Were he different,
Were he not a professional athlete, and if he didn’t possess the attributes that allow an athlete to perform at the highest level, the Jaguars veteran cornerback said there’s a good chance he wouldn’t be doing what he is doing.
But because he is such an athlete, spending his days at the Jaguars rehabilitating a torn anterior cruciate ligament – even with his future with the team uncertain . . .
Well, Mathis said he knows no other way.
“The drive that’s in you, the drive that has driven you your whole life to overcome anything that’s been put in front of you – that’s what does it,” Mathis said recently following a workout at the team’s training facility at EverBank Field.
Besides, Mathis said there’s a more basic reason.
“I’m not ready to let go of my guys yet – the locker room, the camaraderie we have,” Mathis said. “That is still a part of me. There will be a day where I wash my hands of it and say, ‘The Lord has allowed me to do great things,’ but that’s not here.
“My time is not up yet.”
As he continues his rehabilitation process, whether his time is up in the NFL, Mathis has a question about which he is certain. Despite the ACL tear that ended his 2011 season – his ninth in the NFL – seven games too early, he wants to play professional football again and is certain he will.
Whether that will be in Jacksonville is less certain.
Mathis, a second-round selection by the Jaguars in the 2003 NFL Draft, played last season in the final year of his contract. With a little less than a month remaining before the NFL’s free-agency period opens March 13, whether he will remain with the team is unclear.
Mathis said he is sure of one thing:
Given a preference, he would like to play in Jacksonville and finish his career here.
“That’s what I want – and there is hope,” he said. “Hopefully, I don’t hit free agency. The people who work for me know that and my agency knows that – and they have always known that. I’ve never kept that a secret, but I understand the evaluation process that has to go on and the trust process with this injury that has to go on.”
Mathis said although he is not under contract for next season, the Jaguars have been “as supportive as you can ask for” since the surgery and during his rehab. He said that’s something he appreciates “because you never know.”
“I’ve been in for nine years, so I’ve seen it all and then some,” Mathis said. “You never know how the cookie is going to crumble, so being the cookie hasn’t crumbled at all, I’m blessed.”
Mathis, a Pro Bowl selection in 2006, said his approach to the injury and rehab is similar to the approach he tries to take in life, that he worries as little as possible about what he can’t control. One such thing is the pace of his rehabilitation and the timing of his injury as it relates to his future.
Mathis sustained the injury on November 13, and with a torn ACL usually requiring at least nine months recovery, Mathis said the reality is he won’t be 100 percent when free agency opens.
“There is still rehabbing to do,” Mathis said. “I’m ahead of schedule, but there’s still a haul to go. From here, it’s about the trust whoever will have in seeing guys come back from this injury.”
Mathis said he knows the timing of the injury probably cost him millions in free agency. Still, when he spoke of his rehabilitation, and his future, he did so without bitterness – and comparatively little regret. He said he is financially secure whether he plays again or not, and said even when observers talked about him playing well last season because he was in a contract year, “That didn’t drive me.”
Mathis said while he did ask himself why he had to get hurt during his best season in recent memory, he spent little time doing so. He also said considering the number of players who sustain injuries early in their career and never reach their potential, he has in a sense been fortunate.
“I played for nine years, and aside from my groin, I never had a serious injuries – especially with my knees,” he said. “I got a reality check early. It’s not about why it happened, it’s how you react to it. How you overcome obstacles is what defines your character. My thought process is, ‘Get as healthy as you can and allow yourself to be as strong as you can mentally and physically. Then, whatever plays out, plays out.”
And Mathis, too, said this:
If he can’t play at a high level, then he would rather not play at all.
“If I’m not able to do my job, I don’t want to be anywhere,” he said. “That’s not my character. I don’t want to be on the field just to be on the field. If I’m not productive, I don’t want to be anywhere. I’m not the guy who says, ‘I’ve got a check.’ That’s never been my personality.”
So for now, Mathis said he will continue to do the only thing he knows how – work, knowing he will play again somewhere and hoping it will be the only place he ever has really wanted to play.
“I understand what playing well looks like,” he said. “Some people have a false reality of it, but I’ve done it and did that this year. I have years in me, at corner. There has been talk of other stuff, but I will end my career at corner – and to be successful and have an impact on a team, I still have that in me.
“If I’m here or not here, it’s not a negative on anybody’s part, especially not the organization. I will be playing football. Prayfully, it would be here, because this is where my heart is, but you just never know and I’m OK with not knowing.”