INDIANAPOLIS — No matter who is leading the Indianapolis Colts' front office, a cornerstone of their scouting has always been the ability to leave no stone unturned when it comes to finding players. Because of that approach, they've had some excellent, often lesser-known players make an impact for them.
One area in which the Colts have had a lot of success finding talent has been from HBCUs, or Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which are typically either smaller in size or competition level in the grand scheme of college football. Regardless, they are some of the most storied programs around, having been playing football for 127 years.
Recently, Donal Ware of USA Today took it upon himself to rank the top 100 players who came from HBCUs to play in the NFL, and the Indianapolis Colts had six former players make the cut.
It's definitely an impressive list when you consider the likes of Jerry Rice, Walter Payton and Deacon Jones earned the top three spots.
Here are the Colts' selections:
"16. Richard Dent, Tennessee State
Teams: Bears, 49ers, Indianapolis Colts, Eagles
Super Bowl champion. Hall of Fame. Four Pro Bowls; 137.5 sacks (third all time when he retired), including 17.5 his second season. Super Bowl champ."
The member of the Chicago Bears' "Monsters of the Midway," was most known for his time in Chicago. However, Dent easily had his most productive post-Bears season in 1996 with the Colts as a designated pass rusher. He started just one game in Indianapolis but had 15 tackles, 6.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a safety. Dent was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
"38. Raymond Chester, Morgan State
Teams: Oakland Raiders, Baltimore Colts
Four Pro Bowls. Super Bowl champion. Had 364 catches for 5,013 yards and 48 TDs (37 with Raiders)."
Chester's career was split between the Colts and Raiders, bookended by stints with the Raiders with his Colts era right in the middle between 1973-77. He was involved in trades in both joining and leaving Baltimore.
In his time with the Colts, he was one of the game's most effective tight ends. He started 66-of-69 games for them and had 148 receptions for 2,122 yards (14.3 avg) and 11 touchdowns. He currently ranks eighth all-time in Colts franchise history in receptions by a tight end.
"47. Johnny Sample, Maryland State
Teams: Baltimore Colts, Steelers, Redskins, Jets
Won four pro football championships (Super Bowl, AFL, two NFL, including in the 1958 NFL championship game, dubbed the greatest game ever played). He also made big plays in championship games. Had 41 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries."
This aggressive corner and return specialist played the first three years of his career in Baltimore and was a part of two NFL championship teams before moving on to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
With the Colts, Sample started 14-of-35 games and had five interceptions and seven fumbles recovered. As a return man, he had 36 punt returns for for 230 yards (6.4 avg) and 35 kickoff returns for 976 yards (27.9 avg) and one touchdown. Sample was named Second-Team All-Pro in 1960.
Sample passed away in 2005 at the age of 67.
"49. Robert Mathis, Alabama A&M
Team: Indianapolis Colts
Premier pass rusher, six-time Pro Bowler, Super Bowl champ, 2013 AFC Defensive Player of the Year. NFL's all-time leader in forced fumbles (54) and finished career with 123 sacks, including a league-leading 19.5 in 2013."
The most recognizable name on this list for Colts fans, Mathis played his entire 14-year career in Indianapolis. He enjoyed the team and city so much that he returned for a couple years as a consultant and then coach for the first two years of his retirement.
Mathis started 121-of-192 games (he wasn't a starter early in his career) and had 527 tackles (108 for loss), 123.0 sacks, 54 forced fumbles, 17 fumbles recovered, one interception, 18 pass breakups, three touchdowns, one safety and 141 quarterback hits.
He is the Colts' all-time leader in sacks, defensive touchdowns and quarterback hits, tied for first in defensive fumble recoveries, is second in tackles for loss and is the NFL's all-time leader in forced fumbles.
Mathis was a member of the Colts' Super Bowl XLI-winning team, was named to five Pro Bowls, once named First-Team All-Pro, once Second-Team All-Pro, and was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 when he led the NFL in sacks with 19.5.
"69. Antoine Bethea, Howard
Teams: Indianapolis Colts, 49ers, Arizona Cardinals
Still playing in league, signed this year to play with Giants. Super Bowl champion. Starter from Day 1 with the Colts. Three Pro Bowls, started every game he played in from rookie season through 2016 season, has 1,223 tackles including 914 solo."
Mathis played eight years with the next entrant, Antoine Bethea (2006-13), who was a constant, steady presence for the Colts.
He started all 123 games he appeared in and had 806 tackles (16 for loss), 3.5 sacks, 14 interceptions, 47 pass breakups, five forced fumbles, four fumbles recovered and 14 quarterback hits. The Colts' last line of defense was pretty difficult to get through, as Bethea averaged 100 tackles per season.
He ranks fifth in Colts franchise history in solo tackles (569 [total tackles not tallied]) and third in pass breakups. Bethea won a Super Bowl with the Colts as a rookie and was named to two Pro Bowls.
"93. Ashley Ambrose, Mississippi Valley State
Teams: Indianapolis Colts, Bengals, Saints, Falcons
First-team all-pro and AFC Defensive Back of the Year in 1996 when he had eight interceptions; 42 interceptions for 512 yards and three touchdowns in career."
Ambrose flourished a bit more after leaving Indianapolis, where he spent the first four years of his career. He started 12-of-56 games and had 101 tackles, five interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovered.
He was named both a Pro Bowler and All-Pro in 1996, his first season with the Cincinnati Bengals after departing from the Colts.
Next In Line?
The Colts already have six former players on this top 100 list, but a few years down the road they could very well have another.
Second-year linebacker Darius Leonard played collegiately at South Carolina State, another HBCU school. He of course won the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2018 and was named a First-Team All-Pro. He was the first rookie since Luke Kuechly in 2012 to lead the NFL in tackles (163), and he was near the top of the NFL among off-ball linebackers in several categories.
According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Leonard is the only player since at least 1982, when sacks became an official statistic, to record a season with 160 tackles, 7.0 sacks and two interceptions.
The Colts also currently have HBCU alums Chester Rogers (Grambling State), Sterling Shippy (Alcorn State) and Grover Stewart (Albany State) on their 90-man roster.