Indianapolis Colts fans finally have something to cheer for this Sunday: Robert Mathis.
Mathis announced today that he will retire after the season finale, ending his 14-year career with the Colts. The outside linebacker from Alabama A&M is the Colts’ all-time leader sacks and one of the last links to the 2006 Super Bowl title team.
“This will be 98’s last game,” Mathis said. “Put a cap on a blessed, blessed career.”
The Colts’ game against Jacksonville at 1 p.m. Sunday was already destined to be Mathis’ last game as a Colt. His contract is up, he’ll be 36 in February and his numbers have inevitably declined with age. He has four sacks, his lowest since his rookie season in 2003 when he primarily played special teams. The will is there, but no one defeats Father Time.
Mathis will go down as one of the best defensive players in Colts history. The only player to spend more seasons wearing a Colts uniform? Johnny Unitas.
The Colts will undoubtedly introduce the defense during pregame and bring out Mathis last to soak in one last thank you from the fans. Maybe it won’t be a full house because of a playoff-missing season, but those who are there can put aside their frustration and salute Mathis.
Colts coach Chuck Pagano spent significant time in his news conference this week talking about Mathis.
??????????????? Love Y'all https://t.co/p42KoJBU51
— ROBERT MATHIS The1st (@RobertMathis98) December 30, 2016
The emotion was evident.
Pagano praised Mathis for switching from defensive end to outside linebacker in a new defense and said he “cannot repay” the debt he owes to Mathis for the team’s success since 2012.
“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,” Pagano said. “I wish they all had his drive and his passion, his love for the game and his toughness and durability, coachability, tenacity, resolve and everything.”
As Colts fans know, Mathis was drafted out of Alabama A&M by the Colts in the fifth round of the 2003 draft. He turned out to be a steal. He tore it up on special teams and went on to be part of the greatest pass rushing duos in history with Dwight Freeney.
Mathis made six-straight Pro Bowls from 2008 to 2013. He is the all-time Colts leader in sacks (122) and set the single-season mark of 19.5 sacks in 2013. He has 51 forced fumbles, the most in the NFL since he came into the league. His 46 sack/forced fumbles is an NFL record. The only blemish on a stellar career was his four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on banned substances in 2014. He ended up missing the entire season due to an Achilles tear.
During his tenure, Mathis has been a quiet but effective clubhouse leader. When the team parted ways with many of its long-time players, Mathis teamed with Reggie Wayne to be the veteran leaders in the clubhouse.
“He is a guy that nothing was given to him, he earned his way into this league and he has never taken it for granted, not one day,” Pagano said. “He never let any of the success or fame or money or this, that and the other ever get to him. He has been the same guy for 14 seasons. He looks at it as a privilege and not a right. So many times you find it the other way.
“I wish they all got it and figured it out like he figured it out and came with that gratitude every single day,” Pagano continued. “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.’ ”
Mathis decided to step into retirement after this season and won't have to face the tough, but inevitable scenario of the Colts not offering him a new deal. That is such a hard decision for a player, but he seems at peace. Mathis is a young man anywhere else but in pro sports.
Teams move on, and age happens, and the end of the road comes too soon for almost every player.
Colts fans don’t have much to cheer for Sunday at the end of such a disappointing season. They'll roar for Mathis. Until he goes into the Ring of Honor, it’s their last chance to do so at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"I came in as a winner," Mathis said. "I want to go out a winner."
The reception from fans Sunday should give him his wish.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) December 30, 2016