Tyrann Mathieu Vows to Make the NFL Remember He's the Honey Badger in 2018

Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterMarch 23, 2018

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 24:  Free safety Tyrann Mathieu #32 of the Arizona Cardinals walks off the field following the NFL game against the New York Giants at the University of Phoenix Stadium on December 24, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. The Arizona Cardinals won 23-0.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

CHANDLER, Ariz. — Punch in the four-digit code, cruise into the gated community, reach the end of the cul-de-sac and there awaits the gorgeous home of a Sixty-Two Million Dollar Man. A man who has it all. Tyrann Mathieu greets you with a smile and a dap and trots downstairs to get the base of his signature blond dreads sliced 'n diced with Picasso precision. 

He spits tobacco into a bottle. His two Yorkshire Terriers bark and bark and bark upstairs.

His daredevil of a 3-year-old son is leaping from three steps up, then four steps, then crashing into a heap from five steps before slingshotting everywhere. It's no surprise the front bumper on Tyrann Jr.'s "Ferrari" outside is hanging off its hinges. Tyrann Sr. jokes his son "doesn't have his license yet." Dad's a softie, to be sure, but whenever Tyrann Jr. does cry, he looks him in the eyes, holds that stare...and the crying stops. Dad always knows when Son is faking.

In the front, National Geographic plays on the TV. (Volume on high.) In the back, there's a state-of-the-art bar. (The bottle of Jack Daniels is nearly empty.) On all walls, jerseys are in glass cases, from Mathieu's No. 14 and No. 7 at LSU to good friend Patrick Peterson's No. 21 with a long, personalized message Sharpied on the numbers to—why not?—a LeBron James high school jersey.

Oh, that new tattoo? It's an ankh and the Eye of Horus, he explains. "The key of life. It teaches you positive things about life."

Photo by Tyler Dunne

No doubt, this is a man who has slayed his demons, cleared obstacles.

But as a smoke detector in the house beeps about every 20 minutes and Mathieu insists on asking him anything—"I'm an open book"—it is also clear that inside this man there is a fire burning and a search on. He doesn't think in terms of what's been accomplished in the past.

Mathieu searches...and searches...for the rabid Honey Badger within. He had it, lost it, had it and lost it again.

His mind drifts to people and places and coincidences.

He looks inward.

He puts his 25 years on earth under a microscope.

"I always embrace these moments in life," he says, "because they kind of define us. I've had a few of these moments in my life where my back was against the wall and I've had to prove myself again. I've always come out on the opposite side.

"I try to constantly climb that mountain, man."

So this is his new mountain. All the Cardinals decorations everywhere down here? Yeah, they won't be up for long. Arizona decided the Honey Badger was finished. They tore up that contract and moved on. And he's moved on too, signing to play with the Texans in 2018.

Permanent smile on his face, gold No. 7 necklace around his neck, Mathieu doesn't hide from the fact that his next season is make-or-break.

It's simple. This year, the badger either lives on or dies.

"I get an opportunity to go to LSU and f--k it up. Completely f--k it up. I get into the NFL and I walk in a straight line…and get injured. This is my test. Not too many people have my story. And this is my story: A guy goes from unknown to a Heisman Trophy finalist. He gets kicked out of school. He absolutely rebounds himself. He becomes a millionaire. He's taking care of his family. And then he's getting injured.

"How can he get back to the top of that mountain? People never do it. You've seen guys go, and then drop off. They never returned."

Beep!

"I will, though."


Honestly, using the names of NFL peers does not suffice. It really annoys Mathieu that when his stat line is the same as Earl Thomas—say, four solo tackles—the narrative, he says, is Earl Thomas is flying around! But Tyrann? Tyrann didn't do anything. So he can't compare himself to other defensive backs.

To more accurately put his predicament in perspective, Mathieu uses names like Jordan and Kobe and LeBron.

That's the standard he believes he's held to.

That's the standard he craves.

"Our failures define our successes," Mathieu says. "Michael Jordan took so many shots. Kobe Bryant took so many shots. But as we look back at his career, we know why he took so many shots. We know why Michael Jordan wanted the ball in his hand. He failed enough. Success was the only thing that could happen at that point. Those guys hit rock bottom—Michael Jordan getting cut.

"That's what I ultimately wanted for myself. I don't want anyone to believe in me more than me."

So he doesn't hide from his performance last fall. Injuries ravaged his game. His mentality. OK, he didn't allow any touchdowns in 2017. Fine, he played more snaps (1,261) than anyone in the NFL. But real-life honey badgers are known for attacking any animal on earth—even lions. They're ruthless. Fearless. Don't give a damn if they're one-sixth the size of their prey. And Mathieu was, uh, more of a house cat for stretches last season. Tearing both ACLs and suffering a shoulder subluxation poisoned his game with hesitancy.

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 08:  Free safety Tyrann Mathieu #32 of the Arizona Cardinals is taken off the field on a cart after an injury during the third quarter of the NFL game against the St. Louis Rams at the University of Phoenix Stadium on December 8, 2
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Prior to the NFL, Mathieu had never missed a game due to injury. Suddenly, his confidence was shot.

Watching film last season, Mathieu would shout aloud, "What the hell is this?" He didn't recognize that imposter wearing No. 32 on the field, because, he admits, he too often visualized "not getting hurt" instead of pulling the trigger. Too often approached ball-carriers thinking, How am I going to make this tackle?

"And think about how that can mess with somebody who plays the game the way I play the game," he says.

Mathieu says he effectively let those injuries "suffocate" the passion and emotion that made him the Honey Badger.

