A record setting college football receiver, Terance Mathis was drafted by the New York Jets in 1990. He was a key component to the team’s special teams plans, spending four seasons as the teams go-to return man. In 1994, Mathis signed with the Atlanta Falcons as an unrestricted free agent. The rest, as they say, is history.
Mathis transformed into one of the better receivers in all of football and by the time his career came to an end, he ranked first in team history in receptions, receiving yards and ranked high in every other offensive receiving category. Twenty years after his last game, he still ranks near the top in most of the club’s major career receiving categories. In Super Bowl XXXIII, he caught seven passes for 85 yards and a touchdown. For his career, Mathis snared 689 passes for 8,809 yards and 63 TDs.
Never too far away from football, Mathis has spent time after his NFL career ended as the offensive coordinator at Savannah State University and as the head football coach at Pine Crest Academy in Cumming, Georgia.
He’s made his mark off the field, too. Mathis was selected as the Falcons Man of the Year in 1998. His charity endeavor, The Terance Mathis Foundation, focuses on helping children in need.
In this new Card Back Q&A, Mathis talks about some of what was written on the backs of the football cards he appeared on throughout his career as we touch on his record setting career at New Mexico, his days in the NFL and his very busy high school football career.
Tony Reid- Your 1990 Topps Traded rookie card mentions that at New Mexico you set all time college records for catches, yardage and games with a TD catch. How special was your time at New Mexico?
Terance Mathis- It was magical because I signed the last scholarship they had. I signed in June and had to go to campus in August. When I went there nobody knew who I was. I worked my way up to being a starter. I didn’t set out to break records. I wanted to win games. I wanted to go to a bowl game. You grow up watching bowls. It never happened for us.
As we went on throughout my college career, my junior year I was 3rd Team All-American. All of a sudden I was All-Conference. All of these things started happening. My senior year there was a chance for me to start breaking NCAA records. We knew it. The coach knew it. The quarterback knew it. Everybody knew it and everybody knew where the ball was going. Then there was even a Heisman watch at some point. You talk about fun.
Last month I was put on the 2023 College Football Hall of Fame ballot. I went to YouTube and started watching some of my old games. Is that me? Did I do that? I was a little cocky joker when I played. I had a little swag when I played. I wouldn’t have liked me if I was the opponent.
TR–Many of your early card backs note the amazing 98-yard kick off for a touchdown against Dallas in 1990 but your 1992 Topps card mentions that you’re a big favorite of Jets coach Bruce Coslet whose stresses special teams. What are your memories of your time with Coslet?
TM– I was the smallest guy on the team. I was only 160 pounds. He would ask me how I take those hits and keep getting up. I said I was crazy. I was crazy and I was daring. I wasn’t afraid. On offense, he had so much confidence in me especially in my rookie and my second year. It would be third down and coach would say ‘Mathis, come here. I’m thinking about running this pay. What side should we run it to?’ It was for me. “I want to run it to the right side.’ He said ‘Well, then go call it.’ I would go to the quarterback and give them the play. It was coming to me. He had a lot of confidence in me as a rookie which gave me confidence to play at that level and play a long time.
TR-The back of your 1995 Action Packed Rookies & Stars card states ‘in his first year with the Falcons Terrence surpassed his four year reception total from the Jets with the fourth best total in NFL history. Any other year he would have led the league but his breakthrough came the same year Cris Carter broke the NFL record and Jerry Rice equaled it.’
What do you remember about that breakthrough season where you surpassed 100 catches?
TM– It happened so quickly. I had no idea it was going to happen. All of a sudden there was a five or six-game stretch where I went over 100 yards and was catching double digit balls. The numbers stated rising. You have to understand, it was a great accomplishment because the most balls I ever caught was 88 and that was my senior year in college. So, I was used to catching a lot of balls but when you get to 100, oh my goodness that is a huge number. I still have that ball by the way.
Balls were coming like raindrops. It was amazing. It was a fun year for me. It was a breakout year. I came out of nowhere but I had prepared myself the four years I was with the Jets to be able to do something like this. I didn’t think it was going to be 111 catches but I thought I could have a breakout year sooner or later.
TR- Your 1996 Sports Illustrated for Kids card informs us that, in high school, you played cornerback and quarterback. What do you remember most about your high school career?
TM– They didn’t tell the whole story. I was the punt returner and the kick returner. I was the holder on extra points and field goals. I was the safety on punt team and kickoff team. There were three games in a row where I never left the field. The only time I took a break was on defense and every time I took a break my backup got burned for a touchdown. The coach said I wasn’t coming out anymore. Those were fun days.
TR–Your 2000 Topps card mentioned that you needed nine receptions to become Atlanta’s career leader going into that 1999 Monday Night Football game against the Steelers. You seized the moment on the National stage and finished with 12 catches for 166. What a great game and a great moment, I’m sure.
TM– It was. The funny thing is that I remember after the first series Chris Chandler came to me and said ‘Every pass play I am throwing the ball to you.’ That’s pretty much what he did. He just told me to get open. Nobody knows this. This is the first time I have ever said this but we were really playing streetball. He would call the play and he would just wait for me to get open. It was great timing to do it on Monday Night Football against the Pittsburgh Steelers. I wish we could have won the game but it was a great moment.
Coming later: More Q&A with Terance Mathis about his career, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, his massive memorabilia man cave and more.