From my very first day of OTA’s as a rookie, I felt blessed.
I remember walking out onto that practice field and the experience nearly knocked the wind out of me. The grass was so green and pristine, cut perfectly. There was equipment and trainers and coaches, all in the right place, waiting to start a new season.
And then, what I remember most was seeing the helmets up close for the first time. I took a moment to study them carefully — the blue beam down the middle with that iconic blue horseshoe on either side. Everything was perfect in its own way: from COLTS written out above the facemask to the protective foam on the inside to the way it fit snug. I mean, even the snap sounded nicer when I clipped the chinstrap.
Just making it there, being on that field in that moment, made me feel a sense of accomplishment that I’ll never forget. It was very emotional. I remember standing there as a 22-year-old rookie and being on the verge of tears as I took in everything around me. Even if that was my only day as an Indianapolis Colt, I would have been satisfied. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that 14 years later, I would retire from the game wearing that same helmet.
I was born in inner-city Atlanta to a family that had a lot of love, but not much else. I was the youngest of six kids, and my mom raised all of us on her own. Our family qualified for welfare — we needed welfare — but my brother and I begged my mom not to take it. We were scared of getting made fun of at school.
As it was, I got made fun of because I was a pudgy kid. I couldn’t run more than 10 yards without sucking wind. But despite all that, from the time I was four, I had a dream: I was going to play in the NFL.
I was going to be the next Barry Sanders, you see?
Okay maybe some dreams are too big.
Even though I held onto this dream of making it to the NFL my whole life, I didn’t get a chance to actually play organized football until 10th grade, when it was subsidized by the school district.
Oh my god, I was so bad. So, so bad.
I loved the idea of saying I played football. It gave me an identity. When I had a helmet on, I wasn’t just a poor, chubby kid. I was a football player. But I had no idea how hard it would be. I used to watch football all the time, but that’s not the same as putting on pads.
During one of my first practices, our coach yelled at me to go on the field and play linebacker. I was hyped. Here was my chance to show what I could do. I strapped on my helmet, and ran onto the field. I made it maybe four or five steps before I stopped in my tracks and turned back to my coach:
“Uhhh coach, where do I go…. Also, what’s a linebacker do?”
He looked at me so confused and then screamed, “Get your ass off the field!”
And that’s where I stayed for a while, until I finally settled in at defensive end during my junior year. That’s when the game began getting a little simpler for me. I would wait for the ball to be snapped, find out who had it and then run as hard and as fast as I could so that I could tackle them as hard and fast as I could.
I loved it. Football provided a sense of pride and purpose in my life that I hadn’t experienced up to that point. I started making friends for the first time, and even made a few plays.
By the end of high school, I knew I wanted to play college football, but it didn’t seem like college football was all that interested in me. The only solid scholarship offer I received was from Alabama A&M — and that was only by accident. While the coaches were watching another player’s film, they noticed one play when I was on the offensive line and hustled to tackle a defensive player who had intercepted the ball. On signing day, one of their commits backed out and they needed another body, so they called me up and offered a scholarship. And that’s how I became a college football player.
I got a little better each season I played. By my senior year, I led all of college football with 20 sacks. I was proud of that, but as an undersized player from a tiny school, I didn’t have any expectation of getting drafted. But my family and I held a draft party at our apartment in Atlanta regardless because it was an excuse to get together and have some drinks and barbecue, so why not?
When the phone rang during the third round, I nearly choked on my damn cheeseburger. The voice on the other end had a very unexpected message:
“We’re two picks away — are you ready to be a member of the Cleveland Browns?”
I just lost it.
Oh my god! Third round? THIRD ROUND? OH MY GOD! I’m going to the NFL!
At that point I was running around our apartment screaming, hugging my mom and crying. It was crazy.
We were all huddled around the TV when the Browns pick came up.
With the 83rd pick in the 2003 NFL Draft, the Cleveland Browns select … Chris Crocker.
I was crushed. Destroyed. Everyone went quiet. I know better now, but I had no idea that NFL teams could lie to you. I tried to calm myself down. I decided to try to make the most of the afternoon – just relax, enjoy myself and have some good food.
