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.”