The mood following Washington’s annual Pro Day at the Dempsey Center was considerably lighter Saturday than it was a year ago, when star cornerback Sidney Jones pulled up and fell to the ground during the final drill of the afternoon.
Jones was carted out of the building and soon diagnosed with a torn left Achilles tendon. Projected as a first-round draft choice, Jones went on to be selected by the Philadelphia Eagles in the second round.
Nothing tragic about that scenario. Jones ended up with both an NFL job and a Super Bowl championship ring. Still, it’s reasonable to speculate Jones’ Pro Day injury cost him as much as $10 million.
Exercising caution before the draft, in other words, is the way to go for top prospects. It’s why defensive tackle Vita Vea, an expected first-round choice, and wide receiver/return specialist Dante Pettis, likely a second-rounder, didn’t participate Saturday. Vea returned from the NFL Combine nursing a hamstring issue not thought to be serious but an issue nevertheless, while Pettis still is recovering from an ankle injury sustained in the Apple Cup. He’ll hold a personal workout for scouts and coaches on April 2.
While Vea and Pettis were playing it safe, their former teammate, edge rusher JoJo Mathis, happily held nothing back during such drills as vertical and broad jumping and the 40-yard dash.
Midway through 2016, Mathis was contending for Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. At 6-foot-1 and 255 pounds, his quickness off the snap and agile athleticism presented match-up problems for the offensive tackles who typically outweighed him by 60 or 70 pounds.
But sometime between the Huskies historic thumping of Oregon on Oct. 8, and their victory over Oregon State, two weeks later, he experienced pain in his left foot. Washington head coach Chris Petersen thought the defensive end/linebacker might have been able to return in November, but the foot never healed and Mathis awaited an ordeal that changed his life.
“It’s been quite a ride — almost two years,” Mathis said Saturday. “I had surgery in October of 2016, and then more surgery to have nine screws removed from the foot. I had to learn how to walk and run and jog after the first surgery, and then learn how do all that again once the screws were taken out.”
Mathis accepted his invitation to the NFL Combine last year, but he wasn’t 100 percent. Passed over in the draft, Mathis signed with the Houston Texans as a free agent, got cut, then hooked up with the B.C. Lions of the Canadian Football League.
He spent two months on the Lions’ practice squad, and was assured there is a future for him with the club.
“But I felt I needed to come out here and give this thing another shot,” said Mathis. “This is my dream, to play in the NFL, and I’m not giving up unless my foot gives up on me.”
During the process of recovering from two major surgeries, there were moments Mathis doubted whether he’d ever realize his NFL dreams. The possibility of a long-term injury keeping him off the field was a mental and emotional grind.
“A lot of people don’t know about football players going through depression,” said Mathis. “People don’t know we’re not just football players. We’re human beings.
“A lot of us have been playing the game since we were 6 years old. This is all we know. In our minds, it’s like ‘we gotta make it, we gotta make it.’ When you fall and go through that adversity, it does strange things to you. I almost lost myself and gave up everything.”
Mathis points to his mother as the guiding light who restored his faith and fortified his determination.
“My mom fought with me,” he said. “She told me, ‘Son, this is not the real you. Don’t give up. You’ve still got football in you. You can still do it.’
“Without her, I probably would have been lost. She got me on my feet and helped me through everything.”
Because Pro Day workout results are not released to the public, I have no idea whether Mathis made a positive impression on a talent-evaluation assemblage that included Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider.
Absent a stopwatch and any clue about the location of the finish line, one 40-yard dash pretty much resembles every 40-yard dash. More revealing was the smile gracing Mathis’ afterward.
“I know who I am now,” said Mathis, parent of a son who will turn 2 years old in July. “I’m not just JoJo Mathis the football player, I am JoJo Mathis the father. I feel like nothing can stop me.
“A lot of weight is off my shoulder now by coming out to Pro Day and doing this. I’m proud of myself, but not satisfied. The goal now is to get my foot in the door.”
Left foot first. It’s the one that almost convinced Mathis his dreams were done.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath