Voices: Sam Jones

Clint Mathis: From MLS to national team stardom, understanding the "free spirit" | J. Sam Jones

Clint Mathis - national team - celebration

You just moved to Hannover 96. It could have been Bayern Munich, but it’s Hannover 96. That’s alright though. You’re in the Bundesliga. Not a whole lot of Americans get to the Bundesliga. No one from Conyers, Georgia gets to the Bundesliga. What’s not alright is sitting on the bench. It’s late in another game and you’re still sitting on the bench. 
They told you that you’d play today. You injured your ankle that summer with the US men's national team. You took a cross and hit it off the end of your toe and your ankle tweaked. They wanted you to come to Germany to heal, but your doctors were in the US. You stayed. You healed. You went to Germany and injured the same ankle running down a hill. A different injury, but they didn’t see it that way. They said, “We told you. You should have rehabbed here.”
So you’ve been sitting, but today you’re supposed to play. They’ve told you that the manager’s job is in danger. They need you today. You keep warming up. They keep saying “10 more minutes.” The game is tied at zero. It’s getting late. You’re getting angry. By the time you’re finally called over to check into the game, you’re seething. Furious. Righteous anger strong enough to keep you from feeling your feet hit the ground as you bulldoze your way toward the goal.
A cross comes in. You take it at the top of the box and volley it into the net. You sprint toward your manager. You stop just short, you stare and you tap your wrist. The message is clear: 
About damn time. 

Twenty years ago, Clint Mathis scored five, yes five, goals in a 6-4 win for the MetroStars. That’s still an MLS record. 

For some people, that’s a welcome reminder of one of the most electric and eccentric forwards in league history. For others, it’s a reminder of missed opportunities. 

Mathis made his way from Conyers to the University of South Carolina to a 12-year professional career that included stints in three different countries, 46 caps for the USMNT and one famous mohawk to go along with a famous World Cup goal. Along the way, a narrative appeared, shifted, latched onto him and eventually collapsed in on itself.

“He’s a redneck” became “He’s a party boy” became “He’s going to be star” became “He can’t stay healthy” became “He’s a bust because he’s a redneck who partied too much and let the hype get to him even though he couldn’t stay healthy.” 

To be a bust in the first place, you need expectations. Not many people earn expectations. The problem is, you don’t get to set them. 

You’ve just arrived for your first stint in LA. You’ve been drafted by the Galaxy and your new teammates have instantly noticed a tenor voice and a southern accent. Paul Caligiuri gives you a nickname. “Cletus” is born. You laugh and you embrace it. Everyone calls you Cletus now. To everyone else, you’re a redneck, a good ole’ boy from Georgia. It becomes a part of your identity to the point where “Cletus” gets tattooed on your back, right above Jesus on the cross.
In the lead up to the World Cup in 2002, your mom tells the Atlanta Constitution, “He doesn’t even know what a redneck is, but he likes to play it for all it’s worth.” 

The first days at a new job can be rough enough without getting a nickname thrown at you. Especially one like “Cletus.” There aren’t too many people from Georgia who would take kindly to the name and it’s not like Conyers is in the sticks, either. Head 20 miles up I-20 and you’re in Atlanta. But Mathis couldn’t have been happier to play along. He just wanted everyone to enjoy themselves. 

“I'm definitely not what we would call a redneck in that regard. I don't have a pickup truck or anything or all of those stereotypes that you would have,” Mathis said. “I don't have five cars parked in my front lawn and things of that sort. But, you know, if they were going to go with that, I was going to just play the part and go that route.” 

The Galaxy drafted Mathis sixth overall in the 1998 MLS College Draft. He’d just completed a stellar career at South Carolina where he’d been an All-American twice. It’s also where he tore his ACL the first time. He tore it early in college and bounced back. He’d earned his way to the expectations that come with being a high draft pick in MLS's early days. Cletus helped him handle those.

“That was just me,” he said. “Something personally that I did to be able to deal with that kind of pressure and make it easier and a laugh-it-off kind of thing. And, you know, I tried to help my teammates with it because, if you're sitting there laughing or whatever, you're not worried about the world's problems. And if you're not worried about the world's problems, you can just focus on what you need to go out and do.”

