Veteran Rashean Mathis feels rejuvenated as a member of the Lions' young secondary.
Mathis showed up in Allen Park, Mich. during Lions' training camp in the middle of August. Then the Lions offered him a chance to play one more year in the NFL after he spent his entire career in Jacksonville, so Mathis had to make a call.
He called his wife, Ebony, at home to say he wouldn’t be returning for a little while.
“She was like, OK, ‘You’re not coming back home? What do you mean you’re not coming back home,’" Mathis said. “Oh, I’m in training camp now. (She was) like, ‘They aren’t going to let you fly back home?’
“No, practice is at 3. It’s 2:30 and I have practice at 3. It was a reality check.”
Reality is a big word for Mathis these days. Before this season, his reality had shifted for the first time. If he wanted to keep playing football, it likely wouldn’t be in Jacksonville, where he played his entire career.
If he wanted to play football, he needed to find a team that would take a chance on him, that needed a veteran presence amongst a bunch of youth. The situation made sense with Detroit.
The Lions had drafted a rookie cornerback, Darius Slay, who had a ton of potential but was still a rookie. Mathis understood Slay's position. Ten years earlier, that was him, coming in as the player expected to contribute right away.
He started every game he played in his first nine years in the league. Then he started to get hurt. And then he realized what had once happened to the players who mentored him, to Donovin Darius and Aaron Glenn and Dwayne Washington, was happening to him.
He was getting old. He was starting to become the old man instead of the up-and-comer.
“The reality of that maybe came two years ago, my ninth year,” Mathis said. “I think it has a lot to do with the organization that I was in. I was there for 10 years, and to see that this might not be where I end my career, when you say this might not be where I end my career when you’ve been there nine, 10 years, you have to look at yourself and say ‘Why is it I might not end my career here?’
“With reality, they don’t value you like they used to. So, OK, it’s time to re-evaluate things.”
The re-evaluation, Mathis said, actually made him work harder to recover from a torn ACL in 2011. By last season, he played in 12 games and started four -- the first time in his career he did not start a game he had played in.
The Jaguars chose not to re-sign him during the offseason. So he became a free agent, and in August, landed in Detroit. It was then he remembered how Glenn and Washington treated him when they arrived in Jacksonville late in their careers just as Mathis was getting started. So he became the elder sounding board of the secondary, especially for Slay, who began the season as the team’s starting cornerback opposite Chris Houston.
“They see that I am an approachable guy, and I pull them aside before they can pull me aside, and that lets them know I really do care about their future,” Mathis said. “As veteran guys, that’s what we have to do. That’s what we have to do with that. They say these guys are walking on shoulders of guys before, but guys like that helped me out.
“So it would be unjust if I didn’t do the same.”
The wrinkle came a week ago. Slay had been benched two straight weeks for Mathis -- in the fourth quarter of the opener and in the first half against Arizona in Week 2. Then last Sunday, Mathis replaced Slay entirely.
The rookie played no defensive snaps. The veteran played almost all of them. It could have been a tenuous situation.
Except Mathis had helped Slay along the way, so it wasn’t. The veteran had helped the rookie too much.
“He was already talking to me when he first got here,” Slay said. “He was just showing me things, the little tricks he knows, and I was trying to use it.
“Just key things, eyes basically, and just key points. What comes with that concept, and what route combinations come out of that.”
It is all in the name of the future. Mathis is 33 years old. He told ESPN.com he has no designs on playing when he is 37 if it were even an option, so he realizes he is in the twilight of his career.
He might be a starter one more time, but he knows he isn’t the future of this Detroit secondary. That’s the guy he replaced, the guy he helps every chance he gets: Slay.
As for Mathis’ future -- that’s all wrapped up in the present.
“I’ve accepted it and I’ve embraced the role. Maybe four years ago I wouldn’t have, because I felt I had five, six, seven years left in me,” Mathis said. “Now, 11 years in the league, I know I’m not going to be playing when I’m 15, 16, 17 years in this league. That’s not what I want.
“But I know I can still play now. I can play for a couple more years. I’m 33 now. When I’m 36, 37, exactly 37, I definitely want to be on my couch or on the golf course checking updates.”