INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — When Robert Mathis speaks, the Indianapolis Colts listen. Every time.
It’s a right the outside linebacker earned by playing 14 productive NFL seasons — all with the same team, all with the same passion, all with the same penchant for putting quarterbacks on the ground.
So when he finished practice Friday and gathered his teammates, Mathis stood in the center and made his announcement quickly and clearly: Sunday’s season finale against Jacksonville will be his last game. He made it official a short time later in an emotional news conference.
“This will be 98’s last game,” he said.
Mathis had been around long enough to know how fickle the football business can be.
He’s seen the Colts let some of his closest friends — Dwight Freeney, Reggie Wayne and Antoine Bethea — walk away in free agency. He remembers Hall of Fame receiver Marvin Harrison failing to get a call when Indy didn’t re-sign him after 2008. And he’ll never forget the mind-blowing moment on March 7, 2012 when team owner Jim Irsay and Peyton Manning tearfully announced they were parting ways.
If it can happen to them, Mathis knows it can happen to anyone.
And at age 35, the signs were all there that he could be next big game to hit the street.
After missing 13 games in his first 11 pro seasons, Mathis has missed 19 over the last three, including the entire 2014 season — the first four to serve a performance enhancers suspension for what he claimed was a banned fertility drug, the last 12 after tearing his Achilles tendon.
His stats have taken a hit, too.
From 2004 through 2013, Mathis never had fewer than seven sacks or 35 tackles in a season. Those numbers dropped to seven sacks and 24 tackles in 2015 and four sacks and 22 tackles this season. He’s never complained.
So Mathis decided to leave the game on his own terms.
“Rob has nothing more to prove, he’s such a damn good football player,” kicker Adam Vinatieri said. “He’s just a hard-working dude, a silent warrior.”
That’s how Mathis wants to be remembered. Yes, he can be pithy and poignant, with succinct and strongly worded one-liners, but he’d rather just work.
Not many pass rushers have done it better than the Atlanta native, who almost didn’t get a chance to prove himself.
Back in 2003, Mathis remembers many scouts downgrading his draft-day stock because they thought he was too small, too slow and too untested to become a key player in the NFL. Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian and the Colts’ scouts valued something else in the undersized Alabama A&M product. It didn’t take long to find out they were right.
After Polian traded Indy’s 2014 fourth-round draft pick to Houston for an extra fifth-rounder in 2013, he wasted no time selecting Mathis with the 138th overall pick despite coach Tony Dungy’s contention the price may have been too steep. Turns out, the Colts got a steal.
“We saw an explosive guy, a game-changing player who we thought could play two positions,” Polian said. “You could see it almost from the first time he got on the field. He was quiet — except when he put the uniform on and then everyone knew he was around.”
Mathis made sure nobody ever overlooked him again.
His resume includes six consecutive Pro Bowl appearances; two Super Bowl appearances with one world championship; the Colts’ career record for sacks (122); the 2013 league sacks title (19½); and his trademark tomahawk chop that has forced a league-high 51 fumbles since 2003.
Numbers only tell part of the tale.
“I think pound for pound, he is probably the best pass rusher ever,” Colts linebacker Erik Walden said. “You don’t find many guys doing it from both sides. He can line up anywhere and get to the quarterback.”
Yet Mathis’ contributions inside the team complex go far beyond stats.
Tight end Dwayne Allen calls Mathis a treasure trove of information. Coach Chuck Pagano calls him a model of success. Everyone else calls Mathis captain.
But the most apt description might be this: a winner.
“We wouldn’t be sitting where we are today and had the success that we have had over the last five years without that guy,” Pagano said. “It’s a debt I cannot repay. I have the utmost respect for him, not only as a football player, but as a man, father, husband and a human being. All that he does inside this building and all that he does outside this building for the community, he is a warrior. They don’t make them like that.
“I guarantee he has walked in this building every single day for 14 years and walked into that locker room and looked up and saw his nameplate still up there and a jersey number still up there and said, ‘I’m going to die before I let somebody take this from me.'”
He just never had to say it aloud — until Friday.
“The game of football,” he said, “has been like my best friend.”
Mathis posted a video about his retirement on Instagram. In the video he thanks his fans and said he will always be a Colt.
“Robert has been a very special player for our franchise for 14 seasons,” said Colts Owner & CEO Jim Irsay. “I will miss watching him terrorize opposing quarterbacks, chasing them down with his incredible speed and knocking the ball from their grasp, as he did innumerable times. He was a game changer. In 2003, he was an undersized diamond-in-the-rough draft pick —- and now he is a Hall of Fame candidate and future Colts Ring of Honor Inductee. Robert will be sorely missed by the Colts organization and Colts Nation.”
Head Coach Chuck Pagano also reflected on Mathis.
“I am forever grateful for Robert taking a leap of faith back in 2012 when we came in here and talked about the position change and what he had been doing for a long, long time in a 4-3 defense and then moving to an outside linebacker. He could’ve went another direction and because of the man that he is and the love that he has for this organization and the love that he has for this city and his team, he decided to ride that thing out and took a leap of faith and we wouldn’t be sitting where we are today and had the success that we have had over the last five years without that guy.”
The 14-year veteran’s career game stats include:
- Played in 191 career games
- 120 starts
- 601 tackles (453 solo)
- 122 sacks
- 18 passes defensed
- 51 forced fumbles
- 16 fumble recoveries (three returned for touchdowns)
- 1 interception
- 15 special teams stops
- 18 postseason contests (11 starts)
- Tallied 48 tackles (32 solo)
- 6.5 sacks (2 passes defensed)
- 5 forced fumbles and 1 fumble recovery
- Member of the Colts’ Super Bowl XLI-winning team
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