The first time coach Craig Chambers brought Arsenal Tech's football team to train with Robert Mathis and Gridiron Gang, his players were amazed – yet a little guarded.
Mathis understood why.
"When you get there, of course there's the oohs and aahs but after that it's like, aight, just another guy seeking photo ops and then he's gone," Mathis said. "Until you come back."
Mathis didn't create a scholarship program for athletes to train with Gridiron Gang for the accolades, the Instagram likes, the positive media coverage — any of that stuff. He created it because he saw himself in kids like the ones who play for Arsenal Tech, a school where 69 percent of students are economically disadvantaged according to U.S. News and World Report.
"I come from a similar background to Arsenal Tech — inner-city Atlanta, Georgia," Mathis said. "And when it comes to things like that a lot of those kids, they open up because it's not about how much you know, it's about how much you care."
So Mathis keeps coming back to Arsenal Tech. A number of the team's players are on scholarship with Gridiron Gang, where they receive training in not just football skills, but life skills. And the bonds Mathis — one of the greatest Colts players of all time — has formed with those kids are strong and genuine.
"He's a phenomenal guy," Chambers said. "I can't express it more. His heart is in it, he really wants to give back to the kids and the community.
"When they show up, it's genuine, you want to see the kids be successful and you really put a little time and effort and he's one of the guys, he does it. He teaches, he goes through the drills, he communicates well, he's extremely passionate about what he does and they see it.
"Our kids are relational kids and the relationship he's built with the kids has been great. It's going to go a long way for them. They still talk about some different things and situations all the time. He's just a great guy, man. Can't really put a lot of it into words. Everything is genuine, everything is out of love and he really cares and he wants the kids to be successful."
Gridiron Gang has over 200 kids on scholarship, meaning they receive for free all the training Mathis, Daniel Muir, Chuck Pagano and a full staff of 11 coaches offer.
Mathis, though the scholarship program, is aiming to expand Gridiron Gang's reach to more youth players around the Indianapolis area. So on a day that's all about him, he's using it to give back to the community.
Before Mathis is enshrined in the Colts' Ring of Honor during the Colts' Week 12 game against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he’s hosting a fundraiser for Gridiron Gang’s scholarship program at The Pavilion in downtown Indianapolis.
"It's very in Rob's wheelhouse to always give back," Cebronica Luft, Founder/Partner at The Pavilion and an investor in Gridiron Gang, said. "This weekend is really about him, and when we came to him with the idea of using this weekend to actually give back to the community, he was all on board right off the bat."
Through the fundraiser, Gridiron Gang hopes to raise money to expand its scholarship program to at least 400 more youth athletes.
And that scholarship program focuses on more than just football. Life skills are a critical component to what Mathis, Muir and Gridiron Gang teach — etiquette, social media presence, financial literacy are just as important as hand placement, proper technique, strength, conditioning and other football skills.
"If you can get your hands on these boys and girls early and just teach them how important it is to not send a dumb* tweet that's going to come back and bite you when you're trying to become that professional, or not to just disrespect adults, just doing all the stuff that you know you're going to regret later," Mathis said. "And if you can learn by somebody telling you now versus you having to experience the pain of it, you'll be that much further ahead in life than the next man."
That focus on life skills in addition to football skills is what drew Luft to get involved with Gridiron Gang.
"I think the downfall of a lot of athletes is they focus solely on athletics, so when the game is over, when their career is over — whether that ends in middle school, high school, college, professionally — you always have that what next factor," Luft said. "And a lot of those players aren't prepared for that life after sports. So for me the fact that they're focusing on the athlete as a whole, the person as a whole, is really the missing link for a lot of programs out there.
"Even team and professional programs, a lot of times it's football-focused, it's not about off the field and how to manage your finances, how to manage your social media. So Rob knows better than anyone how important those aspects are, going through that whole life cycle of an athlete. Having his input and learning from somebody that's been through it and been affected by it, it's priceless education there."
Chambers kept going back to the word "genuine" when explaining Mathis' impact on his team. It's one thing to talk at high school players; it's another to talk with them. And there's nothing fake about the relationships Mathis is building.
"A lot of kids these days, you can say something to them and they're going to listen to it," Chambers said. "But as you show interest in the kids and you come back and you build a relationship well, you communicate well and you talk to them about the sport because we're communicating with them about some real life stuff that they're going through and letting them know that you actually, genuinely care about them, then they do more.
"They support you more, they understand that you are not just the coach or the instructor for them, that you're a mentor, a father figure or anything like that that helps them in life. They really open up more, you can get a lot out of kids that way. That's what Robert and our staff, we try to do."
Mathis could've taken the whole day on Nov. 28 to bask in the glory that was his 123 career sacks and 54 forced fumbles. He could've admired all the No. 98 jerseys milling around Lucas Oil Stadium and soaked in the roar of the crowd when his name finds its rightful place among the legends of this franchise.
And certainly, Mathis will do all those things with a deep appreciation for his career and to the city he now calls home. But through that appreciation comes a desire to give back. And he'll continue to do that through Gridiron Gang's scholarship program, impacting one kid at a time, one experience at a time.
"It's empowering to see the impact they have on the community," Luft said. "One thing I've noticed if you don't see programs like this very often. There's a lot of football training programs around the country, there's a lot of football camp programs around the country, but you don't see them being led by personalities and athletes like Robert and Dan's caliber. It's really awe-striking to see them at work where you have a potential future Hall of Famer on the field every day with these kids getting five-star training on a daily basis.
"I've worked with athletes in the past and they've been happy to show up for an hour appearance. But Rob and Dan are putting in the work each and every day and that's an opportunity you can't pay for. And a lot of these kids, fortunately, don't have to pay for it. It kind of bridges the gap between kids that can afford those type of appearances, get flown off to camps for two weeks at a time to those kids that never leave their community. Robert's meeting them where they are. It's just super exciting to see."