Ducks' Mathis finds the fun again

EUGENE, Ore. -- Reality hit Dior Mathis like a thin, flat stone finds the bottom of a pond, slowing gliding downward -- side-to-side -- before finally resting in the wet, murky sand.

He had been the high school All-American cornerback, self-assured enough to leave the state of Michigan. He had been the one who people in Detroit stayed up late for, to tune into Pac-12 games, only to see him on the sideline.

He was going to be something big.

And yet, here he was. The sport that he had built his identity around had failed him. Or he had failed it. Either way, there was a disconnect and finally, he had come to that conclusion.

Mathis sat in his dorm room, looked at the Oregon football schedule and realized that it was likely that he would never really play here, that every risk he had taken, was for naught.

Mathis had given up on football once before.

He was a freshman at Cass Tech High School. His high school coach, former Michigan running back Thomas Wilcher, had just moved Mathis from wide receiver to cornerback. Wilcher kept saying that Mathis was a better fit in the secondary, that’s where his natural skill set would serve him most.

But nothing was clicking.

So during a midweek practice, after being beat in a one-on-one, again, Mathis walked straight out of practice.

Wilcher has built a Midwest mecca for football players on the east side of Detroit. Players clamor to be told by Wilcher they could be a great corner. He should know. In the past three recruiting cycles, he has produced three top-15 corners, one each year.

But in 2007, for a hard-headed 14-year-old, there just wasn’t enough evidence to take Wilcher at his word.

Mathis and Wilcher both knew the ways this could go. In Detroit, even for a kid like Mathis, who came from a strong, two-parent home, finding dangerous alternates to school or sports is never difficult.

“Some of my main friends were in the streets,” Mathis said, “and I thought maybe I should just follow them because it seemed like all of those years of football weren’t panning out so why should I continue playing?”

But the night after Mathis had given up on football he remembered Wilcher coming to him with one very simple proposition: Give it one more day.

Mathis doesn’t know what exactly happened that next day. He can only describe it as the day he suddenly became a good player.

Maybe there was a part of him that wanted it to go poorly, to prove to Wilcher that football wasn’t his destiny. Or maybe he wanted it to go right, wanted a reason to believe in Wilcher.

Whatever the reason, on that day that could’ve been his last on the field, he felt no pressure to perform. He just did.

Growing up, there were people in Detroit who wanted to hold Mathis, like so many other young people, down. Yes, he was fast but at 5-foot-9, he was too small. Too small even for the high school game, they said. He wasn’t strong enough. He wasn’t good enough.

No, Wilcher’s voice would ring in, Mathis wouldn’t just be a good corner, Mathis would be a great corner. He would be a college corner.

“He said, ‘Don’t say this person is faster than you or that person is better than you, you’re going to be better, you’re going to be faster than all those guys,’” Mathis said. “I believed him. Right when he said it, I believed him.”

So when Wilcher said Mathis would be great at Oregon, Mathis believed him. That’s why he felt so confident when he chose the Ducks over his childhood dream school, Miami, or the Cass Tech pipeline, Michigan.

But then came Mathis’ first year with the Ducks. Oregon was on a charge toward the national title game and Mathis was redshirting.

When the team hit the road, Mathis was at home, watching on television. When he wasn’t watching Oregon, he was watching other games featuring former teammates. They were starting at their respective schools, and he was in his dorm in sweats.

“I started thinking, ‘Man, I want to be playing. Maybe I made the wrong decision,’” Mathis said. “Those thoughts start going through your mind. That’s tough.”

In his second year at Oregon, his redshirt freshman season, Mathis got his first chance to shine in the Oregon-Colorado game. For the first time, his family and friends at home would see him playing in a college game. But whatever confidence boost that gave him quickly was shattered.

The Buffaloes threw and threw and threw at Mathis. Time after time, he blew his coverage or missed a tackle or didn’t get high enough for the jump ball.

“That crushed me,” Mathis said.

On his visits home, he started picking fights with his parents and his friends. He and his girlfriend broke up. He felt himself being more negative.

“That wasn’t me,” Mathis said. “Everyone knew that wasn’t the person I was. I really changed. I let that change me.

“Everything was transferring from on the field to off the field.”

On those Saturdays in his dorm alone and even the following year, he’d call his parents. He’d call his uncle, Larry Jones. He’d call Wilcher.

To his parents, he said he was fine, getting by. He wanted to play, but he wouldn’t quit.

To his uncle, he admitted he was embarrassed. He knew people from Detroit were waiting to see him play, yet there he sat, on the sideline.

To his high school coach, he admitted fear that he would never play another meaningful snap of football in his life.

“I thought that was how it was going to be for the rest of my career,” Mathis said.

So Mathis was presented with the same choice he had years ago in Detroit. He could leave. He could quit.

Or, he could give it one more day. And with that day, he could choose his approach.

“It was have fun, or quit -- and I wasn’t going to do that,” Mathis said. “I made myself believe I could just have fun.”

During the spring of 2012, with Mathis heading into his redshirt sophomore season, he decided he would take the field differently, more freely. In his mind, the pressure was gone.

He wasn’t competing for a starting role or a backup role. Like his freshman year of high school, he was just giving it another shot. Sure, this shot would be another three years instead of one day, but he surprised himself with how easily the plays came to him when he wasn’t psychoanalyzing the coaches or their decisions. Each play was “one more play.” Each practice was “one more practice.”

Suddenly, when he didn’t feel the need to impress the coaches, he started to.

The next fall, he got into 10 games and had interceptions against Tennessee Tech and Arizona State.

Last season, Mathis appeared in every game and tallied the school’s longest interception return (97 yards) of the season, setting himself up as a contender for the starting cornerback spot this season.

Now he’s fighting for the spot opposite All-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who in so many ways is his opposite. Ekpre-Olomu is a returning two-year starter and three-year contributor. He didn’t redshirt. Didn’t sit in his room watching other players make plays. He never hit bottom -- hasn’t even seen the shallow water.

That’s the reality Mathis wanted at first, the one he thought he’d have in Eugene. What he got was so much different.

“I’m grateful,” Mathis said of his journey. “I really am.”

He thought he’d have four years to establish his mark in Oregon history, but instead he only has one. And he’s taking it the only way he has ever known how.

One more season, one practice at a time, one play at a time.

Just give it one more season.