TEMPE, Ariz. -- You can still call him the “Honey Badger”. Just don’t expect him to turn and look.
“I understand that there are a lot of people out there who were in love with the ‘Honey Badger’. They will not let it go. But for me going forward, I want people to recognize me as Tyrann Mathieu.”
That recognition may indeed come in the future, but for now, the Arizona Cardinals’ third-round selection in last month’s NFL Draft is viewed as much as a risk as he is a potential star. The number of redemption stories in the NFL are nearly as numerous as touchdown passes, and the team is hoping to find one more.
Mathieu burst onto the national scene during the 2011 season as a sophomore at LSU. His ferocity on the field earned him the “Honey Badger” moniker, a tag that was well earned. Mathieu’s tendency for big plays earned him the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defensive player, and he became one of the rare defensive players to become a Heisman Trophy finalist.
However, through all of the glory, signs of trouble were beginning to surface.
In October of that season, LSU suspended Mathieu for one game due to a failed drug test. After returning to finish his breakout year, trouble found him again but just weeks before the 2012 season. LSU head coach Les Miles booted Mathieu from the team in early August, and one week later, Mathieu dropped out of school to enter a drug rehabilitation facility.
As his troubles mounted, his future looked bleak and his draft stock plummeted. Yet, for a league in which talent most often trumps all, his special talents made him an intriguing prospect.
While some teams dropped him off their draft boards, the Cardinals increasingly stood out as a logical fit, thanks to the presence of Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson.
Peterson and Mathieu were teammates at LSU during the 2010 season and bonded quickly. During Mathieu’s darkest hours, Peterson and his family embraced the troubled star.
“They’ve been extremely instrumental,” Mathieu said of the Peterson family at a press conference on Thursday. “Them believing in me after everything went down at LSU, having me come there and making me a part of their family. Even past that, Mr. Peterson having me come work out with him, and even Patrick for putting his name on the line and being that friend and mentor that I need. I’m extremely thankful, and I can’t thank his family enough. “
Now reunited in Arizona, Mathieu is looking to Peterson as a role model.
“He’s going to be extremely important, probably as important as my girlfriend,” said Mathieu. “He’s probably going to be everywhere with me. I’m just going to follow Patrick’s routine.”
Does that connection include becoming roommates?
“Maybe,” Mathieu said with a laugh.
At the press conference, Mathieu hinted that the bond between the two players seemed to make a reunion in the Valley a foregone conclusion even during the most troubling of times last fall.
“Patrick told me this probably in November or December that he’s going to make me an Arizona Cardinal,” Mathieu said. “Just to have those things come true and to have an organization that believed in me is something that I’m going to hold onto and keep in the forefront of my mind.”
The belief was earned with openness and honesty with team officials during the pre-draft process.
“I just came there, had my suit on, and was extremely honest with those guys,” Mathieu said. “We cracked a few smiles, we laughed, and we joked around. My main thing to get across was, ‘Coach, I understand what I’ve been through, I made my mistakes, and I’m ready to play football again.’
Mathieu feels that his personal growth, combined with the support of his new franchise, has him heading towards success.
“My actions over the last six months have proven that I’m on the right track,” said Mathieu. “I think I have my head on straight. Going forward, I’m going to surround myself with positive people and a great support staff, which I know the Cardinals are going to provide for me. I’m looking forward to it. It’s not going to be easy. There are going to be some challenges, but it’s something I’m ready for.”
On top of all of his off-field battles, there remains the core to this entire saga: Playing football. The best tonic for any athlete to overcome troubles is to produce during games, a fact not lost on the rookie.
“I think it’s just me doing what I have to do, and letting my actions speak for themselves,” Mathieu said. "I’m looking forward to it. I definitely have a long journey and there are going to be some challenges, but I think I’m ready for it.”
One of the major factors for Mathieu—the player—to overcome is the rust of not having played in a football game since the BCS National Championship Game on January 9, 2012.
“Not at all,” replied Mathieu as to whether that is a concern. “Football, that’s what I do. I wake up every day, I train, and I work out. I don’t think that I’m going to be rusty. I don’t think I’m going to be a step behind, but I definitely am going to need to catch up to the speed of the NFL. “
When asked about what he has missed most being away from the game so long, Mathieu—never one to back down from anything—said that he longed to return to his role of playmaker.
“The big time plays you make, and having your teammates call on you to make those big time plays.”
Another challenge facing Mathieu on the gridiron is a position change. With his 5-foot-9, 186-pound frame, Mathieu was already considered to be on the smaller side for a cornerback at the NFL level. But with the team losing Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes, the Cardinals are moving him to safety to bolster the depth along the backline.
“I think it’s a challenge. I’ve been challenged before,” said Mathieu. “I’ve played safety for a few games in college. I won’t say that I’m comfortable with it, but it’s something that I’m willing to do. If Coach believes in me to be back there making checks and making calls, I feel like I’m the guy to do it for him.
“There’s a lot of people out there who say I’m too small or won’t man up to be a safety, but it’s something that I’ve prepared for my entire life since the age of five. Making tackles and going to get the football doesn’t change. It’s the same motto for me: Go get the ball. I’m going to take the same approach to the NFL.”
Mathieu was also a dangerous punt returner while at LSU, but that’s a role that he will be hard pressed to earn with Arizona, thanks to his mentor. Peterson is one of the NFL’s top punt returners, having been named to the All-Pro team in 2011 after returning four kicks for touchdowns.
“I don’t think he’s going to give it to me,” Mathieu said with a laugh.
No matter what roles he earns with the team, Mathieu is just happy to be back playing the sport he loves.
“I’m extremely anxious, and I’m extremely excited too, Mathieu said. “I’m grateful and I’m blessed to be an Arizona Cardinal. I’m going to put my best foot forward, take in as much as I can from the older guys, and try to become a true professional.”
Through all of the troubles behind him and the challenges now ahead of him, Mathieu is simply focusing on one simple thing.
“I don’t have anything to hold back. I’m just ready to play football.