Mathis still sending strong, silent message to Colts defense
MICHAEL MAROT AP Sports Writer
5:43 AM, Aug 11, 2016
ANDERSON, Ind. (AP) -- Robert Mathis makes every word count. Every play, too.
When teammates hear the Indianapolis Colts' oldest starter bark out instructions or crack pads, they tune in. When they see Mathis hang out in Anderson University's dorms or hear him explain how privileged he feels to return each summer, they listen attentively. When they see Mathis take an occasional day off at training camp or run around with his kids after a practice, they realize he is no ordinary 35-year-old linebacker.
He is as determined and passionate as he was the day he arrived at his first training camp in 2003.
"You have to work for everything you get," Mathis said. "Anything worth having is worth being worked for."
Mathis' short, powerful messages have always resonated in the Colts' locker room.
Indy opened the 2012 season with a new coach, a new general manager, a rookie quarterback, and was ranked last in the NFL's projected power ratings. Mathis responded to the doubters on Twitter: "I will not let you forget."
Later that season, when things looked bleak and coach Chuck Pagano left the team to battle leukemia, Mathis rallied his teammates with another line: "There are no pity parties in football."
To Mathis, words and actions mean something.
The 6-foot-2, 235-pound defensive end/outside linebacker from Alabama A&M is still motivated by the notion so many scouts wrote him off as too small, too slow and too untested against elite competition when he was coming out of college.
Indy saw Mathis a different way. Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy was convinced Mathis could be the perfect complement to Dwight Freeney, so GM Bill Polian traded a future fourth-round pick to Houston for the third pick in Round 5 to snag Mathis.
Fourteen years, one position change and 118 sacks later, the Atlanta native remains one of the most feared pass rushers in football when he's healthy.
A year ago, he wasn't. It took the NFL's 2013 sacks champ almost half a season to regain his form after missing all of 2014 because of a suspension (performance enhancer) and a torn left Achilles tendon that required 10 surgeries and 12 months to fix. He wound up finishing 2015 with 24 tackles, seven sacks and a lot of momentum heading into this season.
"Robert is one of our best football players. We're going to have him on the football field as often as he can handle," new defensive coordinator Ted Monachino said. "We aren't keeping Robert back and we aren't reining him in in any way."
Mathis has never played the game that way, and he's certainly not going to start now.
Yet the spry, six-time Pro Bowler also understands business. His contract expires after this season, and throughout his career in Indy, Mathis has watched longtime friends such as Freeney, Marvin Harrison, Peyton Manning, Jeff Saturday and Reggie Wayne all let go once the Colts deemed it financially or philosophically unfeasible to keep the aging stars.
Mathis knows he could be next, though he's not giving any illusion of a decline.
"Rob is one of the hardest workers I've been around," Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis said. "He is going on his 14th year and it shows you his humbleness and how much he loves and respects the game."
Now the Colts need Mathis than ever.
He accounted for 20 percent of their 35 sacks last season, and after Indy used three of its eight draft picks on defensive players -- safety T.J. Green, inside linebacker Antonio Morrison and outside linebacker Trevor Bates -- the Colts are asking Mathis to put even more pressure on opposing quarterbacks as the coaches look for ways to help.
And there's more at stake, too. He wants to add another Super Bowl ring, could crack the top 10 on the NFL's career sacks chart, and with one or two more really good seasons could even put himself in Hall of Fame consideration.
"A lot of media said I couldn't do it. I take a lot of pride in (proving them wrong)," Mathis said with a laugh. "I just appreciate the opportunity to be out there. It was a long road."