How Kobe Bryant Inspired Patriots During Unforgettable Offseason Visit

MIAMI — Jordan Matthews remembers that day like it was yesterday.

In late May 2018, during Matthews’ brief stint with the New England Patriots, a special guest visited Gillette Stadium. That in itself wasn’t anything unusual; celebrities often stop by Patriots practice during the spring and summer months. But this particular guest carried a level of gravitas nearly unmatched in the sports world.

It was Kobe Bryant, then two years into his NBA retirement. Bryant addressed the Patriots in the team’s meeting room, preaching, among other things, the importance of life outside the often-insular bubble of professional athletics.

When Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others were tragically killed in a helicopter accident Sunday, Matthews posted the following on Twitter:

Matthews now plays for the San Francisco 49ers, who are preparing to face the Kansas City Chiefs this Sunday in Super Bowl LIV. When asked about Bryant’s visit Monday during Super Bowl Opening Night, the veteran wide receiver spoke at length about the influence the former Los Angeles Lakers star had on him as an athlete and father.

“The impact was crazy,” Matthews said. “When Kobe came, I still remember the fact that he talked about for the first few years — (he played) 20 years — so for the first probably half his career, it was all about him being the best. And you could tell by how he modeled his game after (Michael) Jordan. That was what he was striving for. And he told us that one thing he realized was a lot of his idols — I don’t know if it was Jordan he was speaking of — but he said a lot of the guys he looked up to, he realized they were amazing basketball players, but their home lives weren’t anything to want to be compared to or want to strive for.

“I remember specifically him saying, ‘I got to a point where I said I want to be the best basketball player in the world, and by the time I got home, I wanted to be the best jungle gym in the world,’ because he knew his daughters like to climb on him. This was a guy in, like, his 18th, 19th, 20th year. He’s probably sore when he gets home, but he’s like, ‘I don’t care. I want to make sure my daughters know that I’m present, that I love them and that I want to be there for them.’ And so for me, a new father, that really impacted me, because I had just gone through some adversity, and I realized the fragility of my football career. I’d been cut, I’d been released, I’d been traded — every single thing — so I know this isn’t all there is.

“So for somebody to realize that there’s more out there than basketball in the midst of being the greatest in the game at that time, that shows a high level of awareness, a high level of humility and perspective. So anybody who looks at Kobe and says, ‘Man, that’s somebody that I want to strive to be like,’ I say, ‘Man, go for it, man.’ Because he was trying to do it on and off the court. I loved what he was doing post-career. And what’s crazy was he gave my wife that shoutout, and then my son was born on 8/24, which was Kobe Day. I don’t think anything’s by chance. We got that little slice of a moment with Kobe Bryant, and I think we’ll cherish that forever.”

Matthews always had admired Bryant’s on-court competitiveness, he said, but he gained a new level of appreciation for the NBA legend after hearing his message.

“I’m always big on seeing the humanity of somebody,” Matthews said. “I mean, all these guys are great. I’ve had the opportunity probably playing with guys that are going to be in the Hall of Fame — some that are even starting off their Hall of Fame careers; someone like a Nick Bosa. But I know very well that this isn’t everything. There’s countless guys who have ended their football careers, and now — we don’t even want to talk about where they are in life. And it’s because they probably thought that (football) was everything, and it’s really not. This is a huge spectacle — it’s great — but I always hope that guys realize they’re more than just a football player.

“And the thing about Kobe was you realize that he did. He realized that he had to have impact outside of basketball. And to be able to do that while you’re still playing and while you’re still in the conversation of, ‘Who’s better: you, Jordan, LeBron?’ That shows a high level of humility, perspective, awareness. I can’t say enough about Kobe.”

Several other current and former Patriots referenced Bryant’s talk in tributes posted on social media.

“I met him in 2018 and was blessed to be able to soak up knowledge about his work ethic, how he approached his relationships and everything that made him great,” cornerback Stephon Gilmore wrote on Instagram. “I can’t process the tragedy and I may never. RIP Kobe, Gianna and all who lost their lives in this tragedy.”

Bryant was 41.