NEW YORK –The bright lights have shined on many a star in New York's Radio City Music Hall and tonight, Robert Mathis was one of those individuals.
Mathis was honored as the NFL's sack champion, becoming the first recipient of the Deacon Jones Award.
"Deacon Jones was a guy who played the game the way I like to play it – lights out, quarterback-hating and just enjoying football," said Mathis. "To be able to win the first award in his honor, it's an honor. I grew up watching the old Deacon Jones film. He's the creator of the sack, and it's tremendous to be associated with Deacon Jones."
In his 11th year as a Colt, Mathis (19.5) joined Dwight Freeney (16.0, 2004) as the Colts' only sack champions. Sacks became an official statistic in 1982.
Mathis was a fifth-round choice by the Colts in 2003 from Alabama A&M. His school joined the Southwestern Athletic Conference just before Mathis arrived.
It was the same conference Jones departed in 1961 as a 14th-round pick of the Los Angeles Rams, and the SWAC and other conferences like it have been an NFL pipeline for years.
"The fact he's a fellow SWAC guy means a lot to me," said Mathis. "Deacon went to Mississippi Valley State and for the award to be named after the guy who created the sack, it's special for me.
"The conference is not much-heralded, but it lets you know it doesn't matter where you come from as long as you make the most of your opportunities. Ultimately, that's what it means to me."
"How fitting that an award named after a former NFL and HBCU legend is being presented in its inaugural season to another NFL and HBCU legend," said Colts general manager Ryan Grigson. "Both men proved that draft position and the size of their school weren't going to stop them from achieving greatness. They are both excellent examples of players who aside from their God-given ability impacted the game on every down because of their truly relentless spirit.
"Robert Mathis exemplifies what the Horseshoe is all about, and the entire organization couldn't be happier for him and this accomplishment."
Jones had an estimated 194.5 career sacks from 1961-74 before it was an officially-recognized statistic, a total Mathis quibbles.
"I think he was short-changed. They didn't keep records of it when he was playing. I think he had like 300 (laughs)," said Mathis. "I was talking to one of Rams coaches at the Pro Bowl, and he said Jones had 26 sacks one year and like 28 another year. That's over 50 in two years, so they kind of short-changed him (smiles)."
As quarterbacks then attested to Jones' greatness, they do so now about Mathis.
"He's an unbelievable talent," said Tom Brady. "He's got incredible athleticism. He's so smart. He's got a lot of moves. What Robert's done with leading the league in sacks and strip-sacks has really been huge. You try to put guys around him and double-team him, but he still seems to be making all the plays."
Mathis downplayed the personal achievement all year hoping a team goal would trump everything else and that Indianapolis would be playing Sunday in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Mathis had sacks in 12-of-16 games. His club seasonal-record seven multiple-sack games pushed his career total to 27. That total and his 111.0 career sacks both pushed ahead of Freeney (25, 107.5) as franchise records.
Indianapolis had 42 sacks, meaning Mathis' 19.5 represented 46.4 percent of the team's total. That percentage ties the tenth-best by a player over the 32 seasons that sacks have been recognized officially.
HIGHEST SEASONAL PERCENTAGES OF SACKS BY ONE PLAYER (1982-2013)
Total times at 40-plus% = 35, done by 22 players
"We know the leadership, the kind of person he is, his work ethic," said Cory Redding. "His motor doesn't stop. When his team needs him the most, he always steps up and makes a play.
He's, in my book, the MVP, (the) defensive player of the universe."
This year, 16 of Mathis' sacks helped end or directly snuffed out opponents' drives. His eight forced fumbles led the league. Mathis was not able to garner defensive player of the year honors.
With 43 career strip-sacks, Mathis moved past Jason Taylor (39) as the NFL's all-time leader. That number means almost 39 percent of his career takedowns have jarred the ball loose from the 55 players he has leveled. He has mastered that art.
"He's one of the most disruptive players in the league," said Bill Belichick. "Not only does he hit the quarterback, but he causes the turnover, game-changing plays. You have to do a good job on him or he can absolutely ruin a game."
Mathis played his first nine seasons at defensive end. Last year, he watched as Freeney was the 'rush' linebacker. Mathis took that role this season and defined it.
"He's the type of player that if he was playing the rush (role) for all (these) years, he'd probably have a lot more sacks," said Greg Manusky. "He's just a great player, a Hall of Famer from my standpoint."
Said Chuck Pagano, "He's so good and talented it's hard to get someone that plays that hard that has that level of talent."
Under the bright lights Saturday, Mathis was quick to share the spotlight for this special moment.
"The whole defense is represented in this award," said Mathis. "The secondary gave that extra second of coverage that I needed to get to the quarterback. The linebackers blitzed and were in coverage. The linemen occupied guys and were trying to keep chippers and guards off me.
"It was a team effort. This is not an individual award by any stretch of the imagination."