By Terrance Turner
May 2, 2022
NFL safety Tyrann Mathieu is signing with the New Orleans Saints.
The move represents a kind of homecoming for Mathieu, who was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. According to ESPN, young Tyrann was raised by his grandparents; his mother Tyra was often absent, and his father Darrin Hayes was incarcerated for much of Tyrann’s early life.
Per ESPN: “After Tyrann’s grandfather Lorenzo Mathieu died following a long illness in 1997, Shelia and Tyrone Mathieu decided they would adopt their nephew. Shelia and Tyrone already had three children — sons Tyrone Jr. and Devon, and daughter Toya’ — when they chose to adopt Tyrann.”
Mathieu attended an all-boys Catholic school in New Orleans and ran track and field there. He became a star at Louisiana State University, where he played from 2010 to 2012. In 2010, he played cornerback and nickel back as a freshman for the LSU Tigers. According to 247Sports, he racked up 8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, seven pass breakups, five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions. (He also had 57 tackles, per ESPN.) He won Outstanding Defensive Player for the January 2011 Cotton Bowl Classic.
In the 2011 season, Mathieu shined. He was LSU’s team leader in total tackles with 76 (including 59 solo) and led the SEC with six fumbles and five fumble recoveries (per his LSU bio). He also notched 7.5 tackles for loss of 45 yards, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions and nine pass breakups. He was named MVP of the SEC Championship game after returning a punt 62 yards for a touchdown in the Tigers’ 42-10 rout of Georgia on Dec. 3, 2011.
Tyrann Mathieu was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press. He won the Bednarik Award as the best defensive player in college football. He also became a Heisman Trophy finalist as a sophomore; he was the first finalist from LSU to be invited to the ceremony since Charles Alexander in 1977. Mathieu drew national attention and earned the name “Honey Badger” for his tenacious play and his shock of blond hair.
“I think the Honey Badger nickname came from the fans back in Tiger Nation,” Mathieu said. “The honey badger is such a relentless animal. He’s fierce, and he definitely doesn’t fear anything. So I just try to take that same approach to the field, and just try to play smart and violent football for my team.”
That approach paid off in spades: Mathieu was a national star in Louisiana by his sophomore year. But with all the attention and accolades came a lot of pressure. He dealt with it by smoking. He later told ESPN: “I abused myself through marijuana. Was I addicted to it? Maybe. Did I form a habit of it? Yes. When people didn’t think I had a good game or I didn’t have the greatest practice ever, I didn’t go into the office and try to figure out what was going on. I just automatically abused myself.”
That cost him what could’ve been a spectacular junior year at LSU. On August 10, 2012, LSU coach Les Miles dismissed Mathieu from the team, due to his failing multiple drug tests. When Miles informed him in a 5:30 a.m. meeting that “you can’t be a part of our family anymore,” Mathieu said he began sobbing. He asked a school official to notify his parents because he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
He was devastated. “There was nothing anybody could do at that point,” Mathieu said, crying. “I had to accept the responsibility that I was never going to play for LSU again. The only school that believed in me. And I didn’t even believe in them.”
“I prepared myself so hard in the spring and summer just to let everyone down.”
Mathieu checked into the Right Step recovery program in Houston that week. Though he re-enrolled at LSU in the fall and paid his own way, it was hard for Tyrann Mathieu to break old habits. In October 2012, he was arrested, along with some teammates, for possession of marijuana. That effectively ended any chances of playing for LSU again, closing the chapter on what had been an incredible run in his home state.
The arrest was rock bottom. “Sitting in that jail cell, it clicked,” an emotional Mathieu told ESPN in 2013. “Looking at those people, just staring at me. ‘You don’t belong in here.’ They wanted to come through the jail cell and get me. I’m scared now. Because it’s reality now. I don’t ever want to feel like this again. I’m not going to feel like this again.”
Mathieu quit smoking and focused all of his energy upon being selected for the NFL Draft. He passed a drug test at the 2013 NFL Combine and ran a 4.43 on the 40-yard dash, according to Bleacher Report. He also impressed scouts with his performance in drills, and the Combine showing helped improve his draft stock.
Mathieu was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in 2013. He played safety for the team until March 2018, racking up over 260 solo tackles and 10 interceptions during his team with the Cardinals. He spent a year with the Houston Texans before signing with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2019.
According to Yahoo! Sports, “Mathieu, who turns 30 in May, had 76 combined tackles and three interceptions last season for the Kansas City Chiefs, who he’s been with since 2019. He’s a three-time Pro Bowler and a two-time First-team All-Pro who won the Super Bowl with the Chiefs in 2020.”
The Chiefs advanced to a second consecutive Super Bowl in 2021. But they lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the team suffered a disappointing defeat to the Cincinnati Bengals in this year’s AFC Championship Game. Afterward, Mathieu sat on the home bench at Arrowhead Stadium and stared at the Bengals celebration.
After awhile, he turned to teammate Charvarius Ward, another impending free agent (who would sign with San Francisco this offseason).
“Man,” Mathieu said to Ward, “did we just play our last game at Arrowhead?”
“Yeah, big brother,” Ward replied. “I think so, big brother.”
It was indeed. Mathieu wanted to remain in Kansas City, but the Chiefs elected to move on this time, not offering 29-year-old Mathieu a new contract and instead giving Reid a three-year, $31.5 million deal that includes $20 million guaranteed.
“To be honest,” Mathieu says, “if they would’ve offered me Justin Reid’s deal, obviously I would’ve tried to negotiate, but if that’s where they drew their line in the sand, I probably would’ve took it. I probably would’ve took it.”
Being let go was difficult for him. “I was depressed,” Mathieu told the Kansas City Star. “Heartbroken. Heart. Broken.”
“I could not understand it. I could not, man.” Indeed, it was difficult to understand why the Chiefs (with their notoriously streaky defense) would let go of one of their best defensive players. But Mathieu played this entire season knowing his time with the Chiefs was over.
“I just knew, last year, people’s appreciation for me was kinda going away. I took all that hard. I tried to stay in my routine. I wasn’t going to be a bad teammate. That ain’t me. In the back of my mind, though, I knew.”
It affected his play on the field, he told the Star. Sometimes he played with less emotion — or no emotion. He’d trade barbs with strangers on Twitter, which prompted him to later apologize. He told Star interviewer Sam McDowell: “I knew the Chiefs weren’t going to sign me, and I woke up every day with that on my mind. I knew I wanted to get another contract. You work toward all those things. You take that (stuff) serious. That’s the only reason I was able to do what I did — because I took it serious. I care that much.”
“Passion, it’s a good thing and a bad thing, you know what I’m saying? You can get to the point where you’re like, dude, what are you doing? I think I was just caught in that space where I was trying to prove myself to everybody — especially when I realized I wasn’t signing. That carried throughout the season. I was just in a bad, bad space.”
Now, with a new opportunity on his hometown team, Mathieu has a chance to reinvent — a way to make this homecoming one to remember.