INDIANAPOLIS – Initially, the new guy didn’t move the needle for Dwight Freeney.
He was just another young wannabe: a 5th-round pick and the 138th overall selection in the 2003 NFL draft. Those guys come and go every year.
Hi, bye, have a nice life.
“I didn’t know anything about him, quite honestly,’’ Freeney said. “They draft guys, they come in and you kind of see what they can do.
“I didn’t have any thoughts one way or the other. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my god, they’re drafting a defensive end. What’s going on?’’’
Freeney’s Indianapolis Colts added some guy named Robert Mathis out of unheralded Alabama A&M. Could have been Robert DeNiro out of Whatsamatta U, for all Freeney knew.
“For me, whenever we drafted new guys – and I was just a second-year player – I was just excited to have another guy to run after somebody and hit ‘em,’’ Freeney said. “It’s like (position coach) John Teerlinck always said, the more people you have to hit the quarterback, the better.
“But I hadn’t actually seen him in practice yet, so I didn’t really know.’’
Shortly after the draft, there was a minicamp that changed Freeney’s opinion and was the launching point for what would be one of the most disruptive pass-rush tandems in NFL history.
“Once I saw him run around like a speed demon, I was like, ‘Oh, this guy is incredibly fast, agile and has a motor like you wouldn’t believe,’’’ he said. “I knew he was going to fit in perfectly with what we wanted to do defensively.’’
Yes, Robert Mathis was a perfect fit. His speed and burst and relentlessness at left end would be the ideal pass-rush complement to Freeney’s power and speed and spin-cycle presence on the right side.
As a terrorizing tag team for 10 seasons, they amassed 199.5 sacks, 84 forced fumbles and 123 quarterback hits. They were instrumental in two Super Bowl appearances and one world championship.
In 2019, the Colts added Freeney to their Ring of Honor at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Sunday, Freeney’s Bash Brother joins him. Mathis was to have had his name added last season, but that ceremony was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The wait was worth it.
“It’s very humbling to be up there with all the guys that’s come through that building,’’ Mathis said. “I always say, ‘Earn your seat at the table.’
“And I was able to do that. I’m very grateful and humbled by that.’’
Mathis earned his spot by overcoming enormous odds.
Freeney possessed 1st-round pedigree. He was the 11th overall pick in 2002 and flashed his promise from the outset: a team-best 13 sacks and NFL-best nine forced fumbles and 20 tackles for loss as a rookie.
Mathis was the long shot with a chip on his shoulder. He was one of eight members of the class of 2003, and most simply hoped to get their foot in the door.
“Coming from where I came from, honestly I just wanted a shot just to prove himself,’’ he said. “Coming in as a rookie, I just wanted a fair shot to earn a roster spot.’’
Mathis earned that spot, then initially made his mark on special teams with 17 tackles, including 12 solos. He primarily was used as a pass-rush specialist on defense and finished with 3.5 sacks and nine pressures.
But at some point during his rookie season, he realized he was right where he belonged.
This, Mathis knew, was the start of something big.
“After a while, I’d say, ‘OK, I’m able to play with these guys, so I want to have a little staying power,’’’ he said. “I wanted to play five years. When I got to year 5, all right, I want to go 10. It was just a domino effect.’’
The measuring stick Mathis needed was close at hand.
“I’m watching Dwight Freeney and in my second year I think he was the sack champion,’’ he said. “In practice we’re both doing the same thing. We’re both beating guys.
“Dwight motivated me a lot; more than he knew. I just had to turn it up and earn my seat at the table.’’
Soon, the sacks, pressures and forced fumbles began piling up. Mathis boosted his sack output to 10.5 in 2004, and that led to a four-year stretch during which he led the team: 11.5 in ’05, 9.5 in ’06, 7 in ’07 and 11.5 in ’08. He led the league in forced fumbles in ’04 (six) and ’05 (eight).
“Once I started getting to the quarterback, hey, I wanted to be a guy that was remembered,’’ Mathis said. “All the work that goes into that, I was willing to do it. I’m just thankful I was able to do it.’’
And he did it at a high level for 14 seasons, 13 if you take into account he missed ’14 with a torn Achilles. He holds franchise records with 123 sacks, 141 quarterback hits and 54 forced fumbles. The forced fumbles are an NFL record while Mathis’ sack total ranks 19th, one spot below Freeney (125.5 after stints with five other teams).
In 2013 – his first without Freeney on the other end of the d-line – Mathis led the league with a franchise-record 19.5 sacks and 10 forced fumbles. He earned his only All-Pro recognition to go along with five Pro Bowl selections.
“We always knew what type of player Robert was going to be,’’ Freeney said. “We saw him practice every day. Once he got his opportunity to actually play-play, first as that third-down situation guy, it was like he was running downhill in a track meet.
“The energy that was there, his intensity was like he was meant to be on that defense. Our defense was always predicated on speed. He was the prime example of that.’’
As much as Mathis took pride in his ability to wreck quarterbacks, he’s ecstatic he did it for so long with the team that drafted him. John Unitas holds the franchise record with 17 years of service. Four players are next with 14 seasons: Mathis, Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne and Adam Vinatieri. His 192 appearances are tied for 8th.
Mathis retired after the 2016. At 35, he knew it was time.
“It was ultra-rare being in one place for my whole career and going out on my own terms,’’ he said. “The greats, the elites aren’t able to have that honor.
“I consider it a true honor to be able to do that. That’s what sticks out, along with the friendships that were formed and the lessons that were taught that I used in daily life.
“No excuses, no explanations.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.