Earlier this year, Robert Mathis made a surprise appearance at a practice for the Lions — a youth football club that's a feeder for Arsenal Tech High School.
Jovanna Warr, the Lions' treasurer, secretary and team mom, didn't know he was coming. Or what he would do.
Or, if she's being honest, who he was.
At least at first. It would all make sense pretty quickly.
But there was Mathis, along with former Colts defensive lineman and Gridiron Gang coaching partner Daniel Muir, on the sidelines of the Lions' practice. The Colts' all-time sack leader, who will be inducted into the Colts' Ring of Honor in November, offered a few pointers while watching the entire day of work.
After practice, Warr and the Lions' staff spoke to parents about needing volunteers for a fundraising drive at the Indianapolis 500. The team needed 100 new helmets. Mathis and Muir stuck around, and then addressed the group of players and parents.
"At that point, they were like, whatever you do to volunteer, we dig on that," Warr said. "Whatever y'all make at the Indy 500, we'll match you guys."
Warr was floored. The donation from Mathis would set her organization ahead five years financially.
But examples like this are part of the larger impact Mathis wants to make in the next chapter of his football life.
Mathis and Muir — a former defensive lineman who played in 40 games for the Colts between 2008-2011 — founded Gridiron Gang in 2018 with the goal of establishing the Midwest's premier football development program.
"We felt in our respective positions it wasn't being coached the proper way," Mathis said, "(while) also teaching guys about life on the field versus off the field and taking more of a mentor type of aspect in our approach to training.
Mathis relishes dispensing the knowledge he accumulated over his 14 seasons with the Colts. A lot of what he can impart on youth players comes from his own experience as the franchise's all-time sacks leader. But there are plenty of lessons he learned from his teammates — Peyton Manning, Jeff Saturday, Ryan Diem, among many others — which he passes on to those who work with Gridiron Gang.
Both Mathis and Muir, too, learned everything from the art of the pass rush to how to watch film and lift weights from the late John Teerlinck, who was the Colts' defensive line coach from 2002-2011.
Since Gridiron Gang, which is based at Grand Park in Westfield, was founded, Mathis, Muir and seven other coaches have trained a number of up-and-coming football players in the Indianapolis area. Some big-time local players have come through, like Carmel's Cole Brevard (now with Penn State) and Beau Robbins (now with Indiana), Westfield's Popeye Williams (verbally committed to Louisville in class of 2022) and Greenwood's Jovan Swann (who played college ball at Stanford and Indiana and signed with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent earlier this month).
Joe Strickland, an uncommitted 2022 four-star defensive end prospect from Brebeuf High School in Indianapolis, also trained with Gridiron Gang.
"I would recommend Gridiron Gang to any elite player or defensive lineman," Strickland wrote in a testimonial on Gridiron Gang's website. "The teaching you receive is something next level from the greats who have done what you are trying to accomplish."
Gridiron Gang trains plenty of positions beyond defensive line, too. For example: Mathis enjoys counter-coaching quarterbacks, offering tips he learned from Manning on what tells and giveaways a quarterback can look for in a pass rusher.
Mathis and Muir, though, wanted to expand their reach beyond the northern suburbs of Indianapolis, where Muir said families can typically afford the kind of training offered by outfits like Gridiron Gang.
"Drive 30-45 minutes down the road, that's not the case," Muir said. "We just wanted to be able to offer the same thing to all of Indianapolis, all Indiana and eventually all the Midwest. We just wanted to be able to offer everything we're doing to everybody. Everybody should get a fair shot to get this training and this mentorship from guys that've done it."
Mathis and Muir have been based in Indianapolis for quite some time and know the area well. With their networking capabilities, contacts and connections, they were able to establish a scholarship program that affords athletes from underrepresented communities as well those from military and public service families the opportunity to train with Mathis, Muir, seven other Gridiron Gang coaches and various guest coaches.
Gridiron Gang has raised $272,500 for its scholarship program to date, according to Phil Grove, a local entrepreneur and investor who works with and advises Mathis, Muir and Gridiron Gang.
"These guys are changing the trajectory of young mens' lives," Grove said.
The scholarship program has grown into the primary focus of Gridiron Gang, with Mathis and Muir opening their arms and making it known that "everyone can be involved," Mathis said.
Gridiron Gang works directly with a handful of high schools in the Indianapolis area, too, including Arsenal Tech and Lawrence North. Grant Nesbit, the Director of Operations for the Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township, forged a partnership with Gridiron Gang to allow them to use Lawrence North's facilities and provide training for local high school players.
