Robert Mathis hits milestone with Colts, joins exclusive club

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Robert Mathis

ANDERSON, Ind. – The list is short and striking, and now includes Robert Mathis.

Quick, name the players who have been with the Colts for at least 14 seasons. You need only one hand, and no thumb required.

Johnny Unitas, the record-holder with 17 seasons.

Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne, with 14 each.

And Robert Mathis, entering season 14.

The smile that crept across Mathis’ face revealed the sense of achievement – and persistence – by a player taken with the 138th overall pick in the 2003 draft.

“I feel fortunate,” he said Thursday. “I’ve just got to get on the same level as those guys. That’s a lot of Hall of Famers right there.

“I’ve just got to carry my weight, earn my seat at the table.”

Mathis, 35, has been earning his seat since first stepping on the training camp practice field as a much-passed-over rookie in the summer of ’03. He was a sixth-rounder, an undersized (6-2, 245 pounds) and lightly-regarded defensive end out of Alabama A&M despite having set an NCAA 1-AA record with 20 sacks as a senior.

His primary objective for that first camp?

“Just run somewhere real fast until I learned the playbook,” he said.

Mathis’ grin again widened when asked about his most striking memory from his initial camp experience.

“Two-a-days,” he said. “I kind of joke around with the young guys that they’ve never experienced that. Just the grind and not knowing what to expect. Eight a.m. and we were hitting it. Pads were cracking the first day.”

Under the new labor agreement, players are eased into camp. Pads are not allowed until the third day and full-bore two-a-days have gone the way of the dinosaur.

“It’s a little different from 2003 to 2016,” Mathis said, “but I’m still fortunate to be out here.”

Coach Chuck Pagano rivaled Mathis’ brevity when asked how Mathis has lasted as long as he has.

“Love for the game. Love for his teammates. Love for the ‘shoe,” he said. “Second to none.”

Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson offers unique perspective. He played against Mathis during his eight-year career with Cleveland Browns, and has called him a teammate the past two seasons. The two have grown close and their dorm rooms at Anderson University are across from each other.

“He’s always taking care of his body,” Jackson said. “I’m asking him a ton of questions: ‘How do you do it?’ I remember first walking in the building and asking Reggie (Wayne): ‘How do you do it?”’

Jackson wanted to know the secret to Wayne’s longevity. His 211 games played are a Colts’ record. And he wants to know how Mathis continues to stick around, and play at a high level. Mathis’ 118 sacks are a franchise record. He shared the team lead a year ago with 7 even though he still was in rehab-mode from a torn Achilles that kept him out of the 2014 season.

“I want to know the secrets. I want to know everything,” Jackson said. “He’s done a masterful job of being available and that’s a part of it. That’s hard to do.

“And to play as long as he has and be as productive as he’s been, he’s one of my favorites. The guy loves ball. I’ve fortunate to be able to play with a guy like that.

“In my opinion, he’s a future Hall of Famer.”

That will be debated once Mathis walks away, or is pushed out the door. His 118 sacks rank 20th in NFL history and are the fifth-most among active players. His 44 forced fumbles on sacks are an NFL record. He’s a six-time Pro Bowl selection and a world champion.

Yet Mathis continues to gain motivation from those to doubt him. That helped him earn a roster spot in ’03 and remains a driving force.

Now, critics insist, he’s too old to be a week-to-week factor.

“He still carries that chip on his shoulder,” Jackson said.

Without a doubt.

“A lot of media said I couldn’t do it,” Mathis said. “I take a lot of pride (in proving them wrong).

“It’s plain and simple. I think I tend to overdo it when people say I can’t do something. It kind of boils my blood a bit.”

So Mathis soldiers on. He’s remained a defensive cornerstone and one of the NFL’s more disruptive forces.

Johnny Unitas. Peyton Manning. Reggie Wayne. And now Robert Mathis.

Mathis asked how many players stuck with the team for more than 14 seasons.

One, he was told. Johnny Unitas.

Again, the smile.

“That’s something to shoot for,” he said.

Follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51