By Greg Ostendorf
AUBURN, Ala. – There were 36 seconds left. Auburn was facing a fourth-and-18 from its own 27-yard line trailing by one. Quarterback Nick Marshall dropped back and launched a deep pass into triple coverage. Playing his zone, Georgia safety Tray Matthews was in prime position to intercept the pass and end the game, effectively ending Auburn’s dream season.
The only problem was that Matthews’ teammate Josh Harvey-Clemons was also going for the pick. He deflected the ball away from Matthews and into the hands of Auburn wide receiver Ricardo Louis who took it across the goal line for the game-winning touchdown.
Matthews was left lying on the ground and not fully comprehending what just happened.
“I always think about the great game I was having,” Matthews said. “I had 12 tackles. I was very physical, hitting Tre Mason, Sammie Coates, some of the best guys in the league then. We were winning. We came back. I saw the ball and I was like ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to have a pick.’ I just think about Josh just getting in the way and hitting the ball up.”
The play, which became known as the Prayer at Jordan-Hare, will live in Auburn lore forever. There have been paintings made depicting the play, and it likely would have won an ESPY for Best Play had it not been for a certain field-goal return two weeks later.
But it was a play that has stuck with Matthews for all the wrong reasons.
“The criticism that people brought towards him, and he didn’t even tip the ball – that’s the first thing that comes to my mind when we talk about that,” Matthews’ mother, Sonya Matthews, said.
“For him, it wasn’t difficult. Tray’s the type of person that he moves on. But even to this point now, when he posts something, sometimes you’ll have fans that will go back to that. Me as a mom, I’m like ‘Why can’t we just move on?’ He moved on instantly. That’s just him. But me as a mom, I go into that protection mode. I’m like, ‘Can we just leave that part alone?’”
Now, four years later, Auburn and Georgia are once again meeting at Jordan-Hare Stadium. It’s a top-10 matchup with major implications for the College Football Playoff. The only difference for Tray is that he’s now on the other side of the rivalry. He’ll be suiting up as an Auburn Tiger this Saturday and playing against his former team.
In September, following Auburn’s loss to Clemson, Tray reflected on his college football career, his move from Georgia to Auburn, and he called it “a dream come true.”
“I say it was a dream because I got to go to both of my favorite schools,” he said. “Once I got to [Auburn], everybody showed me love. At first, I was scared because if you’re coming from one school to another school – that was your home at first and now you have to go to another place. But everybody took me in and welcomed me.
“When I think Auburn, I think family. It’s unconditional love because everybody took me in unconditionally. Great people. Great atmosphere. Auburn is special.”
After having to sit out the 2014 season at Auburn, Tray earned a starting job at safety in 2015. As a junior in 2016, he led the Tigers with 76 tackles, and as one of the captains heading into the 2017 season, he was invited to represent Auburn at SEC Media Days this past summer.
Last December, in a moment that was just as special as any off-field accomplishment, Tray graduated and earned his bachelor’s degree from Auburn.
“It was a special moment, special for my family,” Tray said. “My mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, everybody came. It was a special moment because a lot of people don’t graduate. That’s just one thing that doesn’t happen, especially from an African-American standpoint in my area where I’m from. I don’t know any of my friends that graduated.
“So that was a big moment for me. I beat a lot of the odds. A lot of the stuff people said I couldn’t do, I did. And now I’m about to do it again and get my master’s.”
Tray has a few more classes to finish this semester, but he’s on track to earn his master’s degree in adult education next month.
Looking back, the road hasn’t always been easy. Tray has seen some of his friends killed over the years. He went from hero to goat in the 2013 Auburn-Georgia game. He was later dismissed from Georgia, and he had to start from scratch when he got to Auburn. He’s battled injuries. But through it all, he’s kept grinding and kept working both on and off the field.
“That’s all I know is hard work,” he said. “I feel like I’m the adversity king. I’ve been through a lot of adversity. Can’t nothing stop me.”
“It has been awesome,” added Sonya Matthews. “Last season was the first season that he played completely healthy since he’s been in college. It was a rewarding experience and to get the accolades that he got, on top of graduating, and now this year, he is playing at the capacity that he always thought that he could play and playing the game he loves.”
— Auburn Football (@AuburnFootball) October 3, 2017
However, Tray isn’t ready to “ride off in the sunset” just yet. There are a couple more victories he’d like to add before his playing days at Auburn are over.
The goal when he got to Auburn was to win an SEC championship and to win a national championship. If the Tigers can beat No. 1 Georgia on Saturday and No. 2 Alabama two weeks later, they will play in Atlanta with a chance to win the conference title. If they win out and win that game, it might be hard to keep them out of the College Football Playoff.
There's irony in the fact that the same player who nearly intercepted a pass and ended Auburn’s miracle season in 2013 is now playing a major role in helping the Tigers win the SEC and get back to a national championship game. Sweet irony.
"It's all worked out,” Tray said. “I always knew it was going to be like a fairy tale.”
Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: