It’s been two years since Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu entered his 2013 NFL Scouting Combine amid a flurry of doubt and controversy. The 2011 Cotton Bowl MVP was dismissed from LSU's team before his junior season for being more "Johnny Blaze" than "Johnny B. Goode."
With the 2015 combine kicking off this week, Bleacher Report caught up with “The Honey Badger,” who served us a first-person account of his swift rise and fall at LSU, the media circus of the combine he endured, his injury-riddled first two years in the NFL and the drug habit he was forced to kick, ultimately changing his life for the better.
The NFL combine is known as “do or die” day to the 300 pro hopefuls who will undergo tests of skill, will and bewilderment.
Some players will be trying to make a name for themselves. Others will be trying to save their names. During my well-publicized combine in 2013, I was running from my name.
Back then I was known as “The Honey Badger.” These days, I’m just plain old Tyrann Mathieu—a secondary soldier for the Arizona Cardinals, just finishing my sophomore NFL season.
At the NFL combine, when you’re fighting for draft position, one bad 40 time, a misinterpreted answer or a bad rep can cost you draft position and cash.
As if the interviews and skills requirements weren’t hard enough, back in 2013 I was dealing with the stigma of going from being a 2011 Cotton Bowl MVP (the first freshman to ever hold that distinction) to being maligned as a marijuana abuser whose habit led to an arrest and embarrassing dismissal from the LSU team in August 2012.
I declared myself eligible for the NFL draft in November and headed to the combine with my draft status in limbo. There were a bunch of questions about who The Honey Badger really was. I was lucky because I had a lot of people encouraging me, prominent people like Louisiana congressman Cedric Richmond and rappers Wale and Lil’ Wayne.
My close friend Deion Sanders was my best adviser. Prime told me, “You’re going to get drafted and be a great player. Once you get your opportunity, don’t look back.”
I don’t think I’ve looked back since then. I just started being more mindful of the things I was doing following my campus arrest.
Everything they tell you about the combine is true: The interviews can be intrusive, offensive and outlandish.
One team wanted to know the first and last name of the kid I had my first schoolyard fight with and what the fight was about.
Another team questioned my focus because I wouldn’t stop smoking bud. Being that I was one of the better players in the draft, they emphasized the fact that I could make a lot of money if I got my act together and questioned my commitment and a lot of other things about me. They gave me 10 words and 10 letters, and I had to recite those 10 words and 10 letters back to them—but backward! Needless to say, I didn’t ace that. I felt like I was in a Dave Chappelle skit.
Expect the unexpected at the combine, especially if you’re dealing with off-field issues.
Other than the millions I probably squandered (I believe I would have been a first- or second-round pick if I didn’t get kicked out of school), the combine wasn’t as hard as people thought it was for me.
People knew I was going to play football somewhere, and I didn’t feel like my past marijuana use had me all out of whack, you know what I mean? I had an issue with weed, and I was really honest about that issue. I wasn’t going crazy or anything.
Most NFL teams weren’t interested in me anyway. They just wanted to sit down and get a feel for me, I guess.
The only real issue I had was with answering the same questions over and over. It became a headache because I met with pretty much every NFL team—and even predraft I visited 15 teams. Most teams gave me a hard time, but the Cardinals took a different approach toward me.
They understood that I was 18 years old at the time and wasn’t highly recruited. I wasn’t used to the attention. I blew up after that Cotton Bowl and then was a Heisman Trophy finalist the next season. I got caught up. Things were really moving for me.
That celebrity life starts to get to you. Most of the guys surrounding me were looking up to me for all the answers to things I couldn’t possibly know. So naturally, I made a lot of poor choices.
That whole “stardom” thing and having fame and being pulled in 100 different directions was overwhelming. I think it really affected me to the point where I didn’t think about the consequences of getting caught or failing a drug test.
Every time I put one in the air, my motto was, “Live for the moment…it’s going to be all right. I’m not hurting anybody.”
As I got clean and the combine approached—in those vulnerable, private moments—I thought about where I wanted to be in five or 10 years, and the most important thing for me was to be playing football.
The first step to making that happen was dominating on the field and separating myself from a lot of guys. I think I did that. I gave them that 4.5 40-yard dash that they were looking for. I feel like I ran faster than that, but whatever. I caught every ball they threw at me and got in and out of my breaks.
Obviously, I didn’t do well in the bench press, but people know that I’m an SEC guy who can tackle and straight-up handle players bigger than me.
For me, it was all about where I would be drafted and what type of NFL team I would be joining.
So far, my NFL career’s been similar to my college career: bittersweet. Stepping on the field for first time this season—after injuring my ACL and LCL in a win over the St. Louis Rams near the end of my rookie year—was sort of like playing for the first time. I wasn’t comfortable. Then as I began to feel comfortable, I broke my thumb in a Week 13 loss to the Atlanta Falcons and missed the next two games.
When I came back against Seattle for that Sunday night battle, I had to wear a bulky protective cast, which kind of set me back again. I’d never been injured before, and honestly, dealing with rehab had me slightly depressed. Sometimes the results just didn’t happen as fast as I’d like because of the extent of my knee injury, so I was still frustrated throughout the process.
As I sit here now, I can honestly say that I’m of sound mind, body and spirit. I’ll be a top-five playmaker in this league really soon; that’s just how I see it. I embrace everything that I’ve been through. It has made me a better person—and a better player. So in the end, I’m still blessed.