Indianapolis Colts defensive end Robert Mathis has taken the long and winding road from McNair High to center stage at Super Bowl XLIV.
"When I was back at McNair, I just never thought something like this could happen for a person like me considering where I came from," said Mathis over his cell phone while riding the team bus back to the hotel after practice last week. "It's been a blessing, and I thank God every day for it."
Mathis, 28, played at McNair under coach Earl White.
"I was just playing for the love of the game," Mathis said. "When I was in high school it was about the camaraderie and hanging out with my friends. I still keep in contact with some of those guys."
Mathis wasn't a blue-chip recruit who shuffled around three hats on ESPN before he announced his college selection. Mathis signed with much less fanfare and went to Alabama A&M.
While playing for the Bulldogs, Mathis had a solid career flying under the NFL's radar. Mathis, who finished with 44 career sacks, started to get noticed after registering a Division I-AA record 20 sacks in 12 games as a senior.
"As a child I would always say that I'm going to play in the NFL, but I really didn't think it was going to happen until the actual draft day and I got a call from the Colts," Mathis said. "Other than that, I just kind of thought it was like a pipe dream."
He worked to get his degree and was ready to enter the working world.
"My initial plan was to become a [physical education] teacher and pass along whatever football knowledge that I had to the guys back at my old high school," Mathis said.
But he had to put those plans on hold after the Colts selected him in the fifth round of the 2003 draft (138th overall).
Making the jump from Alabama A&M wasn't easy. Mathis spent his rookie season playing on special teams and working on his techniques.
"In my second year is when I actually started to incorporate things that I did in practice into the games and was successful at it," Mathis said. "I had to fight for my spot early on in my career, but it's worked out for the best."
In 2008, Mathis, who is one of the smallest defensive ends in the league at 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, was selected to his first Pro Bowl. He was a repeat pick this season.
Leading to Sunday's Super Bowl, Mathis has received a lot of attention because of an ankle injury to Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney.
With Freeney's playing status unclear, Mathis will be called on to lead the charge against elusive New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.
"You have to control what you can control," Mathis said. "You have to go out there and take care of your business."
Mathis normally plays left end, but has rotated to Freeney's right side throughout his career. He might spend a lot more time on the right side against the Saints.
"It's nothing new to me," Mathis said. "We switch up the defense all the time."
Mathis hopes things turn out as well as they did the last time he played in the Super Bowl.
Against Chicago in Super Bowl XLI, he had two tackles and forced a fumble to help the Colts win and was rewarded with a five-year, $30 million contract extension.