INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The day long ago had been set aside to honor Bill Polian’s contributions to the Colts’ long run of success, including delivering a Super Bowl championship to Indianapolis.
At halftime of Sunday’s season finale against Jacksonville at Lucas Oil Stadium, the long-time executive will be inducted into the Ring of Honor.
But Polian found out Friday he’ll be sharing the spotlight with one of the best draft picks in a career that delivered him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
His sudden co-star: Robert Mathis, who announced he’ll retire following the Jaguars game.
“I am happy to step away and let the stage be his,’’ Polian said. “It’s been a marvelous career and he’s a marvelous person.
“The whole day belongs to Robert Mathis. I’m glad to be the lounge act.’’
Mathis made his decision in late October – “Probably a few weeks before the (Nov. 6) Packers game,’’ he said – and only shared it with his family and close circle of friends.
Those still in the dark were informed as Mathis was allowed to break down the team following Friday’s practice.
Coach Chuck Pagano said Mathis told everyone Sunday would be his “last rodeo and his last ride and ‘Just follow me.’’’
Added safety Mike Adams: “He let the world know. You start thinking about how long he’s been in the league and how fast it goes.’’
What comes to an emotional conclusion Sunday began April 27, 2003 when Polian invested his fifth-round pick – the 138th overall – on an undersized defensive end out of Alabama A&M. The 6-2, 245-pound Mathis largely was overlooked, a prototypical ‘tweener: too small to be an effective NFL pass rusher or an every-down linebacker.
Mathis smiled when he thought about his first days as a rookie.
“Man, I just wanted to make the roster . . . see if I could play football with these guys, see if I could stomp with the big dogs basically,’’ he said.
Fourteen years later, Mathis is the Colts’ career sack leader (122). He has generated 46 sack/forced fumbles, an NFL record. He’s a six-time Pro Bowl selection. He led the NFL and set a Colts record with 19.5 sacks in 2013.
He’ll play in his 192nd regular-season game Sunday, tied for seventh-most in franchise history. His 14 seasons are tied with Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne for second-most in team history. Only John Unitas (17) spent more time with the Colts.
Mathis has sacked 61 different quarterbacks. His body count includes a pair of Mannings (Peyton and Eli), Tom Brady (five times) and, seriously, Adam “Pacman’’ Jones.
“Still hate quarterbacks, still want to chase them,’’ Mathis said. “My passion for chasing quarterbacks is always going to be there, but the body won’t.’’
Mathis sought the counsel of former teammates Reggie Wayne and Edgerrin James before making his decision.
“They say, ‘Listen to your body,’’’ Mathis said. “It’s time to listen to my body.
“Injuries, man. I want to walk away, I don’t want to limp away. The rest of my body goes to my kids.’’
Polian saw something in Mathis when he was scouting him prior to the ’03 draft. It’s doubtful he ever envisioned the finished product.
“He’s a guy that got the absolute most out of his ability,’’ Polian said. “He was a high-character guy with a high intelligence. He had high football IQ, high intensity and was an incredible work-ethic guy.
“In so many ways, he was the quintessential Colt. He gave you what he had. He worked day-in and day-out to be the best he could be. Robert was among the most respected players on our team when we were in our heyday and everybody and his brother was making the Pro Bowl.
“If you walked into the scouting room today and said to those scouts, ‘Here’s what I want you to pick. Here’s the ideal Colt,’ you’d do far worse than put Robert Mathis’ picture up there.’’
Mathis insisted he’s at peace with his decision. It’s rare when a professional athlete is able to go out on his own terms.
“You don’t want to be pushed out,’’ he said. “You want to leave on your own merit. They gave me the opportunity of a lifetime to start and end in the same place, in one place.’’
Mathis also made it clear he would like to remain associated with the team in some capacity, perhaps as a pass-rush tutor. He, wife Brandi and their family have sunk their roots in Indy.
“This is my home,’’ Mathis said. “I am a Colt. I am a blue blood. I’m a bricklayer at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“I’m here forever. It’s part of me. It’s in my DNA.’’