NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Rishard Matthews puts on an NFL uniform on Sundays. Over the years, he's signed countless autographs, taken pictures with fans, and has been cheered by crowds for making big catches and scoring touchdowns. Like so many of his NFL brothers, the Titans receiver worked hard – and sacrificed plenty – to fulfill his lifelong dream.
Matthews, however, believes the true heroes are in the military. And on Memorial Day, he'll have his older brother on his mind, like he does every day. It's been just over seven months since Christopher Ruiz was killed while serving as a retired Marine working as a private defense contractor in Afghanistan.
"In my eyes, they make so many movies on people who are heroes,'' said Matthews, who signed with the Titans in March after playing his first four seasons with the Miami Dolphins, "and there are people out there fighting for our freedom. There's a lot of people who are gone and didn't come back, and unfortunately (Christopher) is one of them. He is our family's hero."
Christopher Ruiz was Matthews' half-brother, but the two were close. They had been family since Matthews was 5-years-old, when Christopher's mom married Rishard's dad, who served 21 years in the Marines himself.
Ruiz served in the Marines for 10 years, and served overseas in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was in Afghanistan last October working as a civilian contractor, training locals to fight for their country, when he was killed. He was supposed to come home from Afghanistan to his wife and three young children just three weeks after the accident. Ruiz was one of six U.S. Airmen and five other civilian contractors killed in the crash of an Air Force C-130 as it tried to put down at the Jalalabad Airfield on Oct. 2.
"They answered their nation's call and died in service to their country,'' Brig. Gen. Dave Julazadeh said in a news release following the accident. "There are no words that truly describe the depth of sorrow and pain we feel."
Matthews, 26, said the accident changed his perspective on a lot of things.
New Titans WR Rishard Matthews arrives at Saint Thomas Sports Park to sign his contract. (Photos: Gary Glenn)
"Don't take anything for granted,'' Matthews said. "I have little cousins growing up, and I try and stress that in general. Don't take anything for granted. (Christopher) was there so much, during Iraq and other stuff. When he left, you just thought he was always coming back. I grew up military so I have known people to go and come back. My whole family, we all thought he would be coming back. And then you get that call that he's not coming back."
On the day he signed his contract with the Titans in March, Matthews was wearing a bracelet with the words "Forever by my side.' It has his brother's name on it, along with the Marines logo. He wears it every day.
He has shirts with the word "Hero" on them, along with his brother's face. Prior to a game in Miami last season, his teammates wore the shirt in warm-ups, on a Sunday when Ruiz was honored by the team.
On Instagram, Matthews has posted two tributes to his brother on special dates:
TitansOnline.com looks at the NFL career of WR Rishard Matthews. (AP Photos)
"YOU BEING GONE I STILL DONT BELIEVE. I WILL FOREVER SALUTE YOU. THIS IS THE LAND OF THE FREE BECAUSE OF THE BRAVE. HAPPY BIRTHDAY BIG BROTHER."
"I Will Always Love You. You Are My Big Brother & Forever My Hero #ForeverRemembered #RipChristopherRuiz #ARealAmericanHero"
Matthews sent out this message via Twitter on Sunday: I hope people truly understand the meaning of Memorial Day. This is far more than just a weekend to party. Not even remotely close.
He added another: Truly the LAND of the FREE BECAUSE OF THE BRAVE!!
"I think about him a lot, every day,'' Matthews said. "It is an unfortunate situation. He left behind three beautiful kids, and I try and be in their life as much as I can really, and help out my sister-in-law."
As he lives his own life, Matthews said he plans to honor his brother every step of the way.
Matthews has been a success story himself. A seventh-round pick by the Dolphins out of Nevada, Matthews developed into a player many teams were interested in during free agency after catching 43 passes for 662 yards and four touchdowns last season. The Titans signed him, and he's expected to play a big role this fall.
Moving forward, Matthews wants to deliver for the Titans.
He'll have his brother on his mind.
"He was always there for me for motivation, and support,'' Matthews said. "We grew up in a military family. He was always on the military side, I was always on the sports side. I always said I wanted to play sport, and he always wanted to go in the military, that was his passion."
"It's still hard for me to believe he's not coming back. It was just a real eye-opener on life and how precious life is. You really can't take anything for granted."