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Robert Mathis (98) of the Indianapolis Colts pressures Tennessee Titans' quarterback Vince Young in the Colts' 22-20 win in Nashville on Sunday. Mathis played college ball at Alabama A&M in Huntsville.
Daily photo by Deangelo McDaniel
Robert Mathis (98) of the Indianapolis Colts pressures Tennessee Titans' quarterback Vince Young in the Colts' 22-20 win in Nashville on Sunday. Mathis played college ball at Alabama A&M in Huntsville.

Small guy, big heart
Former Alabama A&M player Mathis wears Super Bowl ring

By Deangelo McDaniel · 340-2469

NASHVILLE — Robert Mathis waited patiently in a two-bedroom apartment near Atlanta.

He ate barbecue with his family as the commissioner of the NFL announced Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer as the first pick in the 2003 draft.

Next came Charles Rogers from Michigan State, followed by Andre Johnson from the Miami Hurricanes.

There would be no small-college player selected until Jacksonville drafted Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich with the seventh overall pick.

Mathis didn't expect to be a first-round pick, but he knew NFL teams were interested in his talent.

"Sometimes it's tough in the draft for the small-college players," said Mathis, a four-year starter for Alabama A&M.

But, his number finally came in the fifth round when the Indianapolis Colts drafted him as the 138th overall pick.

Now in his fifth season, Mathis has a Super Bowl championship ring and a reputation as one of the quickest defensive linemen in the NFL. He earned this label despite being one of the smallest defensive ends in the league at 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds.

"I just go out there and play hard on every down," Mathis said following the Colts' 22-20 win over Tennessee.

Added Colts head coach Tony Dungy: "That's what makes him special. You know he's going to give his all to the team."

And, if there's anyone who knows about Mathis, it's Moulton native and Titans starting offensive tackle David Stewart.

For two seasons, Stewart has blocked against Mathis. Although he outweighs Mathis by almost 100 pounds, Stewart said it's always a tough challenge to block him.

“Everybody at this level is good, but Robert is probably the fastest defensive lineman I play against,” said Stewart, a former star at Lawrence County High and Mississippi State.

Stewart (6-foot-7, 318 pounds) said he doesn’t think about Mathis being from a small college or about his size.

“You have to honor all of his moves because of his speed,” he said. “That’s what you think about. His speed.”

Coming out of A&M, NFL scouts couldn’t help but notice Mathis, although he weighed 235 pounds at the time. As a senior, he set a NCAA I-AA record with 20 sacks in 12 games.

He had five sacks against Prairie View A&M and four against Southern. For his career, he started 39 games at A&M and compiled 221 tackles, including 44 quarterback sacks.

But, there was the stigma that he was from a small college.

“That motivated me,” Mathis said.

Referring to Appalachian State’s win over Michigan this year, Mathis said, “Small-college athletes can play at this level. Just ask Michigan. That win was one for the small schools.”

But, there are challenges that all college athletes face when coming to the NFL, he said — namely, the speed of the game.

“Every things moves so fast,” he said.

“That was my biggest challenge.”

As a rookie in 2003, Mathis played in 16 games on special teams and as a reserve defensive end. He started one game the following year and played in all 16 before he had what he called his NFL coming out party in 2005. He appeared in 13 games his third season and recorded 11.5 sacks.

In 2006, Mathis started every game, including Super Bowl XLI where he had two tackles and forced a fumble against Chicago.

“A dream come true,” he said about the Super Bowl. “It’s every player’s dream in this league to win a Super Bowl. That’s something we share, no matter what college you come from.”

Despite his NFL success, Mathis has not forgotten his roots, especially his mother Emma Mathis, who spent most of her life cleaning houses.

When he signed a long-term contract extension with the Colts in the summer of 2006, Mathis moved his mother into a new house in Austell, Ga.

“I retired her,” he said.

His new contract keeps him with the Colts through 2011 and could be worth as much as $30 million.

The deal included a $8.1 million signing bonus and a roster bonus of $3.9 million that was paid in March.

That’s a big difference in the $126,750 signing bonus he received when he signed with the Colts in 2003.

Mathis won’t let money stop him from doing what got him to the NFL. His thoughts are never far from that day in 2003 when he waited by the telephone for his name to appear on the draft board.

“I’m going to continue to work hard because I have a lot more to accomplish in the league,” he said.

In the offseason following the Super Bowl, Alabama A&M honored Mathis with Robert Mathis Day.

What he remembers most about the ceremony is that John Stallworth, an A&M alumni and four-time Super Bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers, came to the celebration.

“It was an honor,” Mathis said.

But mentioning him with Stallworth leads to a questions. Who is the greatest athlete to play at Alabama A&M?

“John Stallworth,” one of his teammates yelled across the locker room.

Added Mathis: “I’ll have to say John is. But don’t forget he’s one of those small-college guys.”

Robert Mathis at a glance

Born Feb. 2, 1981, in Atlanta, where he attended McNair High School.

Signed a scholarship with Alabama A&M and started 39 games at defensive end in four seasons during 1999-2002.

As a senior in 2003, he set a NCAA I-AA record with 20 sacks. He finished his career with 221 tackles, 44 sacks, 20 forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries.

Drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 2003 in the fifth round as the 138th overall pick.

Played special teams and as a reserve during his rookie season, before getting his first NFL start in 2004.

Despite not playing because of an injury for the final three games of the 2005 season, he finished with a career high 11.5 sacks.

Started in Super Bowl XLI at defensive end, and had two tackles and a forced fumble against Chicago.

Signed a five-year contract extension with the Colts following the Super Bowl that could be worth $30 million.

Deangelo McDaniel

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