It's impossible to distill what made Robert Mathis a great football player into just one sentence or a paragraph.
So let's start at the end. As in the end of the game.
"When more was on the line, the harder he played. And it's kind of hard to think that Robert could actually play harder," recalled Dwight Freeney, Mathis' partner in crime against quarterbacks for over a decade in Indianapolis. "If he gave 100 percent in three quarters, well, that last quarter, he was going to give 150 percent. It was like a blur."
In 2006, Mathis had six sacks in the fourth quarter of games – including two in the playoffs as the Colts marched to a Lombardi Trophy.
When the Colts needed a play to finish a game, they could count on Mathis to blast off the edge and get a sack – or, more destructively, force a fumble. He's the NFL's all-time leader in strip-sacks (47) and the Colts' all-time leader in sacks (123), and countless of those plays came late in games when the Colts needed it the most.
"Any time a massive play needed to be made," former Colts punter Pat McAfee said, "it felt as if everybody in the stadium and definitely everybody on our sideline expected the strip sack king to get home."
Added Polian: "Virtually every game that's on the line in the fourth quarter that we had to close out when we had a lead — always, always, always he came through."
One hundred-thirty-seven players were picked before Bill Polian brought Mathis to the Colts in the 2003 NFL Draft. His college tape from Alabama A&M was legendary – "Other than Barry Sanders," former Colts coach Tony Dungy said, "(Mathis had) the best college highlight tape I've ever seen."
Mathis, though, was undersized for a defensive end, weighing somewhere between 20-30 pounds less than most players at his position back then.
So Mathis waited until the fifth round until he heard his name called.
But as soon as Mathis arrived in Indianapolis, it was clear to everyone watching him practice that his talents were for real. His size may have been "far from ideal," Polian said, but the production was beyond ideal: Mathis had 24.5 sacks and 17 forced fumbles over his first three years with the Colts.
"Truthfully," Polian said, "I couldn't tell you what he weighed. By the time he was with us for three or four years, it didn't matter."
And Mathis continued to play at a high level for over a decade despite not being a prototype for a defensive end.
"There was never any downturn in his play. Never," Polian said. "He defied every single mathematical standard that there was simply because he kept himself in incredible shape. He worked at his job day in and day out and because of that his physical gifts never waned precipitously. He defied every standard there was for longevity at that position, especially for a man that was not ideal size for the position."
By the time Anthony Castonzo got to the Colts in 2011, Mathis was established as one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL. He recalled a practice rep early in his career where No. 98 went outside, used his incredible bending ability to get low, then spun back across Castonzo to win the rep.
"It was one of those things where you kind of put your hands up afterwards like, welp, yeah," Castonzo said. "I wasn't gonna block that."
Mathis didn't become one of the NFL's most feared pass rushers of the 2000s and 2010s just because of his talent, though. He was an intricate, cerebral player and followed the coaching of the late Colts defensive line coach John Teerlinck, who taught him the art of the pass rush. Mathis would spend drives and games setting up his rushes by getting a tackle to sit on one move and then hitting him with a devastating counter-move, like a pitcher using his fastball to make a hitter look silly when he throws a changeup.
"Robert's thinking two, three plays ahead," Freeney said. "We're trying to win that one particular rush and he's trying to win that one particular rush but he also understands, okay, this guy's blocking me this way and it's setting this up. That's some of the stuff that we did, we were aware and his awareness to knowing what moves to come next was great. And Mathis was particularly devastating in his ability to pick up what an offensive lineman wasn't good at and use that to his advantage."
Pass rushing for Mathis wasn't just about strength or athleticism or twitchiness or bend – he was particularly adept at the mental side of getting to the quarterback.
"He makes you think, how is Robert about to expose my weakness and is he going to break the game based on his taking advantage of my weakness," Castonzo said. "It's a stressful situation to be in. I'm glad I never had to face him in a game."
Current Colts left tackle Eric Fisher, though, did have to face him a game – twice, both while Fisher was with the Kansas City Chiefs. Fisher said he had to be aware Mathis would use his pass rushing move on first down to set up what he'd use on third down, allowing him to make those game-wrecking plays for which he'll always be known.
"It's amazing to see someone's craft like that," Fisher said.
More than anything, those who were around Mathis from 2003-2016 pointed to his work ethic as the thing that stuck with them about his greatness. He took tremendous care of his body, which allowed him to play in 13 seasons at a high level.
And Mathis' work ethic extended into every single practice rep he took – and then how he learned from each one.
"He used practice as a true simulation of the game," Castonzo said. "And he wasn't taking any reps off. It was just constant. It was a constant effort and constantly trying to get better. And if I got him on a play, he'd come up to me and be like 'Hey, did I telegraph something there? What did you see?' Just constantly trying to get better."
And Mathis would get that knowledge from everywhere he could. Castonzo saw it early on in his career – here was this established All-Pro veteran coming and asking a young guy how he won a rep in practice. It was all in the name of being the best player he could possibly be, no matter how many sacks he had or Pro Bowl appearances he made.
"I think that is fairly unique, actually," Castonzo said. "I mean, a guy that good to have really no ego, to be constantly be trying to learn. … I think that was something special about him was whenever would get information, he would then disseminate that to everyone else on the defense and was always willing to teach people as much as he was willing to learn."
Mathis' mantra was "same team, no secrets," when it came to receiving and passing on that information. And he genuinely was invested in his teammates – to the point where McAfee said Mathis would pretend he knew stuff about kicking and punting so he could converse with him about life off the field.
"The on-field stuff is obviously Hall of Fame-worthy but the thing that really made me look at Robert as a legend was how he interacted with his teammates," McAfee said. "An OG who understood the role. When Robert would speak the entire locker room would listen because Robert never acted above anybody. Never big timed anybody.
"And for whatever reason, he seemingly never understood just how great he was. He was the consummate team guy who I'm lucky as hell to say was my teammate."
All this brought Mathis to the Colts' Ring of Honor, where his name and number will take its place at halftime of Sunday's Week 12 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And that title, that lasting memory of greatness, will always be a part of the Indianapolis Colts. Because as long as there is Colts football, there will be Robert Mathis – and everything he was about while wearing that iconic No. 98 jersey.
"It was his relentlessness and pursuit of trying to get after a quarterback giving after a running back," Freeney said. "On a play to play basis, it was one of those things you sit down and watch like, okay, the play's all the way down the field, 30 yards, and here comes Robert. Or it's the quarterback running away and all I know is I can just flush them right to Robert and Robert's going to chase him down. He's a guy where he wasn't the biggest guy, but based on his size, it really made you open your mouth in awe."
Added Polian: "If you wanted to construct the ideal football player in the laboratory it would be Robert Mathis," Polian said. "His work ethic and his desire to play and his desire to be the best and his consistency was well above ideal. And if you didn't have the pleasure of seeing him play, go watch the tape. You're looking at a rare, rare, rare football player."