Eagles' Matthews: 'My best-kept secret'

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Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews (81) runs for a touchdown after catching a pass in the first quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. (Tim Heitman/USA Today)

FRED BARNETT, Roy Green and Charles Barkley turned around Jordan Matthews' season without ever speaking to him.

They left that to someone better qualified.

Barkley played for the Sixers during Barnett's time as an Eagle (1990-95). Barkley ran into Jackie Barnett, Fred's ex-wife, in August. She told Sir Charles about her new focus as an Elite Athlete Coach; that she intended to train athletes' minds and bodies through a hybrid approach that fuses yoga practices and mental coaching. She called herself an Elite Athlete Coach.

Fast-forward a few weeks. It was two games into the Eagles' season when, at a golf course, Barkley saw Green, another former Eagles receiver . . . and, coincidentally, Matthews' receivers coach at EXOS (formerly Athletes' Performance Institute) in Phoenix, where last winter Matthews prepared for the NFL draft combine. Barkley told Green about Jackie Barnett's new gig.

Green recalled how Jackie had helped him and Fred extend their careers with aggressive stretching and mental coaching. Green immediately sent a text message to Matthews, who had just three catches for 54 yards, telling Matthews to call Jackie.

Forty-eight hours later, after a midweek Eagles practice, Jackie Barnett and Matthews were meditating on the floor in Matthews' apartment on Delaware Avenue, practicing Thai massage and Ashtanga yoga; and, yes, even bending into balletic pliés.

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Three days later, against Washington, Matthews caught eight passes for 59 yards and two touchdowns.

"There's definitely a correlation," Matthews said Thursday, after catching his seventh touchdown pass of the season, at Dallas. "What she does is proven. It works with other athletes. She started working with me at the right time, and my game's gotten better since then."

A lot better.

Matthews has 51 catches for 632 yards and those seven TDs since Miss Jackie entered his life. He carries a composition book to record his progress and his thoughts as he continues working with her. Some excerpts:

"After my training, I began to visualize myself within the game . . . This allowed me to put the game in the right perspective and take the pressure off me . . .

"By the time the sessions end I am free of all anxiety in my heart because I've already played the game in my mind. There's no more pressure and I can simply play."

That Matthews has excelled is not unexpected; a 6-3, 212-pound slot receiver who broke records at Vanderbilt, the Eagles were thrilled he went undrafted until they took him in the second round.

That he is an innovative free thinker is not unexpected, either. His cousin, NFL legend Jerry Rice, practiced unorthodox training methods during his career. After Matthews was drafted he promised that, like his forebear, he would work without pause.

"He's exactly like Jerry in that respect," said Green, who says Matthews was his most dedicated pupil at EXOS. "I had to run this guy off most days."

Famously, the day after he was drafted Matthews pledged to "outstretch" everyone.

As it turns out, he is doing just that.

 

Stretching is just a part of Miss Jackie's package.

Their weekly session begins with Matthews going through the steps to reach in Savasana, or Corpse Pose. He winds up lying on his back . . . but, in the process, he broadens his back ribs, spreads his collarbones, softens his tongue and releases his brain.

"I might be strange to other guys, but I buy in. Sometimes when we're sitting there, we meditate. Close our eyes. She'll take me through the whole game," Matthews said.

Their initial sessions focused on increasing Matthews' confidence and easing the pressure felt by a typical rookie starter.

As he lay corpse-like, Jackie suggested:

"The grass is green. The lines are white. The ball is brown. Look up. It's just you and the quarterback. Can you see him? Can you feel him?

"Your arms are relaxed. Your body is relaxed. The only people on the field are you and the quarterback. You run a 15-yard slant. You see the ball. You hear the ball. You feel the ball."

And, presumably, you catch the ball . . . without giving a thought about the human missiles who seek to separate you from the ball, and your head from your torso.

"We wipe away the fear these guys feel," Jackie said.

It becomes more complicated when a player is hurt. Jackie knows all about that, having helped Fred Barnett and Roy Green extend their careers.

"She put me in a great frame of mind," Green said. "I had 2 great years in Philadelphia [1991-92], and I can attribute a lot of that to working with Jackie."

Young players get hurt, too, and they feel vulnerable. For instance, Matthews had a slight knee injury last week as the team prepared for the Thanksgiving trip to Dallas.

In their session, Jackie assured Matthews that he would be safe:

"You know that your body has the ability to anesthetize itself . . . You know your body has an invisible shield . . . "

Seriously?

