Robert Mathis endured a rather complicated road to recovery from a torn left Achilles tendon as one surgical procedure led to 10 due to an infection.
The Colts star sounded reluctant to admit it Friday. He's tried to put that in the past. An offseason report from ESPN’s Mike Wells about Mathis suffering a setback was more accurate than anyone knew.
“It was 10 total,” Mathis said. “Yeah, I had to get cut 10 times.”
He said he didn’t know why. They just became necessary.
“I wish I could tell you,” he said. “I wish it didn’t, but we’re by it now so we’re ready to go.”
Mathis, 34, played Monday night for the first time in 619 days. Head coach Chuck Pagano estimated the franchise’s all-time sack leader played about 12 or 13 snaps. The 13th-year pro had one tackle and one quarterback pressure.
More importantly, he didn’t look like he’s lost much of a step, which is important because Mathis has made a 111-sack career out of speeding past blockers to the quarterback with a unique blend of quickness and strength. At 6-2 and 245, that foot speed is imperative. The guys he goes up against typically outweigh him by at least 60 pounds.
His 2013 couldn’t have been better as he led the NFL in sacks with 19.5. But then 2014 could have been worse.
He tested positive for a fertility drug that is on the league’s banned substances list because it can be used as a masking agent for performance-enhancing drugs. He was hit with a four-game suspension in addition to public perception debating whether Mathis used steroids, which he has always vehemently denied. While working out in Atlanta during the suspension, Mathis suffered the Achilles tear, the first serious injury of his career.
As if missing an entire season wasn’t agonizing enough, Mathis started making continual trips to the operating room. It was beyond frustrating.
“Extremely. But you can’t cry with spilled milk,” he said. “You just got to get it done. Whatever needed to be done was done so I’m back out there with the fellas now.”
His return became a non-stop headline in the offseason. Mathis broke his silence on an Indianapolis TV show by saying he would be ready to practice when the Colts reported for training camp. A short time later, he amended that goal to say he would be ready for the Colts’ regular season opener on Sept. 13.
The Colts made it clear they were going to be extra cautious with him. He wasn’t cleared until later in preseason. And he didn’t make that season opener, which the Colts lost 27-14 at Buffalo.
But when Mathis raced out of the tunnel at Lucas Oil Stadium on Monday Night Football, fans rejoiced. What they couldn’t see inside the helmet was a man fighting back tears of emotion.
“The crowd, they gave me a nice welcome back,” Mathis said. “It was very exciting. Just happy to be back.”
He didn’t start, used instead as a situational pass rusher. Perhaps he’ll start Sunday — outside linebacker Trent Cole is questionable with a knee injury — when the Colts (0-2) visit the Tennessee Titans (1-1) at Nissan Stadium.
“It’s great to have him back,” Pagano said. “Limited obviously, first one back, but we’ll start to amp that up. He felt great coming out of (Monday) physically. It’s obviously good to have Robert back.”
When Mathis was asked about how amazing it is to be playing after what he’s overcome, that kind of question is one he’s answered much of his professional life. Critics contended the man was too slow, too small and came from a school (Alabama A&M) not exactly known for churning out NFL players.
He succeeds from sweat. Always has. His latest ordeal became just another challenge.
“Yeah, it was frustrating and I had to work, had to grind, had to overcome a lot of obstacles,” he said. “I was blessed enough to be able to be in the position to be back out here.”
On Tuesday, his body was understandably sore. That’s the norm for the day after games. But it was nothing out of the ordinary, which meant Mathis came through “stepping on the grenade” without blowing up, as he had previously referred to knowing he could trust the Achilles after his first game action.
“That was always a concern in the back of my mind, but everything was fine, everything was strong, and good to go,” he said.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.