By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — An authentic set of battle armor greeted visitors to Robert Mathis' locker Wednesday at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.
The black-and-gold helmet and chest plate look more at home in one of the "300" movies, but they are the proud possessions of the NFL's reigning sacks champion thanks to the generosity of Daniel Adongo and Bjoern Werner.
"It caught me off guard because I've never seen one in real life, like a real one," Mathis said of his reaction when the second-year linebackers presented him with his gift. "It's the real deal, and I was humbled by it."
Werner, the Indianapolis Colts' 2013 first-round pick, later explained the armor was meant as a symbol of Mathis' leadership. It was given in appreciation for the wisdom provided by the elder statesman last season.
"They're humble guys," Mathis said. "They're developing. They just came in asking, wanting to learn a couple things. It's kind of a big brother, little brother type of deal."
Werner and Adongo's ability to put that knowledge to use could help determine whether the Colts reach their ultimate goal in 2014 — a Super Bowl XLIX victory at Glendale, Ariz., in February.
Mathis will be leading a defensive unit with several new faces this fall. Inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson was signed after being cut by Cleveland, and defensive lineman Arthur Jones was imported as a free agent from Baltimore.
There also will be a new starter at safety, after Antoine Bethea signed with San Francisco. The two-time Pro Bowl selection started every game for Indianapolis over the past six seasons.
Mathis instinctively bowed his head when discussing Bethea's departure.
"He's a guy that clocks in every day, never misses a game, never misses a practice," Mathis said. "It's tough. You can't replace him, but somebody has to step up. That's the best you can hope for."
Delano Howell and Sergio Brown are expected to be among the competitors for Bethea's old job. An early round draft pick also could join the mix.
The Indianapolis defense also needs somebody to emerge as a pass-rushing threat opposite Mathis — who led the league with 19.5 sacks in 2013 and won the inaugural Deacon Jones award.
That man could be Adongo, a 24-year-old native of Kenya who was playing international rugby at this time last year.
"We know what he can do," Mathis said. "He has maximum work ethic. And he's going to be a big surprise in the league, I feel."
That's a pretty hefty prediction about a player who didn't make his NFL debut until last December. But Mathis sees a little of his younger self in Adongo. In fact, he has high hopes for both of the young pass rushers he's mentoring.
"They know the game," he said. "They can play a lot faster now. Last year was just trying to learn, find their way. They're here. They know what they're doing. So now it's just time to go get some quarterbacks."
Time weighs heavily on Mathis' mind these days. At 33, he's entering the final two years of his contract and perhaps his NFL career.
The Colts have improved from 2-14 in 2012 to 11-5 in each of the past two seasons. Indianapolis added a wild-card playoff victory in January, advancing one postseason step beyond the previous year.
It's slow and steady progress, but it might be time for a more rapid leap forward.
"We need to speed it up a little bit," Mathis said. "I'm kind of running out of time around here. I feel that we have the pieces in place. We just have to apply it."