Robert Mathis wasn’t in the Colts locker room Monday. But his message was.
The NFL’s reigning sack champion and understated team leader, suspended the first four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, had a sign hanging in his locker.
On the white piece of paper were the words: “Athletes: Don’t take the sport you play for granted. Every time you play, you better be damn thankful that you get to do something you love. Don’t show up to practice complaining about not wanting to be there; you’re there hopefully because you love it.
“Work hard every moment. If you’re not working hard, you don’t deserve to play. Play every practice or game like it’s your last because it very well could be. When you finally reach the day that you can’t play, and you can only watch, then you will know how much you love something that you once took for granted.”
Colts teammates were moved by the messages, copies of which showed up in their lockers, too.
“That’s Robert,” said 12th-year defensive end Cory Redding. “We all know he’s a leader. He’s leading in his own way. He’s not really the rah-rah kind of guy, but he gets in there every now and then and mixes it up.
“That’s his message. That comes from his heart to all of us. We’ve just got to be men, take heed of that and live it.”
Mathis can’t have any contact with team officials and coaches or the West 56th Street headquarters during his suspension. He tested positive for using a fertility drug that enabled him and his wife to have a third child.
Mathis turned in one of the most memorable defensive plays of the year last season, when he sacked former Colts QB Peyton Manning and the resulting fumble bounded through the end zone for a safety. The Colts beat Manning and the Denver Broncos 39-33 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Sunday night will be the highly anticipated rematch at 8:30 p.m. in the Mile High City. But no Mathis means the Colts will have to find another way to get pressure on Manning. They know what the five-time NFL MVP passer can do if given ample time to throw. That means players like second-year outside linebacker Bjoern Werner and outside linebacker Erik Walden will be expected to make impact plays.
“It’s more a collective deal,” head coach Chuck Pagano said of playing without Mathis, a 12th-year pro and six-time Pro Bowl star. “It’s the whole defense. It’s everybody stepping up their game and playing, whether it’s 1 percent, 2 percent, 5 percent, whatever that percentage is.
“The entire defense has to step up their game in his absence and that’s what they’ll do. It’ll be easy to make the comparisons because (No.) 98’s not going to be out there. It will be a combination of Bjoern and Walden and Cam Johnson, whoever it is. But the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts, right?”
In case his teammates miss that Mathis sense of humor, he left a sign in his locker: “Gone Fishin” with a smiley face and a question mark, exclamation point, then question mark. Below that, it read: “#SALTED!!”
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.