The next round, I got a call from the Chargers. Same deal, they were going to select me with their next pick. And once again I was hyped. I’d never been to San Diego before. Sunshine and beaches, baby. Here I come!
Then, the pick came on the screen and once again, it wasn’t me.
Now I’m pissed. I was done eating and celebrating, I just wanted the draft to end so that I could sign with a team as a free agent and be done with it.
I was in the bathroom during the fifth round when the phone rang again.
I didn’t hear it.
I didn’t care.
My mom answered, and when I came out of the bathroom she was holding onto the phone with tears in her eyes.
“It’s for you, somebody named Tony.”
I grabbed the phone, and I’ll never forget what I heard on the other end.
“Hey Robert, this is Tony Dungy. Are you ready to be a Colt?”
Coach Dungy doesn’t lie.
It seemed likely that my NFL dream would die soon after.
As a late round pick, I was a camp body — basically a player selected to take some extra reps and hopefully push the guys ahead of him on the depth chart to perform better.
The Colts seemed pretty set at defensive end. They had this kid out of Syracuse they’d taken in the first round the year before, Dwight Freeney. I sure as hell wasn’t taking his spot.
I told myself that in order to stick, I’d need to get get complimented by a coach on at least one thing every day at practice. Our defensive line coach, John Teerlinck, was very clear about what our job was — we had to get to the quarterback.
He drove that point home constantly. The way we approached the run was basically: While you’re on your way to the quarterback, stop the running back. He used to draw on random examples to give us direction. He’d compare our turns out of stunts to the Queen Mary ocean liner. He also used to tell us that he didn’t want us to be razors on the field rather than jackhammers. Quick, clean and precise. So that’s how I tried to model my game.
In the NFL, yes, the competition against other teams is incredible, but the true work occurs on the practice field. They bring in almost twice as many players as they have roster spots every year, and from that very first day of training camp to my last day in the NFL, I was always focused on earning my spot.
Hustle would ultimately help me survive cuts during that first training camp, but early on I didn’t see much of the field. My rookie year, I performed okay, but I wasn’t able to carry over my play from the practice field to the game.
For inspiration, I’d watch Dwight out there on Sundays and, my goodness, he was a dog. I studied him closely. I constantly challenged myself to earn a seat at the table Dwight sat at. He demanded double teams — if you hear him tell it, sometimes quadruple teams (yeah, whatever, Dwight) — so I made it my goal to earn blockers.
And eventually I did.
Over the years, Dwight became much more than my competition. He was like an older brother to me. I grew up on that defensive line with him. We matured together. So many of my best memories as a professional involve just sharing an an adult beverage with him and shooting the breeze. By the time I got married, it wasn’t a question of if Dwight was going to be my groomsman. I was like straight up, grab a tux, you’re in this wedding, man.
One of the greatest privileges of playing in Indianapolis is that I got to compete alongside people who brought out the very best in me. I didn’t realize it during that first training camp, but Dwight would become one of the people who would define my time in the NFL.
And I like to think that together we caused a few quarterbacks some sleepless nights in the process.
Every game I played as a Colt, I knew our offense would give us a chance to win.
I had the honor of playing with the best collection of talent in NFL history. I don’t even need to give last names and people will know who I’m talking about:
Peyton. Edgerrin. Reggie. Marvin … and the list goes on.
Then there was Tony.
Anyone who has played for Coach Dungy will probably tell you the same things about him. Essentially, what you see is what you get.
Coach never yelled at us. He never needed to. I’ve been cussed out by plenty of coaches, and generally it kind of rolled off my back. But having Tony Dungy walk up to you and calmly say, “You’re not doing your job out there. You’re killing us. I need you to be better” — well, that was much, much worse than getting cussed out. It was like having a parent say they were disappointed in you.
Our teams took on his persona. Our franchise did, really. Even after he left, it was still present. He was always poised and collected. He carried himself with a quiet confidence that was infectious. He was just … cool.
During the 2000s, we were Super Bowl contenders every single year. The only problem was that the Patriots were too.
We started following this pattern where we would have a great regular season, then when the playoffs started, for one reason or another, we just couldn’t get over the hump.
But that all changed in 2007.