"Some guys might think that's weird, but it really calms me down and makes me realize it isn't as big as everybody else wants to make it," Matthews said. "It's just a little kids' game we've been playing for years."

Seriously.

Against the Cowboys, Matthews had four catches for 51 yards and, of course, that touchdown. It was a crossing pattern at full speed caught among four defenders. It was the sort of pass that, before, he might have dropped.

"I'd say the biggest area is just taking the game and making it smaller in my head so I'm able to play with less pressure," Matthews said. "It's really paid dividends."

They knew it would, as long as Matthews could focus.

"He'd been chewed out by his coaches. He was dropping balls. I knew he had a little bit of a habit of doing that at Vanderbilt. It's a mind-body integration," Jackie said. "These kids don't have Cliff's Notes; the shorthand, the ability to get to that level of having 10,000 repetitions, or 2 decades, that it takes for something to become second nature."

Also, after the Eagles' second game a window was opening, Green said.

"I knew Jeremy Maclin had exploded in their first couple of games, and the other teams would be keying on Maclin," Green said. "Jordan would have to be ready to pick up the slack."

Matthews did the work.

Miss Jackie got him ready.

 

As Matthews noted, athletes from all sports have used ballet, martial arts and sports psychology for decades.

Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, who visit the Eagles on Sunday, won the last Super Bowl and credited some of their success to their sports shrink and the mandatory team yoga sessions. It was a very West Coast acknowledgment of spirituality's role in sports performance.

"Pete Carroll has embraced this as a philosophy," Jackie Barnett said. "There certainly is another element to this; the mind, the body and the will."

Before you start snorting about magic crystals and transcendentalism, understand that Jackie Barnett isn't some touchy-feely quack. Now 48, she studied ballet for 17 years into her mid-20s, has practiced several yoga disciplines for almost 3 decades, and has a master's degree in therapy.

She also understands that, as open-minded and eager as Matthews is, he might not digest the fundamental theses of yoga. So, she tweaks the terminology.

"Instead of calling it Downward Dog, I'll say, 'Get into the Heisman,' " she said. "For us, it's not Virasana, it's The Thinker, and spinal twists are Rear-View Mirror."

Spinal twists in particular allow Matthews to make himself a more visible target as he crosses in front of the quarterbacks, she explained. She uses ballet moves like the plié and the grand jeté to strengthen his legs and help him understand how to more effectively jump, hang in the air and land lightly. She will have Matthews assume football poses, then push or pull him. She will fix him in other positions and then stretch his arms or legs, a healing practice called Thai massage, or Thai yoga.

"I would perform stretches that not only increased my flexibility but also placed me in positions and poses that I could potentially be in during the game," Matthews wrote in his composition book. "My flexibility and balance have both improved."

Matthews, who had never done yoga before September, does nothing halfway. When Miss Jackie had him running patterns and catching tennis balls one-handed, Matthews asked his Eagles coaches to integrate that drill into his workouts.

Jackie Barnett seems just as committed.

Divorced from Fred for 5 years, they remain close - he lives in Center City, she in the western suburbs - as they raise 14-year-old twin daughters Hailey, a rower and runner, and Myla, who plays lacrosse.

If you're near Bala Cynwyd, don't be surprised to see Myla running across an empty field carrying a big, heavy branch like some prehistoric lacrosse stick. And you might have to wait to play tennis, too; Jackie often rents a court and a ball machine and fires balls at Myla, who catches them with her stick.

Jackie said she wants to help players like Matthews enhance and extend his career, but she hopes to build a business from her work with him, too (peakperformancemethod@gmail.com).

Not every player will be comfortable with her new-age ideas. Matthews lives with linebacker Marcus Smith, the Eagles' first-round pick, who has respectfully declined her offers to help.

As her business grows, Matthews and Green will serve as prime endorsers.

"After working with Jackie, I realized that when you're in your 12th season, you don't still have to run a 4.2-second 40-yard dash to be productive," said Green, who has worked with Pro Bowl receivers such as Julio Jones, A.J. Green and Demaryius Thomas as well as Odell Beckham, the Giants' rookie playmaker.

"From now on, I'm going to suggest to all my guys that they work with Jackie," Green said. "Imagine what she could do for them if I get them started now?"

That's easy to imagine. Just look at Matthews - who, frankly, is a little selfish about his newfound advantage.

"It's kind of my best-kept secret," Matthews said.

Not anymore.

 


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

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