sonya Matthews giggle when they share stories about their son.
Seventh grade Tray Matthews was what one might expect. He was always getting reprimanded for something, however minor. Talking in class was a repeated offense.
Before Chase Puckett was the principal of Newnan High School he was an administrator at Matthews’ middle school. He remembers the chatty, “obnoxious” young teenager well.
“He would try to use all the mischevious charm, which that wasn’t nearly as effective with his teachers as he would have liked,” Puckett laughs. “He was a very bright young man and often times, especially in the early grades in middle school, if he ran out of things to occupy his time, he was going to be quite entertaining.”
It didn’t take much prodding for Matthews to be polite and respectful.
“He learned that at an early age, you could tell,” Puckett said.
And while Matthews had no problem being a class clown or center of attention, he also showed he wasn’t afraid to be a leader.
“Tray is not happy unless everybody around him is happy and having a good time,” Carlos said. “That’s just the type of person he is.”
It’s not surprising then, that in elementary school Matthews made all the kids at his cafeteria table move down so he could add another chair for a new student. As Tray grew up, more and more of those stories were shared with his parents.
Eventually Tray found other ways to stay busy, and football became a priority. Puckett frequently reminded Matthews that football was what he did, but he was “more than just a football player.”
That became a difficult message to convey, however, as Matthews’ social media following grew.
“That’s a lot for anyone to figure out their role in that,” Puckett said. “And being under the spotlight, every little thing he did was magnified.”
‘One bad chapter didn’t make for a bad book’
In many ways, Matthews had been a typical high school student. Every night when he got home from school he had to sit at the kitchen table and finish his homework. He had a curfew.
Still, he was special. Matthews committed to Georgia, graduated early and enrolled in Athens younger than most. He played as a freshman. That wasn’t easy.
When the Bulldogs played Auburn in 2013, Matthews totaled 10 solo tackles. He was also, ironically and unforgettably, involved in the final play of Auburn’s 43-38 victory known as The Prayer in Jordan-Hare. There’s a picture of the play inside Malzahn’s home. Matthews is the Georgia player sprawled on the ground as receiver Ricardo Louis scores the game-winning touchdown.
In some ways the attention brought more recognition and responsibility. It also meant freedom and, therefore, more chances to get in trouble.
“If you take any 18-year-old that hasn’t graduated from high school and put him on a college campus around some grown men that are athletes, you know, that type of temptation can pull anybody,” Smith said.
In March 2014, Matthews and three other Georgia players were arrested by UGA police and charged with “misdemeanor theft by deception for allegedly double-dipping school-issued-financial-aid checks by cashing them twice.”
Visiting Matthews at home during Tray’s recruitment, Richt promised he’d make the talented prospect a better man. The coach stayed true to his word.
“He did exactly what he said he would do,” Carlos said. “Tray didn’t understand it until later, but Coach Richt made him a better man. If Tray had stayed at the University of Georgia it would have been terrible.”
After leaving Athens, Tray returned to Newnan to complete his community service at the Boys & Girls Club. Matthews showed Smith a willingness to learn and a refusal to make the same mistake twice.
The two had conversations about how “one bad chapter didn’t make for a bad book.”
“He wasn’t going to Auburn to prove people wrong,” Smith said. “He was just going to Auburn to get a second chance and make the best of it.”
It came as a shock when Smith told Matthews that he “wasn’t supposed to be a Bulldog, anyway.” The rising sophomore looked at Smith puzzled. Of course he belonged. Alec Ogletree had attended Newnan High School and gone to Georgia. Matthews was following other greats to greatness. But Smith pointed out there was a different way to do things.
“I said Bulldogs can’t fly, eagles can,” Smith said. “You were meant to fly.”
‘The lowest point in my life’
It’s hard for even the mightiest eagle to soar with broken wings.
It wasn’t Georgia’s loss to Auburn in front of nearly 90,000 fans or Matthews dismissal that nearly broke him, surprisingly. To that point, regardless of what people said or wrote about him, Matthews could retreat to his room and shut out the world. Until suddenly he couldn’t.
During the 2015 season, Matthews suffered two shoulder injuries and kept playing through it. After the season was finished, he had consecutive surgeries. Suddenly, Matthews was navigating a mental, emotional and physical challenge like he’d never faced before.
Matthews was confident he’d do well wherever he landed when he left Athens. But making it past this?