We were playing in the AFC Championship game against — who else? — the Patriots. Two of my first three years in the league, they had ended our season. And it was looking like it was about to happen again. We were down 21–-6 at the half in our own building. As we headed to the locker room, the mood was really down. We all sat at our lockers, shell-shocked and silent, when Coach Dungy walked in.
He looked around the room at all of us and said what need to be said:
“This… this is our time.”
Then he said it again. This time, just a tiny bit louder.
“Guys, it’s our time.”
This wasn’t a pump-up speech. It wasn’t a huge scripted display. It was a man we all respected speaking a simple truth.
We came out of the locker room and proceeded to play the best half of football that I would ever be part of. For those 30 minutes, we exorcised all of the demons that the franchise had felt for the past few years, and for the many decades leading up to that point.
And in the end, coach was right. It was our time.
Not to sound arrogant, but after we beat the Patriots in that game, the Super Bowl almost seemed like a formality. The Bears were a great team, but that was our game. They said we couldn’t play in the elements, and all we did was hold the Bears offense to a single touchdown in a huge rainstorm to win that game.
After far too long, we finally got Peyton his ring.
Last year, we celebrated the 10-year anniversary of that team before one of our home games in November.
It was kind of a trip, to be honest. It was hard to believe that 10 years had passed.
There were a lot of familiar faces at that game. Peyton was there, of course. So was Reggie, who is someone I still talk to just about every day. And I also saw Gary Brackett. He was an undrafted rookie out of Rutgers the same year I came to the Colts, and we quickly became great friends. If I made the roster that first year because of hustle, he made it because of smarts.
There were so many important people from my past there on that day, but I was one of the few still wearing a Colts uniform. I’ll admit that it was tough to warm up because all I wanted to do was walk over to the sidelines so I could catch up with my boys.
Looking back on that team, I feel a mix of pride, and I’ll admit, the slightest bit of disappointment. I’m so proud of what we accomplished during our era of Colts football, but I think every person, down to the last man, would tell you that he expected to win more than one ring in Indy. If there’s any regret I have from my career, it’s that.
But that doesn’t diminish what I gained from my time playing here. I adopted this phrase I use a lot, “I am Indy, Indy is me.” It’s about what this place means to me. When I was picked by the Colts, I knew nothing about the Midwest. Coming from inner-city Atlanta, it might as well have been a foreign country.
But today, I’m a Hoosier through and through. This city has adopted me and changed my life forever. My kids were born in Indianapolis, and I plan to live here for as long as I can. Hell, I even drove the pace car at the Indy 500 this past spring. Bucket list, y’all.
So upon calling it a career, it doesn’t feel right to treat this as a goodbye, because I don’t plan on going anywhere. For the past 14 years Indianapolis has given me everything I dreamed of, and if there’s one thing I hope for in this next chapter, it’s that maybe I’m able to give something back.
My final game took place this past December. Two days before, I announced that it would be my last, so there were a lot of emotions flowing. Throughout the game, the team showed highlights from my career on the big screen, which felt like a journey in a time machine.
Coming into that game, I had 122 ½ career sacks, just half a sack behind guess who?
Yup, that kid from Syracuse.
Early in the fourth quarter, I got a good jump on the snap and managed to get a strip sack to move me ½ a sack ahead of Dwight. I couldn’t imagine a better way to close out my career, finally catching the guy I’d been chasing.
When the game was over, I spent a lot of time in the locker room. Long after the media and my teammates left, I was still there, wearing my uniform. I didn’t want to take it off.
I sat there for a while staring at my helmet. All these years later, there was something about that horseshoe that still made my heart pound in my chest. Now it had a deeper meaning than I ever imagined it could have the first time I admired it all those years ago as a rookie. I spent my entire career trying to be worthy of that helmet.
A lot of memories came flooding back to me as I sat there. Some of those memories were from big games, but many more were of things that surrounded the game. The many coaches and mentors I had encountered who served as my guardian angels. The laughs I shared with Dwight, Gary, Raheem and the rest of the great defensive players I encountered over the years. And finally, I thought about that chubby kid who dreamed of becoming Barry Sanders, but instead found out that being Robert Mathis was good enough.
After taking some time, when I was ready, I set my helmet down and walked out of that locker room for the final time as a Colts player.
And I took my first steps into my new life, as a Colts fan — forever and always.