A few years ago, the world of Washington Huskies senior outside linebacker Joe Mathis revolved around Joe Mathis.
It still does, but in a profoundly different way. On July 27, Mathis’ wife, Savitri, gave birth to Joe Mathis IV.
Mathis’ football future has taken on an urgency he never imagined as a sophomore disgruntled with his backup status on the depth chart of head coach Chris Petersen.
“Before a game, I’ll listen to music and look at his picture,” Mathis said the other day, speaking about his son. “Sometimes I’ll start tearing up and sometimes I don’t. I just don’t want him to have the life I had when I was younger. I look at it like I don’t want to let him down and I don’t want to let my teammates down.
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“I don’t want to put a lot of pressure on me, but that’s my motive.”
Mathis’ transition from self-absorbed teenager into responsible adult began with his decision to stay at Washington and play for a new coach whose rules and methods represented a 180-degree contrast from those of Steve Sarkisian. Mathis thought he deserved more time on the field, and when he didn’t get it, he blamed the coach who hadn’t recruited him.
“People were telling me I’m really good, what’s wrong with the coaches?” said Mathis, then a reserve outside linebacker listed behind Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton. “It got in my head, me being young-minded and stuff, not realizing the guys in front of me were really good. Travis and Cory are in the NFL now.
“I thought I was the best thing ever. I had to humble myself. Having the wrong people around you, they’ll tell you everything you want to hear.”
Mathis still is hearing how talented he is, albeit from sources more reliable than friends pushing the wrong buttons. He was named the Huskies’ Team Lineman of the Week after their road-rage rout of Oregon, where he was credited with five tackles — three for a loss — and a sack. That performance followed a two-sack, four-tackle effort against Stanford.
Given his skills as a speedy pass rusher off the edge, it’s almost certain that the 6-foot-2, 255-pound Mathis will be a 2017 NFL draft selection. The prospect of a lucrative pro career finds Mathis committed to every last detail of his final college season.
“I don’t go out anymore,” he said. “All I do is focus. Everybody in the hotel might be out doing their thing, but I’m watching extra film because I’ve got a mouth to feed.
“I’m a better person, a better teammate, a better son, a better everything. I’ve matured since I’ve had my son.”
Baby Joe recently relocated to California, for the duration of the school year, with his mother, who attends Cal State-Northridge. Mathis grew up about 50 miles away, in Ontario, and returns now and then. He’s happy if acquaintances don’t recognize him as the grump who, as he put it, “was angry at the world, always asking, ‘Why this, why that?’
“When I go back home,” Mathis said, “people don’t really know how to talk to me anymore, because I’m not the same ‘Jojo.’ I’m the mature ‘Jojo.’ ”
Mathis’ transformation hasn’t been as startling to his teammates.
“He’s always been a hard-working guy, always raring to the football and pretty focused,” said quarterback Jake Browning. “I’m not a dad, but I can imagine it kind of puts life in perspective. You’re accountable for another human — or two, in his case, because he’s married. But he’s always been a hard worker here.”
Washington’s 6-0 start and No. 5 ranking poses the possibility of an ideal scenario for Mathis: Leading the fierce pass rush of a national championship team, trusting NFL scouts will take note of his determination to compete at the next level.
In the meantime, he’s coping with a lifestyle adjustment on the home front. Absent the giggles, cackles and, yes, middle-of-the-night hunger pangs of an infant, it’s way too quiet.
“I’ve got his picture on my phone, and they send me videos of him,” said Mathis. “But it’s kind of sad, because he’s like my best friend now and he’s gone from me.
“It’s all right. I’ll keep fighting for him.”