WESTFIELD – Kendall Coleman is lined up across from a legend, coiled like a predator ready to strike, hands chopping, eyes locked on the black punching mitts Robert Mathis is tapping together.
Mathis throws his right hand, Coleman’s right hand flashes to parry the strike and the pair begins to move, Mathis slowly retreating with the steady, calm look of an expert, Coleman’s brow furrowing as he advances, both men’s hands flying in a flurry of attacks and blocks, hands getting faster and faster the farther they move down the field at Pro X Athlete Development.
Coleman blocks one last blow and the pair separates, Mathis turning, a hint of a smile on his face.
“I think this kid is going to be the steal of the draft,” Mathis said.
Coleman, the Cathedral High School product who caught the NFL’s eye with a productive career at Syracuse, is living an Indianapolis kid’s dream, preparing for the NFL Draft by learning the art of the pass rush from the Colts legend he idolized as a kid.
The more Mathis works with him, the more he sees some of himself in Coleman, sees the same kind of chip on his shoulder that he carried coming out of Alabama A&M 17 years ago.
“He went to Syracuse, which is a Power-5 school, true enough, but he’s still an underdog. He’s not getting the pub, he’s not getting the shine, per se, and he’s in the sense of the word, still in the shadow of his running mate,” Mathis said. “I can see it in his eye: ‘OK, they’re sleeping on me. I don’t like that they’re sleeping on me, so I’m going to do something about it.’”
This isn’t the first time Coleman has learned the tricks of the trade from Mathis.
Back in second or third grade, Coleman went to one of the camps Mathis held for kids in the Indianapolis area; he still has the signed jersey and the ball at his house.
But there must have been hundreds of kids who played in one of Mathis’ camps during his playing days in Indianapolis.
Coleman’s one of the few who could follow Mathis to this level.
From the moment he started playing for his dad, Kevin, it was clear Coleman was on a different level athletically. He grew up playing sports 11 out of 12 months of the year, traveling around the country to play as he got older. Coleman remembers watching Mathis and Dwight Freeney terrorize quarterbacks, desperately wanting their jerseys, mimicking their moves.
When he was in eighth grade, Coleman went to a Cathedral football camp with the high school team, walked up to a Fighting Irish regular, Johnny Kelley, and laid out his future.
“It sounds so arrogant,” Coleman says with a grin now. “Apparently in the middle of camp, I told him I was going to come to Cathedral and start varsity, I was going to go D-I, and after that I was going to go to the Combine and go to the NFL. And he was just looking at me like, ‘Who is this kid?’
Coleman started getting scholarship offers as a junior at Cathedral, and initially committed to the first school that offered him, Western Michigan, in part because his parents didn’t like college coaches constantly pulling him out of class on recruiting visits. A few months later, the assistant coach who recruited Coleman, former Michigan back Mike Hart, left to take a job on the staff Dino Babers was assembling at Syracuse, and one of Hart’s best friends, Vince Reynolds, also landed with Babers as the defensive line coach. The trio persuaded Coleman, a three-star prospect who had interest from Indiana and nine of the 12 MAC schools, to commit to Syracuse.
That’s when Coleman’s NFL dreams started to come into focus.
After a slow start to his career and a frustrating, injury-plagued sophomore year, Coleman exploded onto the NFL’s radar as a junior, racking up 10 sacks while working in tandem with another NFL prospect, Alton Robinson, at defensive end on the other side.
“I got a message from Johnny Kelley on Instagram,” Coleman said. “And it was like, ‘I didn’t know what the hell you were talking about back then, but it has been awesome watching everything you said come true.’”
Coleman’s belief in his NFL dreams wavered only once.
His sophomore season at Syracuse was hard, harder than any season he’d faced before. Babers hired a new position coach, Steve Stanard, a “hard-ass” whose style rankled Coleman in their first season together. Two days before the Orange traveled to Baton Rouge to take on LSU, Coleman's grandmother died, leaving him heartbroken.
And although he started eight games, Coleman was hit hard by two injuries. The first, a sprained metatarsal in his left foot, came in that LSU game and cost him a month. The second, a torn labrum in his left shoulder, limited him down the stretch.
Coleman had been through loss — he remembers losing a teacher in a car accident in third grade, lost three peers, including a teammate, at Cathedral to suicide — but this felt different, like everything was going in the wrong direction.
At his lowest point, Coleman thought about hanging up his cleats.
“I had called home, got on the phone with my parents and was like, ‘I’m lost,’ Coleman said. “'I don’t know if this is for me.'”
The plea did not find sympathetic ears.
Kevin and his wife, Nikola, knew their son was a little homesick, dealing with the transition to adult life, but they also knew his heart wasn’t into leaving football.
“The options we put on the table for him would push him totally away from quitting,” Kevin said. “You might just as well stay where you are, take advantage of your football talent, than come home, think you’re going to lay on my sofa and think you’re going to go to classes when you want to. I’ve got plans for you when you come home and you’re on my sofa.”
Kevin knew his son.
Coleman is not the type to make a rash, emotional decision. He’s a deep thinker, a defensive end who has dabbled in poetry since high school, since an assignment prompted him to start putting his emotions down on paper, doing it well enough and seriously enough that he read his poetry on stage at Syracuse.
Coleman thought about it for a week, called his parents back and told them he wasn’t quitting. He underwent surgery on the shoulder, sat out the spring and saw the game through the eyes of his coaches, then came back and turned in the breakout season that put him on the NFL’s radar.
“Seeing it from the opposite perspective, it gave a great understanding to what the coaches were trying to get done with us,” Coleman said. “And also, to what I need to accomplish in order to take that next step.”
A few weeks ago, Coleman and Stanard were talking on the phone, reminiscing about his time at Syracuse and about how Coleman had to deal with adversity and learn what his coach was trying to teach him.
The spring after that breakout junior season, Coleman got back on Mathis’ radar.
Coleman was at the dentist, of all places. While he was in the chair for a routine appointment, his dentist tells Coleman he’s heard about the way he’s been playing at Syracuse, that Robert Mathis lives right next door. If Coleman wanted to get in touch with a pass rushing legend, the dentist said, he could help set it up.
“I was like, ‘I’ve been coming to you for how long?’” Coleman said.
Coleman passed his number along, got on the phone with Mathis and struck up a relationship.
“I’ve kind of had him in the back of my head, in my ear since, kind of helping me through the rest of the process,” Coleman said. “Trying to make it to where he was.”
The closer Coleman got to the draft process, the more connections he had to Mathis, who left the Colts’ coaching staff last winter to become an independent contractor, serving as a pass rush specialist for the Gridiron Gang at Pro X. Coleman ended up signing with Mathis' agent, Hadley Engelhard, but independently of the Colts legend, who let his young protege navigate that part of the process on his own. Engelhard and Coleman formed their own relationship, and after an incredible performance by Coleman at the East-West Shrine Game — NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah called Coleman the defensive MVP of the game, citing his pass rushing moves — he came back to learn what Mathis has always done best.
When he worked for the Colts, Mathis was bound by the rules of the CBA, able to work with pass rushers only at NFL-approved times. By going out on his own, Mathis can do what he loves year-round, including working with Colts such as Justin Houston, Denico Autry and Kemoko Turay.
“I don’t really like teaching or coaching stuff that I’m a little shaky on or something that I have to learn on the fly,” Mathis said. “I want to coach pass rush. That’s what I did, that’s what I know.”
Coleman has been back home for the past couple of months, heading up to Pro X to work with Mathis. His father — who is retired now after years working for Eli Lilly and Company — often watching from a perch on the walkway above the Pro X field.
Working with Mathis has been better than Coleman could have dreamed. Coleman is one of three pass rushers, along with Miami of Ohio defensive tackle Doug Costin and CFL pass rusher Doug Kenney, training with Mathis, who works with former Colts defensive tackle Daniel Muir and Pro X’s performance trainer, Lee Campbell.
“In college, you’ve got at least six guys to a coach in a position group, if not more, and so it’s hard to get in there and fine-tune each and every guy,” Coleman said. “We’ve got three guys out here, three coaches, really. Somebody to always keep an eye on all the little details that make a difference in taking your game to the next level.”
Coleman is something of a sleeper prospect in this draft, far from one of the names the draft analysts are going to salivate over when the pass rushers take the field next Saturday night.
Robinson, his bookend at Syracuse, is that player; a top-10 defensive end according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper, a player who has motivated Coleman for years.
“The last three years, Alton’s been my biggest competition,” Coleman said. “I don’t think I’ve played against a defensive end or seen a defensive end on the other side of the field that makes me work as hard as Alton does, but that’s one of my best friends. … With his success, comes that challenge. I want to have that success, too.”
But working with Mathis is a lesson for Coleman, an opportunity to learn something that’s awfully hard to see for most rookies at this point in the process, fighting for the right to hear their name called as high as possible on draft night.
The stuff Mathis is teaching Coleman, the work he’s putting in at Pro X right now, is going to help him more when training camp opens in late July than it will during the Combine next week.
“It’s easy to get in the league; it’s harder to stay in the league,” Mathis said. “I’m teaching him how to stay in the league.”
Mathis was a fifth-round pick out of Alabama A&M in 2003, chosen long after the hype and the fanfare of the draft’s opening night had passed He became one of the greatest players in the history of the Indianapolis Colts.
It doesn’t matter how Coleman gets to the NFL.
What matters is what he does once he’s there.