“I think the most difficult part and even the most difficult part for me was the two surgeries because Tray, he really had a mental breakdown at that point,” Carlos said. “To have two surgeries back to back, being a 21-year-old and not being able to do anything for himself — he couldn’t even lift his arms.”
Tray lost so much weight it brought tears to his father’s eyes. The duo had worked out together for years. Carlos had seen his son mature and put countless hours into preparing himself for college.
It was just as difficult for Tray’s mother, who took off of work and stayed with her son for about a month. Every day when he would leave to go to class, Sonya would break down. Tray never saw that part.
During that time, the Matthews family stayed in prayer.
Tray didn’t realize how much his physical appearance was affecting his parents, but he agrees that was the most miserable point.
He wasn’t allowed to sleep in his bed because of the risk of reinjuring his shoulders. Instead, Matthews was stuck in a chair.
“I would just sit there and cry. You know, I don’t wan’t to say every day, but shoot, I wanted to give up a lot,” Matthews said. “Yeah, that was the lowest point in my whole life actually. It was scary, man. I got real skinny, I lost like 30 pounds. I looked different. It was the most terrible moment of my life.”
Taking over the Plains
Those closest to Tray believe he should have a book written about him and are picking out who might play them in a movie. Smith told Tray his character must be played by Michael B. Jordan while Tray sees Will Smith in the starring role.
Like most protagonists, Matthews reached his highest high after he’d fallen into an unimaginable hole.
In 2016, Matthews returned to the field with yet another defensive coordinator in charge. Kevin Steele and secondary coach Wesley McGriff were there for Tray at the perfect time.
“Covering skills, getting a better grasp on the defense — not only just my position, but I’m learning what the linebackers are doing, the front is doing, where they’re sliding, where the protection is coming from,” Matthews recalled. “I’m looking at the picture, not just my own position. That’s what’s helped me a lot.
“Coach Steele, he definitely makes us get into that playbook. He makes us learn multiple positions. Coach Crime Dog [McGriff] was my coach last year. He told me, ‘Tray, you’re not only a safety. You’re a nickel, you’re a corner, you’re a linebacker. You play everything.’ He opened my eyes up. That led to my success last year.”
He started every game and led all defenders with 76 total tackles. After watching him struggle first-hand, Sonya finally got to see the smile back on her son’s face.
“Just to hear the excitement of how great he felt once he got his shoulders taken care of,” she said. “Just the excitement and the love he has for the game is just unreal. And how he breaks down the film and how he talks about it, it’s him being happy about where he is in life as far as his faith, his success on and off the field, graduating a little early from college as well.”
In a just a few short years, Tray had gone from immature underclassman to a leader in the truest form. Steele dubbed the 6-foot-1, 209-pound safety the CEO of the defense and Tray embraced it.
“I guess it’s the guy that provides great leadership, and I expect the same thing from all the other players around me,” Matthews said while representing Auburn at SEC Media Days earlier this fall. “If I’m doing everything the right way and I’m working hard in the weight room and the class room, I demand excellence from Deshaun Davis, Tre’ Williams, Jason Smith, Stephen Roberts. I demand excellence from every single one of them. I’m the CEO of my own company. I’m the CEO of my friends and my teammates.”
Tray had gone from dispensable at Georgia to indispensable at Auburn. He came to a new place and earned respect that didn’t come easy. Malzahn didn’t just want Tray leading Auburn’s defense, he wanted him to be vocal with the entire program.
“I’m very proud of him,” Malzahn said. “He was a transfer that came over, and he had to earn everybody’s respect — teammates’ respect, coaches’ respect, my respect. And he did that and then some. To have a chance to win championships, you have to have good leaders.”
An Auburn upset over Georgia this weekend would be the perfect ending to Matthews’ career on the Plains. Still, it won’t be his greatest achievement.
He’s already got his bachelor’s degree and this year he’s been working on his masters. Overcoming adversity is the overarching theme.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way than I’ve had it right now,” Matthews said. “God works out in mysterious ways.”
“Every time I talk to Tray I don’t hear him talking about going to the pros,” Smith said. “He’s always talking about helping somebody or doing his family proud — not going to the NFL.”
His football career is far from over. With Georgia and Alabama on the way, the Tigers are looking to hit their stride. Their tried and tested leader has no doubts — so neither does anyone else in the locker room.
“Oh yes, I believe so,” Matthews said. “I believe we’re meshing together and we keep getting better each and every game.”