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Jerome Mathis: Running into the spotlight

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Jerome Mathis raced downfield for an 84-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts.


Texans wide receiver Jerome Mathis was born to run. His entire athletic career has been built on speed.

Mathis, a decorated high school track star, collected all-state and national titles as a mid-distance sprinter. In college, the Hampton University product was a two-time NCAA All-American in the 200-meter dash.

But the football field was where Mathis earned his glory. The kick returner's ability to tuck his head and blow by defenders made him one of the most exciting players to watch on Saturdays.

In fact, Mathis broke the NCAA all-time record for career kickoff return average with a 26.6-yard average and he still holds the NCAA record for career kickoff returns for a touchdown with six.

In the 2005 NFL combine, Mathis proved he belonged in the big leagues, running a combine-best 4.28 seconds in the 40-yard dash. That number helped convince the Houston Texans' front office to select the Virginia native in the fourth round of the draft.

Mathis did not disappoint during his rookie season. In a breakout game against Indianapolis, he returned seven kickoffs for a single-game Texans' record of 266 yards, including an 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. It was the first kickoff return for a touchdown in Texans' team history.

{QUOTE}That performance helped Mathis make the 2005 Associated Press All-Pro Team and the 2006 Pro Bowl team. Then, all of a sudden, Mathis' career came to a halt.

The kickoff return specialist suffered a serious foot injury at the Pro Bowl and missed the first 11 games of the 2006 season. The frustration of sitting on the sidelines caused Mathis to distance himself from the team.

"It was kind of difficult because I knew that I wasn't going to be able to play,' Mathis said. "So, I would be sitting in the meetings and thinking to myself that I'm there for two hours, but I'm not going to be able to touch the field."

The Pro Bowler was so down that he even considered giving up on his career.

"It was close," Mathis said. "Just being frustrated, day to day, wondering when that foot was going to heal, then when the hamstring was going to get back right. It was tough. But I wouldn't allow myself to quit that easy."

Coming into the 2007 season, Mathis vowed to regain top form and get his head back in the game.

"The past is the past," Mathis said. "I can only control what happens from here on out. It's all about coming out here and being prepared mentally and physically at the same time."

Mathis' preparation has paid off.

In the Texans' 34-21 win over the Panthers, Mathis posted solid numbers, averaging 18 yards per kickoff return.

Against Indianapolis, Mathis took his game and speed to the next level. He ran the opening kickoff 84 yards for a touchdown return just 21 seconds into the game. The return was the fastest score in Texans' history.

"I knew I had to make something happen," Mathis said. "The guys in front of me did a tremendous job blocking it, getting me up to the kicker, and once I get to the kicker, it's, 'Who's going to be faster?'"

The wide receiver answered that question all game, finishing with 233 kickoff return yards and 15 receiving yards. Houston ultimately fell to the Colts by a score of 30-24, but Mathis' effort earned him the game ball.

"It feels good, but at the same time it's overshadowed by a loss," Mathis said. "I can't sit back and reflect on it too much. We have to come in tomorrow at 11:00 and fix the mistakes that we made."

With that sort of mindset, there's no telling how far or how fast Mathis will go this season, especially as he steps in for injured wide receivers Andre Johnson and Jacoby Jones.

"Last year, I was frustrated, dealing with the injury," Mathis said. "But now I'm healthy, back out there practicing and actually playing on Sundays now. It's fun to be back playing football again."

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