They're saying he's a different Clint Mathis than the one who flamed out nearly three years ago, after a tepid yet turbulent 27 games with Real Salt Lake.
But that's not entirely true.
He still has a flare for the flamboyant. At his suggestion, he and his wife named their two-week-old son Maximus. Not Max or Maxwell. Maximus. Like the Roman general on "Gladiator."
"I like the movie," he said. "And it goes good with Mathis."
Colorful midfielders never really leave, they just change their approach.
So the most controversial player in RSL's brief history is back. Responsible. Subdued. The guy who made more news in Salt Lake for his Mohawk and mismatched shoes than his goal-scoring is now a family man.
"Even when I was here before, I don't think I was wild or anything like that, but people always had that impression of me," said Mathis as he prepared for Saturday's match at Columbus. "People are always going to have that impression of me, and that's fine. But I don't really do a whole lot. I come here (to the training center), work out, go home and spend time with my family."
So much for being the Dennis Rodman of MLS.
It was indeed a toned-down Mathis who showed up for an interview Thursday. He now sports a shaved head.
"I don't have enough hair for the Mohawk," he said.
He's not even going to be wearing different colored shoes, as he did when he returned with Colorado in 2006.
"I'm pretty laid back," he said. "Just black shoes. You won't see so much stuff any more."
Whatever he is now, there's no doubt Mathis was an entertainer when he was younger. If it wasn't his look which he says was to keep things fun it was his situation. Frustrated over playing time in Germany, he once entered a match as a late substitution. After scoring the game-winner, he ran past his coach and tapped his watch, signaling that he deserved more minutes.
In 2005, then-RSL coach John Ellinger complained the former Sports Illustrated cover subject and the team's highest-paid player wasn't in shape. Ellinger even replaced him at halftime of one game. Asked by a reporter if Mathis appeared to be looking ahead to the next year, Ellinger replied, "I hope not. There might not be a next year."
Mathis, who was also suspended for fighting, scored just three goals for RSL before being traded to Colorado. From there he bounced to New York, Los Angeles and Greece, with a trial in Norway thrown in.
Ironically, his biggest issue is again getting back into shape.
"I don't think we're desperate for another (player) to come in and be a vocal leader for us," said coach Jason Kreis. "I think what he needs to do is to bring his game to where it should be, and first and foremost that's fitness right now."
But why bring back the scapegoat for all RSL's early problems?
Isn't that like inviting Rosie back to "The View"?
Kreis and Mathis say things are different. Kreis claims Mathis has become more dedicated and focused, and will be a versatile addition. Mathis says he is happy to be back in any capacity.
"I always loved the area, and my wife and I think it's the best city we've lived in," Mathis said. "I looked forward to coming back."11 comments on this story
Although he admits his conditioning wasn't always the best, sometimes, he says, that was just a ready explanation if he didn't play well.
He's still feisty enough to point out that critics don't matter.
That sounded a lot like the old Mathis.
"There are always going to be critics. A friend of mine said there's never been a statue erected of a critic.... It doesn't matter what they write," he said. "As long as I have the coaches' and players' respect, I know that's all that matters. It doesn't matter what's on paper."In that moment, it seemed nothing had changed at all.