A feel-good story

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When you have been to the summit, it's hard to make the slide back to the bottom.

Mathis made that long trip from the top to the bottom in record time. He went from playing in the Pro Bowl in

in February to pro football oblivion almost overnight.

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The problems began in the Pro Bowl when he suffered a mild injury to his left foot. Then in April, he had an accident on a motorcycle and received numerous cuts on his arms. It held him out of a few off-season drills, but little else.

In late May, the foot that never healed was diagnosed as a stress fracture, and in early June, he underwent foot surgery to repair a small bone in the top of the foot. He was expected to be out four to five months.

It has been nearly six months, but Mathis appears to finally be back. This despite a mild setback a week ago when his right foot began to bother him.

But the nightmare that was called surgery to repair the venicular bone in his left foot might really end this week in

.

And Mathis is pinching himself to be sure it is real.

"It's going to be like my rookie season all over again," Mathis said. "You just try and get that first play out of your system. Once you get that over with, everything will start slowing down and come back around.

"It's going to be a rush for me to be out there with my team again. I feel like I have a lot to prove to myself, not only to my coaches and teammates."

Mathis will appreciate this do-over more than most. His time in purgatory took him to the depths of depression.

"It was a little frustrating at times," he said. "But when I felt down and wanted to give up, my teammates would bring me back up. Then I got the foot part out of the way, my other leg started giving me problems and my whole body was off track.

"You start questioning yourself whether you can still keep up and do the things that you did last year, plus more. Because once you set a standard, you've got to continue to go above that standard. So it's been real frustrating. But being activated, it's kind of exciting."

This week though, he proved to himself and the coaches that he really could play this season. In the final pivotal days when he had to prove to coaches he could hold up under the pounding and the pressure, Mathis came through.

"I did everything they asked me to do," Mathis said. "I ran routes and finished off every play and was just flying around, showing I have a lot of energy. I feel strong."

Now the question is: Can he get back to Pro Bowl form? Mathis averaged 28.6 yards per kick return, second best in the NFL, and returned two for touchdowns. He became not only a Pro Bowler, but the first Texan to be named to the All-Pro team.

Now everyone wants to know if the guy whose 4.28-second 40 was the fastest time at the 2005 NFL combine is all the way back to his former level.

"Does Mathis have all his speed?" coach Gary Kubiak repeated the question. "I wouldn't say that he has every bit of it back, but I would say that he's pretty close.

"You guys know how fast he is from last year, but it looks like, to me, he's pretty close. And I would hope that just through repetition and playing that hopefully it does all come back here before the season's out. But he is totally healed. All the x-rays look good, so I feel good about it."

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](http://store.houstontexans.com/family/index.jsp?categoryId=2237490&clickid=mainnavgeartxt)Mathis is candid enough to answer the question with proper reserve.

"I feel like I'm where I was last year," he said. "But that's just in practice. There's always another gear that comes along in the game. So there's no telling how fast I am. It's just something that'll have to come and see how it is when I get out on the field.

"I've been practicing for two weeks. I feel like I'm able to go out there and keep up and do the same things I was doing last year. You always over-practice to prepare for the game, so I feel like I'll be ready."

The next concern is learning the offense. Kubiak says he wants Mathis to not just run back kicks, but play at wide receiver.

"I'm expecting him to back up Andre (Johnson) in the game," Kubiak said. "He's going to play on offense. That's what I've told you all along. My plan with him is that I want to see him as the full-fledged football player.

"I know he can return kicks. I want to see him go in there when Andre takes himself off the field because he's tired or something. I want to see Jerome operate on the offense as well as return kicks."

Unlike the rest of the offense, this is all brand new to Mathis. He insists he has stayed alert in all meetings through the season, picking up everything he could about the new attack. And he believes he has it down.

"It's a pretty simple offense once you start understanding the concepts," Mathis said. "At first, I was out there like a chicken with my head cut off, trying to keep up with everything and getting confused. But once you understand the concepts, it's kind of easy."

So now the hard part begins.


*EDITOR'S NOTE: Jim Carley is a veteran

sportswriter who has covered the NFL for more than 25 years. He has worked for such newspapers as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Houston Post, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and the National Sports Daily covering such teams as the Dallas Cowboys, the Houston Oilers, the Los Angeles Rams and the Oakland Raiders.*


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