The southern upbringing earned him an unshakeable nickname, but it also created an excellent striker, even if Conyers wasn’t exactly a soccer utopia in the ‘80s and ‘90s. That’s one of the reasons the sport drew Mathis in. A rebellious personality found a companion in a sport that few others played. 

It made him a player who tried things. He eventually played club soccer alongside more competitive players like future South Carolina and USMNT teammate Josh Wolff, but for whatever technical ability he learned there, it’s not what made Mathis fun to watch. Most of the time, when he played growing up, he played in the street. 

“It sounds funny, but I used to play in the streets every single day. I remember having to move the shoes or whatever we had as goals out of the street, and you'd get kids in the neighborhood and get out there and play,” Mathis said. “I think that not having that structure allowed me to do a bunch of different things.”

You left LA. You got picked up by New York. You felt pretty appreciative of that, so you wore a shirt underneath your jersey. It said “I Love New York”, but you know, with a heart instead of the word love. When you scored, you lifted your jersey up so the fans could get the message. And you started scoring a lot. The New York Post went ahead and called you the “Nation’s Top Soccer Player Ever.” You’d also been going out. A lot. 
That combination and a spot on the 2002 World Cup roster earned you a cover story for Sports Illustrated. “Goal Digger Party Animal Clint Mathis Is Just What The U.S. Needs To Take On The World: A Gifted Scorer Unafraid To Impose His Will On the Game” was a heckuva title. “For Clint Mathis, the next party is never far away” was a heckuva lede.
You scored in a qualifier against Honduras and assisted your longtime buddy Josh Wolff’s winner against Costa Rica. Expectations were as high as they’d ever been. You got to South Korea and figured you might as well get a new haircut. Your teammate, Pablo Mastroeni, did the honors. You scored a few nights later against South Korea, aided by the aerodynamics of a brand new mohawk.

Mathis’s parents divorced when he was young. Along with Clint, his mom took care of two brothers, eight and 10 years his senior, and a sister, five years older. Until they left, he had to fight for attention.

“I was striving for attention with my upbringing of having my older siblings around and not being around a dad or having a father figure,” Mathis said. “Then at a young age they were all out of the house. It was just me and my mother. I think that having the attention and being a performer type might've kind of grown and morphed from that.”

The best performers know how to work an audience. With whatever audience he had in the early days of MLS, Mathis did his best to entertain. After the World Cup, he showed up on The Daily Show and did what he could to save an interview that even Jon Stewart, a former collegiate soccer player at William & Mary, looked unprepared for. The audience didn’t quite know what to make of a soccer player. But at the very end, he reminded Stewart of an unexplained college nickname that broke Stewart and had Mathis cackling until the screen faded to black. But not before Stewart cursed Mathis for bringing it up. It was excellent TV.  

Mathis understood his place as an ambassador for the game. And he knew the best way for people to learn his name and the name of his teammates involved doing what he could to put on a show. Fortunately, that came naturally. A combination of showmanship, self-preservation and a simple desire to have fun.

“I tried to bring excitement for the fans out on the field. I wanted to enjoy myself no matter what, and I thought that that was the most important thing," he said. "I think that that helped me continue to get better as a player because I didn't worry as much about all the hoopla and everything else that was going on around me. I just wanted to enjoy myself and have fun and play the game that I love. I think it just ended up being entertaining.”

You’re at your buddy Josh’s wedding. You’ve been allowed to be in the wedding before you head to a World Cup qualifier against Barbados. You met Josh playing club soccer near Atlanta as teenagers for the South Metro Lightning. His mom and your mom grew close. And now you’re in his wedding party. You smile. The crowd snickers mid-ceremony as they realize you’re wearing fake buck teeth. Cletus comes to life. 

Mathis’ teammates seemed to love him. Austin FC manager and former teammate Josh Wolff has known him longer than most. There’s no big secret to his popularity — he just treats people well.

“I've known him since I was 13 or 14 years old. He's a sweet, kind person at the purest level,” Wolff said. “He's deep down the sweetest person and only wants the best for people and only sees the good intentions of most.”

It helps of course if you can take over a game. 

