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KRAVITZ: Robert Mathis, one of the all-time great Colts, says the difficult goodbye

KRAVITZ: Robert Mathis, one of the all-time great Colts, says the difficult goodbye

KRAVITZ: Robert Mathis, one of the all-time great Colts, says the difficult goodbye

In most cases, athletes – especially great athletes – are the last to know when it’s time. And so they have to be dragged off the field, extricated from the locker room with the Jaws of Life, told they are no longer needed before retiring or playing out the string somewhere else. That, or injuries conspire to force them from the game that they love, the game they’ve graced with their presence for so many years.

This, then, is another reason why you admire Robert Mathis so much: He knew when it was time. He didn’t try to fool himself or convince himself he had another year, and another fat paycheck, in his body. After 14 years as a Colt, 14 years of giving this organization heart and soul, 14 years of establishing himself as one of the most fearsome pass rushers the game has ever known, Mathis pulled the team together Friday afternoon and shared his decision with them.

“It’s time to step aside,’’ he said to reporters Friday afternoon. “The game’s been good to me. I want to walk away, not limp away. The rest of my body goes to my kids.’’

There is sadness; of course there is sadness. The last of the great Colts from the previous era is walking away after Sunday’s season finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and it’s sad we’ll never see him get leverage on another overmatched tackle before strip-sacking the quarterback. Beyond that, this franchise is losing a good man, someone who led by example and not verbosity, someone who was central to the Colts’ long-term excellence throughout the 2000’s.

But there is joy, too. There is joy because Mathis is leaving on his own terms. Granted, there was every reason to believe the Colts were not going to bring Mathis back, not while he was making $5 million a year, not while he was struggling through an injury-marred season when he had his lowest sack total since he was a rookie (4), not at the age of 35. There is joy because Mathis, as prideful an athlete as you’ll ever meet, made the difficult – and for some, impossible – call to leave at precisely the right time.

It’s said that athletes die two deaths: One when they retire, and then another when they ultimately perish. Imagine yourself at the age of 35, retiring to leave the only life you’ve ever known. Imagine peering at the future, and realizing there will be no more cheers from the crowd, no more emerging from the locker room to the music and the smoke and the madness. Imagine leaving your brothers behind, the brothers you went into battle with, the brothers with whom you shared so many stories and laughs.

It’s so hard for so many athletes, and that’s even without contemplating the physical toll the game takes. Emotionally, spiritually, that’s where it gets hard. Waking up those Sunday mornings and realizing there’s no game to play, that’s exceedingly difficult, athletes forever chasing the buzz that professional sports can offer.

Mathis, though, said he’s at peace. He’s been thinking about this for months now – he said he began to consider retirement a few weeks before the Green Bay game – and he’s been speaking to others who have been in his spot, men like Reggie Wayne and Gary Brackett. The will to compete never wavered, but his body no longer cooperated. The Achilles injury was the beginning of the end. As Mathis said earlier this season, “Father Time is undefeated.’’

He was a great, great player and a force of nature in the community, and he walks away with his head held higher than ever before. Think of his humble beginnings: A small-town kid who grew up with nothing except love, an undersized fifth round draft choice from Alabama A&M, a small historically black college. When he arrived in Indianapolis in 2003, all he wanted to do was make the team, maybe earn a spot on special teams and play long enough to get vested. Today, he walked away as one of the greatest Colts of all time, the franchise’s all-time sack king and someone who will soon see his name added to the Colts Ring of Honor. (We’ll leave the Hall of Fame debate for another time).

“I’m forever grateful for Robert (Mathis) taking a leap of faith back in 2012 when we came in here and talked about the position change and what he had been doing for a long, long time in a 4-3 defense and then moving to an outside linebacker,’’ Chuck Pagano said earlier this week. “He could’ve (gone in) another direction and because of the man that he is and the love that he has for this organization and the love that he has for this city and his team, he decided to ride that thing out and took a leap of faith and we wouldn’t be sitting where we are today and had the success that we have had over the last five years without that guy.

“It’s a debt I cannot repay and I have the utmost respect for him, not only as a football player, but as a man, father, husband and a human being. 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. I wish they all had his drive and his passion, his love for the game and his toughness and durability, coach-ability, tenacity, resolve and everything. 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.

“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. 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.’ ”

Athletes always talk about playing with chips on their shoulders, forever deriving motivation from slights real and imagined. But that was how Mathis operated. He wanted to prove he belonged, whether he was a rookie or a Pro Bowl player. Beyond that, he was inspired by his mother, the late Emma Mathis, who cleaned homes for a living and instilled an unrelenting work ethic in her son.

He shared a story: When he was a sophomore in college, his mother, who paid her rent on time every month, was kicked out of her home because the landlord stopped paying the rent. Mathis determined right at that moment that he was going to play professional football and provide his mother with the life and security she deserved.

“That lit a fire,’’ he said.

The only blemish on an otherwise spotless career was his suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs, which he passionately explained was for using a fertility drug that would help bring another child into the world. If you’re a cynic, you’re welcome to view that as a tall tale. But if you’ve spent years around Mathis, you know the explanation has merit. He was distraught about that mistake, but as he said at the time, he got a baby daughter – his third child – out of the deal.

Friday afternoon, Mathis made a point to thank everybody who has had a hand in his brilliant career, and even thanked the media, with whom he battled at various times through his time as a Colt. “Water under the bridge,’’ he said with a smile.

Now, with just one game left, there is this one wish still to be fulfilled.

One more strip-sack, Robert.

One more strip-sack.