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Indianapolis Colts LB Robert Mathis goes out in style with 123rd career sack

By Phillip B. Wilson, The Sports Xchange
Indianapolis Colts defensive end Robert Mathis. UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg
Indianapolis Colts defensive end Robert Mathis. UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg | License Photo

INDIANAPOLIS -- Robert Mathis didn't want to take off his royal blue No. 98 Indianapolis Colts jersey after his 14-year NFL career came to an end Sunday afternoon.

"I might just go home in everything right now," he said, still in uniform at the lectern, after the Colts rallied to a 24-20 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium.

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The Colts' all-time sack leader, who announced his intent to retire on Friday, finished with his 123rd career sack in 192 regular-season games when he knocked the ball loose from Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles with the game tied at 17 early in the fourth quarter.

"I actually panicked because he almost got away from me," said the 35-year-old Mathis. "That swipe was a desperation move."

The six-time Pro Bowl selection finished with 47 career strip sacks. He celebrated this one like most others with an enthusiastic kick of the FieldTurf. Initially lost in the moment, he suddenly collected himself and walked back to get the ball, which he presented to his wife, Brandi.

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"It was magical," he said. "I remember the first ball I gave was to my mom. She's watching. She's no longer here."

The fan favorite was quite the unknown as a fifth-round pick out of Alabama A&M in 2003. Throughout his career, he fed off doubters who had said Mathis wasn't fast enough, big enough, strong enough or smart enough to survive in the NFL.

Although he quickly established himself as a playmaker, Mathis was in the shadow of former teammate Dwight Freeney for so many years. Mathis didn't make his first Pro Bowl until 2008.

Freeney set the Colts sack record at 107.5 in 2012. Mathis surpassed him the next season, when he led the league with 19.5 sacks.

Freeney is still playing with Atlanta and the pass-rushing buddies enjoyed continuing a sack rivalry long distance. Freeney had 122.5 sacks entering his regular-season finale.

"It's tough to get to a quarterback, whether it's the first or last play or any time in between," said Mathis, who also had 6.5 sacks in 18 career playoff games. "I'm just thankful to be able to get to him, to have enough juice left to get to the quarterback."

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While his approach to his final day stuck to a familiar game-day routine -- from eating the same breakfast with eggs, one pancake and one slice of bacon with orange juice to tuning out to music with his head phones -- he admittedly couldn't help but be nervous.

By game's end, he couldn't have been more ecstatic. He praised his defensive line for creating the chance to sack Bortles when an inside stunt provided a clear path to the quarterback.

"They wanted to make sure I got to that quarterback at least one more time," he said. "They cleared the way and gave the old man a nice, little going away present."

One of his happiest teammates was defensive tackle Zach Kerr, who was all smiles as he exited the locker room with a football signed by Mathis.

"What a great way to finish for Rob," coach Chuck Pagano said. "I couldn't be happier for a guy, there is nobody more deserving than Robert Mathis and what he has meant to this football team."

Quarterback Andrew Luck threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jack Doyle with nine seconds remaining to ensure Mathis, one final time, would walk off the field as a winner.

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"This is the only fitting ending for one of the greatest players of all-time, one of the greatest pass rushers of all-time and probably one of the greatest teammates of all-time," Luck said.

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