INDIANAPOLIS —Want to know just how tight Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis have become?
Not only did No. 93 and 98 form arguably the most feared pass-rushing duo in NFL history for the Indianapolis Colts from 2003 through 2012, but the two have developed an extremely close bond off the field, as well.
Case in point: Freeney was a groomsman in Mathis' wedding back in 2013.
On Thursday, Freeney announced he was retiring from the NFL after 16 terrific seasons, and he'll do so as a member of the Colts upon holding a Monday press conference in Indianapolis.
Accordingly, Mathis — who retired, himself, following the 2016 season — shared a few words about what Freeney has meant to him.
"Dwight Freeney, the guy who stole a few sacks from me," Mathis told Colts.com with a smile. "I appreciate everything you did. You taught me how to be a professional, you taught me how to be a sack artist. Like my big brother. Everything that you're getting, you deserve it. One of the most-feared pass rushers in the league; top-five … I know. I'll debate it with anybody. Happy retirement — you deserve it."
Freeney and Mathis' careers will always be linked together for the pure havoc they caused coming off each edge for the Colts' defense during the winningest decade by a team in NFL history.
The Colts selected Freeney with the 11th-overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft after he led all NCAA pass rushers with 17.5 sacks his senior year at Syracuse. Undersized for a defensive lineman — he measured in just shorter than 6-feet-1-inches tall coming into the NFL — the Colts' brass, under a new head coach in Tony Dungy, salivated at the elite speed Freeney brought to the field in their 4-3 base defense.
Freeney exploded onto the scene as a rookie, finishing with 13 sacks and nine forced fumbles in 2002, and somehow finishing second to Julius Peppers in the Defensive Rookie of the Year race.
The next year, the Colts, once again, went after a quick, undersized pass rusher in the draft — but this time, in the later rounds. The team selected Mathis out of Alabama A&M in the fifth round, and Mathis said having Freeney around gave him the confidence that he, too, could be a major playmaker at the NFL level.
"They wanted me to play defensive end, so seeing a guy that did it before at a high level that's kind of somewhat my height and my stature, and he was successful at it, that was kind of encouraging for me," Mathis said.
Over the next 10 seasons, Freeney, coming off the right side, and Mathis, coming off the left, would put up unprecedented consistent production for the Indy defense. Together, they combined for 186 regular-season sacks, an average of almost 19 sacks between the two of them each season.
Naturally, the two developed a friendly competition between themselves — and it shows on the Colts' all-time sacks list: Mathis had 123, and Freeney had 107.5 during his time in Indianapolis, although he retires with 125.5 career sacks after spending parts of his final six seasons with the San Diego Chargers, Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions.
"If he got a sack early, I'm putting all the pressure on myself," Mathis said. "Like, I have to match his intensity. And it was vice-versa. It was nothing negative about it, so when I say 'rivalry,' it was a brother rivalry, all in good. And if he gets two and I don't have any? Oh, whatever hair I have on my head, I'm about to pull it out, and now I'm lighting my hair on fire trying to get after it. And vice-versa."
But perhaps the most memorable aspect of the Freeney-Mathis combination was its ability to make big plays seemingly week after week. With the game on the line, it was an assumption either No. 93 or 98 — or both — would at the very least get to the quarterback on third down, if not knock the ball out and get it back to Peyton Manning & Co.
"The X-factor was No. 18," Mathis said of Manning. "We knew he was going to get a two-score lead, and we were called to me the closers, just like in Major League Baseball. We had two guys that could burn the edge, so if I knew they were going to double him, he trusted me to take the heat off him. So I had to beat my guy. If I'm getting doubled, I trusted him; I knew he if he had an open edge, I knew it was a sack-fumble — I was getting ready for the scoop and score."
Now officially hanging up the cleats for good, Freeney is free to do what he really loves — hit the golf course — every day of the week. And while Mathis promises he'll join him someday out on the links, he's hoping to be making a trip to Canton, Ohio, in the not-so-distant future to honor his good friend and former teammate.
"It was natural," Mathis said of his relationship with Freeney. "It was nothing fake, phony about it. We started as teammates, we grew, we learned each other and appreciated what the other guy did. And so I watched him, how he went about his profession, I learned from it, he learned stuff from me.
"It's a brotherhood. … I love him, man. I love him. I appreciate what he did for this game, what he did for this organization. He's definitely a first-ballot (Hall of Famer)."