Senior linebacker had difficulty early in his career at Washington, but time and fatherhood have kept him focused and he now leads the undefeated Huskies in sacks.

Share story

Joe Mathis had fled before. He wanted out, and said so publicly when Chris Petersen initially came on board as the Huskies’ new coach three years ago.

That was the old JoJo.

The new JoJo fled for a different reason. During an emotional scene at Sea-Tac airport two weeks ago, Mathis said goodbye to his wife, Savitri, and infant son, Joe IV. Savitri, on her way back to college in Southern California, began to cry, and JoJo felt himself about to do the same.

“She started breaking down and I was like, ‘I gotta go.’ I didn’t want to break down in front of everybody. I had to stay strong for her,” said Mathis, Washington’s hybrid defensive end. “The hardest thing was looking at my son before I left. It was really hard.”

It’s been a difficult journey to arrive to this point for Mathis, who acknowledges so much of that difficulty was his own doing. The senior from Ontario, Calif., is in the midst of a breakthrough season for the No. 5 Huskies, leading the Pac-12’s top-ranked defense in sacks (5.0) and tackles for loss (7.5, tied with Greg Gaines) in UW’s 6-0 start.

The analytics website Pro Football Focus last week ranked Mathis the third-best edge defender in the nation.

All this comes after Mathis was suspended by Petersen for two games in 2014 and left the team for more than a week under mysterious circumstances. Mathis, recruited to UW by Steve Sarkisian, had tweeted out that he wanted to transfer out of UW after Petersen was hired.

He was immature, he admits now, and last week went as far as to thank Petersen on Twitter for teaching him how to be a “real man” and a good father.

“The coaches trust in me and it makes me want to play even better and faster,” Mathis said. “It’s just been a dream come true. I’ve been waiting for it for a long time to be in this situation.”

A high-school All-American, Mathis arrived at UW in 2013 expecting to be an immediate star. He did play in 12 games as a true freshman, but until this year has been mostly a backup behind the likes of Hau’oli Kikaha, Cory Littleton and Travis Feeney, all of whom are now on NFL rosters.

“I thought I was the best thing ever. I had to humble myself,” he said. “Having the wrong people around you, they’ll tell you everything you want to hear. …

“I was angry at the world, always asking, ‘Why this, why that?’ ”

Mathis’ suspension two years ago was the turning point, co-defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said.

“Joe’s come a long way,” Kwiatkowski said. “The guy’s done a damn-near 180. It was all in his control and he finally realized that. He changed his attitude with the way he was thinking about things and the way he was approaching things, and it has gotten better.”

Mathis says he has changed — changed for the better.

“When I go back home people don’t really know how to talk to me anymore,” he said, “because I’m not the same ‘JoJo.’ I’m the mature ‘JoJo.’ ”

The NFL has always been the goal. As a husband and father, he has new motivations to help him get there.

“I don’t go out anymore,” he said. “All I do is focus. Everybody in the hotel might be out doing their thing, but I’m watching extra film because I’ve got a mouth to feed.”

Mathis called his son his “best friend,” and he tries to FaceTime with him and his wife regularly. Before games, Mathis listens to music and looks at a picture of Joe IV.

“Sometimes I’ll start tearing up,” he said. “I just don’t want him to have the life I had when I was younger. I look at it like I don’t want to let him down and I don’t want to let my teammates down.

“I don’t want to put a lot of pressure on me,” he added, “but that’s my motive.”