JACKSONVILLE – He has no regrets. None at all.
That’s the first thing
Another thing he wanted known? That this difficult, necessary situation couldn’t have been handled better. New General Manager David Caldwell called Tuesday. New Head Coach Gus Bradley called that night. These were men new to the Jaguars, leaders of a new regime, with a mandate for the future. Mathis is of the Jaguars past, with no ties to Caldwell or Bradley.
Still, they called. They expressed thanks for what he had done for the organization.
It sounds simple, the act of calling. It, too, is the right thing to do. But too often, it is not done. In the NFL, players often leave with no good-bye, no call, no acknowledgment – even from general managers and coaches with whom they have worked many, many years.
That it wasn’t that way left Mathis with a solid vision of the Jaguars’ future.
“It shows you what type of character those guys have, what kind of men they are,” he said. “That meant a lot. I spoke to Dave and I spoke to Gus, and I told them regardless of what team I might end up playing for, they’ll always have a prayer coming out from here. I always wish them success going forward.
“You never know how it’s going to end up, but these guys have their heads in the right place and their hearts in the right place. I’m excited to see how they’re going to do in the future.”
It’s just now that future won’t include Mathis.
Mathis knew this was coming, knew throughout the offseason – back to last season, even – that the Jaguars’ future almost certainly wouldn’t include him. As such, he was ready for Tuesday.
And not surprisingly, he handled it with class.
More than class, he handled it with perspective. Early in his career, Mathis was among the NFL’s best cornerbacks, and should be remembered as perhaps the best cornerback – one of the best defensive players – in franchise history.
Later in his career – sometimes wrongly – he was criticized as the team around him began to struggle, but always he handled criticism with professionalism and yes, with perspective.
On Tuesday, it was more of the same.
He talked not of bitterness of being released, but of playing 10 years for one organization. Not only that, he played 10 years for his hometown team, having played at Englewood High School then at Bethune-Cookman before being selected by the Jaguars in the second round of the 2003 draft.
“I can only praise God,” he said. “He allowed me to be humble coming in. Regardless of how hard you work, or how many hours and how much pain and effort you think you put into it, it’s still a blessing to play in the NFL, to do what we do. I just thank God he allowed me to stay humble in the process when the process began and while our process is ending.
“I’m appreciative for just being able to play in the National Football League.”
Mathis did more than just play for the Jaguars. He also grew into a locker room leader, and by the 2011 lockout, he was the team’s player representative – and also a player who helped organize players’ practices that offseason.
“It takes more than yourself to understand how to go about leading these guys with family and kids,” Mathis said. “Once again, I give credit to God for allowing me to find that within myself and encouraging guys through tough times.”
Players don’t usually play for a decade for one team anymore, but Mathis did – and far more often than not, he did so at a high level. He holds the franchise record with 30 career interceptions, and holds the single-season record with eight in 2006. He has a franchise-record 35 career takeaways and is the only player in franchise history with at least two interceptions in multiple games, something he did four times.
He was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2006, and played on some of the best defenses in franchise history in that time. He also turned in some of the biggest plays in franchise history, including a 41-yard interception return in overtime to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 23-17, in Pittsburgh in 2005.
“If someone had come to me and said, ‘OK, you can give everything away and you’re guaranteed ten years in the league for your home team, and go to the Pro Bowl…’ I definitely would have taken it,’’ Mathis said. “I would have taken it at the drop of a dime. Looking back and understanding the process of seeing guys come and go, I know I’m part of the minority, not the majority.
“There was a stretch of years we had some pretty good runs. You always remember the guys you play with, and there were guys I played with I’ll remember the rest of my life.”
As with most careers, it wasn’t all high points for Mathis.
The Jaguars since the 2007 season have struggled, not only as a team, but defensively. Cornerback is a position that gets blame from fans, and Mathis got his share. But don’t forget: as late as the 2011 season, he was playing at a high level. Early that season the defense was legitimately good and Mathis was legitimately a big reason, then in November of that season he tore an anterior cruciate ligament. He returned and started four games this season, though never at his pre-injury level.
But injuries happen to most players, and age does, too. What every player doesn’t experience is what happened Tuesday.
Mathis said he will always consider Jacksonville his hometown, in NFL terms and all others, and he said, too, while he would like to play a few more years, this is where he will live after football. On Tuesday, the fans of his hometown team showed him what he had meant to them.
Mathis said he has never been a Twitter or Facebook guy, but around 9 p.m. Tuesday, he opened a Twitter account to thank fans.
“The love I got was truly amazing,” he said. “Sitting at the house for more than an hour, reading the comments fans posted, that’s what we play the game for.”
And for ten years, Mathis got to do not only do that, but do it in his hometown.
No regrets for Mathis. None at all.