"It's not outside the realm of possibility that we have the next Robert Mathis going through the high school halls right now where this training may make a difference for him," Nesbit said. "It may be enough to push that kid to want to achieve more. And a lot of our kids wouldn't have that opportunity otherwise. They would just never be able to get exposed to this kind of expertise."
And Mathis, just as he did while playing with the Colts, pours every ounce of effort he has into training these kids.
"Rob is very hands on with them," Nesbit said. "He's not just — he's out there doing it. He's working up a sweat. The guy still looks like he could play to me.
"You can't help but get inspired by watching him demonstrate the drill. Those kids want to do it better because they're watching one of the greats to do it."
But Mathis' message to those kids, and everyone else he works with, is about much, much more than just football.
Mathis remembers what it was like to show up at a professional dinner his rookie season with the Colts and feel out of place.
"I'm coming from inner city Atlanta, went to a college in Alabama so I get to the NFL and I'm just trying not to stick out like a sore thumb," Mathis said. "I don't know about a salad fork versus a steak fork and knives and all this stuff. These are things now that I learned and now that I know that and we have the guys, people on our team that know how to teach that, we just want to give them the best head start possible."
Teaching kids about dining etiquette is just one part of how Mathis and Gridiron Gang aim to impact the lives of the athletes with which they're involved.
"It's a lot more than football," Muir said. "To be successful when it comes to the sport of football, it's not just playing football. You have to be able to be professional on the field, be professional off the field and a lot of times of where we start is being professional at home. So teaching them to be a good son at home, not only doing that but paying attention when they're in school — the importance of stressing good grades.
"And a lot of times it's easy to just say these things, but when you're getting drilled on them just as hard as you're getting drilled on the field, it really sticks out to these young men."
The Colts, as an organization, offer plenty of support for Mathis. For example: When it comes to professionalism, they'll let Mathis know what they're looking for from rookies, which Mathis then passes on to the young men he's training.
Mathis offers the "98 Hour Challenge" — referencing his number with the Colts — to emphasize the importance of things away from the football field, like financial literacy and social media presence. And when a player completes the 98 Hour Challenge, Mathis said he sees the biggest growth not in football, but in maturity.
"When they first come in, it's alright, I'm an athlete, I got talent. Now what? It's basically, kiss my ass," Mathis said. "We have to break you down to build you up. We're going to teach you about life and football kind of comes last, because that's the thing you know how to do walking in the door."
And so, Mathis keeps this mantra at the forefront of his work with Gridiron Gang: "Football is what you do, it's not who you are."
Gridiron Gang aims to teach its student-athletes about life on and off the field. But that's not the only learning that's happening in Westfield or at high schools and youth practice fields across the Indianapolis area.
Mathis said he's learned to be patient in training the kids who come through Gridiron Gang. The same goes for Muir — you learn a lot about yourself when you're working with youth and high school players.
"I've learned just as much training these young men as they've learned from me playing the game," Muir said. "They've got better and I've got better. We're all learning together."
More than anything, though, Mathis has found an immense amount of fulfillment from helping shape and mold the youth who come through Gridiron Gang, especially with its robust scholarship program. It's become the ideal way for Mathis to write the next chapter in his football life.
"Doing this is therapeutic, gratifying and rewarding," Mathis said. "I'm able to help the youth, pay it forward and also be around the game that I love and just helping players do it the right way. I'm in a good place mentally. Don't have to put a thousand hours of coaching, all that stuff in, but at the same time I'm able to have a huge impact on the youth, their whole lives."
Mathis' involvement with the Lions' youth football program didn't end when he pledged to match their Indy 500 fundraising total. He's brought players from the Lions to work out regularly with Gridiron Gang in Westfield on Mondays, and invited 24 players and parents to his suite at the Indy 500.
"They spared no expense for the kids," Warr said.
Mathis will always be known for the impact he had on the Colts, from winning a Super Bowl to leading the franchise in sacks to representing the team at five Pro Bowls. But Mathis' impact on Indianapolis didn't end when his playing career did.
Through Gridiron Gang and its scholarship program, Mathis' impact here is only continuing to grow.
"For somebody of his stature, somebody that important, that he just didn't — the impact that he had was so grand and it was just so heartfelt and so warming, that it's like you couldn't even believe," Warr said. "You know people like this really do exist, but for it to come from him it was just — I was like, okay, I'm trying not to cry, let me not cry. I don't even think he understands the magnitude the impact it would actually have because he's so humble and he's so quiet and that's just who he is. How do you tell somebody like that, that really you are amazing and the opportunity that you have blessed our organization with, it literally pushes us ahead five years in major ways and little ways and in ways that make a huge difference in 175-plus kids' lives."