By Ashley Dunkak
Standing in front of his locker and holding court with the media, 11-year veteran and new Detroit Lions cornerback Rashean Mathis looks perfectly at ease.
He smiles often, answers all inquiries fully and thoughtfully, and the more he talks, the clearer is becomes that he is comfortable being the center of attention at the moment, aware but accepting that these moments are fleeting. His teammates tease him, one even jumping in with a smart phone and lobbing goofy interview questions.
Mathis is not starting for the Lions. He is now a second-string player behind rookie Darius Slay – albeit a second-stringer whom coaches often insert for Slay in big situations. Far from being resentful of his declining status, the 33-year-old Mathis takes care to build up his young teammates.
“I’ve had a lot of great veterans when I came in the league as a rookie and as a young guy, and my role now is to be the best that I can be as a player but also as a mentor, and that’s my role, and that’s my goal, ultimately,” Mathis said.
Donovin Darius. James Trapp. Aaron Glen. Dewayne Washington. Mathis can rattle off names of the players who helped him learn the game earlier in his career, and he is eager to do the same.
“You have to know when you’re the future, and you have to know when you’re the present,” Mathis said. “And a lot of these guys are the future of this team, and they’re going to be around when I’m on my couch watching the game. And I want to see them do well.”
For him, the transition has not been a difficult one, he says.
“I’ve embraced the role,” Mathis said. “Maybe four years ago I wouldn’t have because I felt I have five, six, seven years left in me, but now, I have 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, but when I’m – 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.”
Mathis has talked to Slay about how he cannot let recent mistakes – and benchings that head coach Jim Schwartz refers to as “calls to the bullpen” – affect his confidence too much. Mathis has also worked with Bill Bentley, and after Bentley got called for pass interference late in the game against Arizona last week, Mathis and Bentley have been watching film together and working on drills after practice.
The veteran makes sure that the younger guys know he is willing to help, and as a result they pick his brain regularly.
“They see that I’m approachable,” Mathis said. “They see that I don’t have an agenda, hidden agenda. I’m a genuine guy, and I thank God for it because it’s none of me and all of Him.
“I pull them aside before they can pull me aside, and that lets them know that I really do care about their future, and as veteran guys, that’s what we have to do,” Mathis added. “Guys like that helped me out, so it’d be unjust if I didn’t do the same.”
Given the approach Mathis has taken, it is no surprise that defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham is happy to have him.
“Getting Rashean really helped in a lot of different ways,” Cunningham said. “He can play about three spots back there. He’s really bright. He’s one of the veterans. He’s like James Hasty. I got him at 32 in Kansas City. Rashean’s like that. He’s really a heady football player and has helped the young guys.”
There was a point this off-season when Mathis did not know if he would play this year, and he had made peace with that possibility. Since joining the Lions, though, he is committed to his new role – whatever role the team wants him in.
“Do I think I should start?” Mathis repeats the reporter’s question with a chuckle. “I’m here to make plays. I’m here to help this team, so whatever role that is. I’ll be the kicker.”
Mathis is enthusiastic about contributing, and he is optimistic about the team’s future as a whole.
“I’ve been around this league for a long time,” Mathis said. “We have a good team, a very good team.
“We have pieces of the puzzle that’s still getting fit in,” he added, “and once they’re fitted, we’re going to win a lot of ball games.”