Lions’ Mathis relishes Jacksonville homecoming

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Rashean Mathis plans to host his fellow Lions defensive backs for dinner Thursday night at his home in Jacksonville — a celebration for both his 35th birthday and his first NFL homecoming.

As much as the younger guys like having the chance to learn from Mathis, he wants to show his appreciation for the players who have helped him feel at home in Detroit after spending most of his life in northeast Florida.

For the first time in his 13-year career, Mathis will play as a visitor in Jacksonville. He spent 10 years with the Jaguars after they drafted him in the second round in 2003 before starting a career renaissance with the Lions in 2013.

“It’s a preseason game, so it’s probably a little less emotions. But it is home,” Mathis said. “And I probably only know like three guys on the team, so that makes a big difference as well. But it’s home and there’s no place like home, so it’ll be interesting being back in the stadium for the first time.”

For Mathis, Jacksonville was always home. He was born there and attended the city’s Englewood High. After high school, he went to Bethune-Cookman, which is in Daytona Beach about 90 miles south of Jacksonville, before becoming a star for his hometown’s only professional sports franchise.

During his time in Jacksonville, Mathis had 459 tackles, 104 pass break-ups, 30 interceptions, six forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries and three touchdowns. He started every game his first four seasons, was a first-team All-Pro in 2006 and played 137 games with 129 starts in those 10 seasons.

But a combination of age and injuries led the Jaguars to let Mathis leave as a free agent in 2013, and he signed with the Lions that August and has started 29 games the last two seasons.

“I couldn’t have landed in a better place, I don’t think,” he said. “It’s been a tremendous blessing on and off the field. Because you grow, you learn and you don’t know how you’re going to react to certain situations until you’re actually put in them.

“It was routine for me to be a mentor in Jacksonville, but to come to another locker room and adopt another group of guys and not knowing how these guys are going to take to you, it’s a process. And it shows me that respect goes a long ways.”

Mathis said he knew about the importance of respect in the NFL for years, but has seen it reciprocated by his teammates in Detroit. The Lions front office also showed Mathis some respect this offseason by signing him to a two-year contract after he played the last two seasons on one-year deals.

The past two years, though, Jacksonville wasn’t on the schedule. While it’s just an exhibition Friday, the contest will be Mathis’ first time at EverBank Field as a visitor. But, after so many years in the league, he knew there was a chance this day might come.

“I’ve seen guys leave, so it’s always a possibility,” he said. “So understanding and respecting the business side of it, you have to know that one day, it could be possible for you.”