“If you watched him play, he knew what he was capable of doing. To me, still to this day, he's from an offensive standpoint one of the best players I was ever around,” Wolff said. “His ability to score goals in so many different ways was really, really unique.”

But his managers didn’t always see it that way. The Hannover incident aside, snide remarks were thrown around about his Commitment To The Game. The narrative became so overwhelming at times that it became comical. 

“I’m worried about his work ethic,” then-USMNT manager Bruce Arena told Sports Illustrated ahead of the 2002 World Cup. “He doesn't have a great work ethic. It took him nearly seven months to heal from ACL surgery. Other players have done it in nine weeks.”

With apologies to Arena, it might have been a bit unfair to ask for an ACL recovery time of nine weeks. Either way, Arena eventually left him out of World Cup games due to questions about his work ethic. Mathis responded with a new haircut and a goal against South Korea. 

“I was a scapegoat for a lot of things, which is OK,” Mathis said. “I've always said I'm glad that I was the scapegoat versus some of the other people that I was with as far as some of my teammates go. I did have that attitude and that free spirit kinda, have-fun-with-it kind of thing. So I had pretty much pretty set in my head that I could deal with anything.”

You got hurt in LA. You wanted to go out with teammates, though. You did what you had to do to get to a club with them. They looked up at one point and wondered where you were and then they saw you. On the dance floor. Dancing. Crutches and all. 

Mathis … liked to have fun.

“Was that always the best decision? Probably not,” he said. “But at the same time, I do have a life to live and I know that soccer's going to be just a small portion of my life if you look at it in the realm of things. So am I allowed to have fun? Yeah, I'm allowed to have fun. I wasn't hurting anyone. I was probably bringing more people together than what would normally happen. It wasn't like I had a drug problem. It wasn't like I was stealing. I wasn’t getting in trouble with the law or anything like that.” 

Stories like that SI feature weren’t inaccurate, but they did feed the narrative. Mathis has never been one to bother reading anything written about him, but when it comes to understanding his legacy as a player, the partying will always be a part of the discussion. However, he makes a good point about that.

“You can write what you want, and that's fine,” he said. “But you know, half the people that were writing that were wanting to be right next to me when I was doing this.”

You could have been at Bayern in 2002, but MLS blocked the move. You had signed a contract and everything, but the league blocked the move. You were bitter about it for years. You missed out on a huge opportunity and a huge amount of money. Something like $2.8 million. Instead you had to wait for Hannover. You only made the 18 one more time after you tapped your wrist. You spent the last five years of your career as a journeyman. You wonder what would have happened if you had gotten that chance. 

You don’t get to define your own legacy. And for many people, their understanding of Mathis will always center around the what-ifs. But man, how many people would kill for a career like his? To have traveled, partied, messed with Jon Stewart and all the other things he earned — all while making the choices he wanted to make. 

“I think what people get bummed out about is the fact that they felt like he could achieve more, but Clint, he was the driver of his own world,” Wolff said. “And I think that's what you saw. He was always going to have a free spirit. He was always going to speak his mind really. There were always questions if he put as much into the game as he could have, or should have to maximize his potential. It doesn't matter. It was his decision and he lived his life the way he did and accomplished some really, really unbelievable things.” 

There are so many players that get labeled as “busts” when they never set out to be anything more than themselves. A lot of us cling to that notion as a definition of success. If that’s disappointment to you, fine. Mathis would disagree, though.

“I don't think it was a disappointment. There's a reason you're talking to me, right?” 

If you had gone to Bayern, you wouldn’t have met your wife. You met her at Hannover and now you have four kids. You believe that God laid out a plan for you. 
You work in software sales now. Every now and then you get recognized. “Like Clint Mathis the soccer player?” 
Every now and then you run into someone from the soccer world you don’t expect. You found out recently that Julie Foudy lives down the street. 
Every now and then you have people tell you that you should get more recognition or you should be in the American Soccer Hall of Fame. This year was your last year of eligibility on the player ballot after all. But you don’t mind either way. It means more to hear the people you played with and the people who watched you say you deserve it than actually getting in. You’re going to live your life the same either way. 
But for the people who know you and the people that watched you succeed and struggle, they’d probably see you get in and start tapping their wrists. 
About damn time.