This offseason, Mathieu embraced "self-reflecting" like never before. Be it in a sauna at a Life Time gym down the street or doing yoga here in his basement with an instructor, Mathieu will close his eyes and visualize helicoptering into quarterbacks, tattooing receivers, crossing his arms like a boss, playing with an unapologetic cockiness. After all, a player who's always been the smallest on every field needs that attitude. Otherwise, he admits, "I'm a pedestrian."

So to hell with playing it safe and to hell with worrying about a contract.

"I have to get back to that mindset to where, Cool, I don't even care. Give me a helmet. Give me some cleats. I'm about to f--k this up. I'm about to go in here and do what I do," he says. "That's the mindset that I'm at right now."

He stares ahead. Squinting. Visualizing.

"I'd rather be a shooting star than a fading star," he says. "I'd rather go all out and get hurt. I'd rather get hurt making a Honey Badger-type of play, rather than get hurt trying not to get hurt. That's where I'm at right now. People are going to get what they expect. Not only what they expect but what I expect. Even if I get 80 tackles, it's going to look good. Those 80 tackles are going to be hell of a tackles. And the interceptions are going to be great interceptions.

"I need to get back to that mindset of, Hey, man. You're the best at what you do. Just understand that and believe that."

To clarify, he doesn't mean the best safety, assuring, "I do more than that." When he's the menace who forced 11 fumbles in two years at LSU and broke up 17 passes in 2015, Mathieu believes he's the best defensive back there is. A human chess piece.

GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 27:  Free safety Tyrann Mathieu #32 of the Arizona Cardinals celebrates after an interception during the second quarter of the NFL game against the San Francisco 49ers at the University of Phoenix Stadium on September 27, 2015 in
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Before he was cut, he was sincerely jacked about the idea of being the tip of a spear in Arizona's defense. Soon after the Cardinals hired Steve Wilks as their head coach, linebacker Luke Kuechly called Mathieu to tell him just how much he had loved Wilks in Carolina. How jealous he was. How dominant Mathieu would be playing for him. So, sure, Mathieu had decided he was willing to take a pay cut if it meant clearing room for Kirk Cousins or Nick Foles, because he truly believed the Cardinals were that close to a Super Bowl. "The only way you'll ever be considered the best ever is if you win a championship," he says.

Look at Dan Marino, he adds. His legacy fades with each year.

And legacy means everything to Mathieu.

The Cardinals instead signed eternally fragile Sam Bradford to a one-year, $20 million deal; negotiations fell flat with Mathieu, and Mathieu bounced to Houston on that one-year deal. It's no surprise he took a bridge deal, either.

To truly become the Honey Badger again, it hits Mathieu here, mid-haircut, he must remember how all of that passion and emotion fueled his game to begin with.

How this whole Honey Badger thing started.


A voice screams from above.

"Dad!? Daaaaad!"

"What's up, buddy? I'm downstairs! Come here!"

With that, Tyrann Jr. waddles on down to jump from the stairs, throw a softball around and resemble a miniature honey badger in every way imaginable while Dad explains the birth of his signature style. Gazing at his son, he ducks and shakes his head. Even today, at 25, he struggles with this pit in his stomach. His passion is rooted in anger, in the fact that his own biological parents were never in his life.

His dad, Darrin Hayes, has been in prison nearly Mathieu's whole life. He was in for robbery when Mathieu was born—and then the day he was released for the robbery, he shot Donald Noten four times. Hayes was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. Mom? She was flat-out absent from Day 1.

"I've got two kids now," Mathieu says. "I couldn't imagine. As a kid, I struggled with, 'Why is my life like this? I want this but I have this.' I struggled with that the most as a kid. I couldn't understand it. And it made me angry."

His grandmother, early on, passed Mathieu off to his uncle and aunt, who supplied a stable household. Yet, a pain remained. Why? Mathieu couldn't understand why his father wasn't in his life and his mother didn't care about him. He never verbalized his angst—Mathieu tended to hold all emotions in.

But football, with all of its beautiful, legal violence, allowed him to "channel everything." He could take all of these negative emotions, load them into a cannon and light a match.

"I can be this relentless character on the football field," Mathieu says. "And whatever that pain was, I can just put that out there."

So Mathieu ignored all coaches telling him baseball was his future, skipping those practices because baseball was too fickle. Emotionally, it did nothing for him. He couldn't transfer his pain on a diamond.

Football, of course, was different. Mathieu became a park ball legend in the 7th Ward of New Orleans, noting that parades were thrown in his honor. He laughs out loud recalling those days of wearing a white tuxedo with a Burger King crown on his head. In high school—playing running back and safety—Mathieu was benched by one coach who was trying to prove a point. A "military man," Mathieu says. So he went to the office of another coach, Del Lee-Collins, and Lee-Collins convinced him to give cornerback a shot.

Focusing solely on cornerback, that raw emotion released like never before.

TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 05:  Tyrann Mathieu #7 of the LSU Tigers tackles Michael Williams #89 of the Alabama Crimson Tide during the game at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 5, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Mathieu's game became a punishing extension of his life.

"It's my mindset. I'm going to channel everything I've been through. The negatives and the positives. I'm going to make it be what I want it to be. I can make it be a hurricane, get caught up in my own thoughts and absolutely lose myself into something I may never be again. Or I may settle down, reflect on my journey, find my strengths and overcome it."

A literal hurricane, Katrina, forced Mathieu to move as a child. And a figurative hurricane ended his college career. Being the Honey Badger just became way too much.

Kids were suddenly dying their hair blond—because of him.

Professors were, uh, grading on a curve.

"I'm 18, 19. I would literally walk into the store for a sandwich and a bag of chips, and I'd put my money out to pay for it, and I didn't have to pay for it," he says. "I had all these things given to me. And I had teachers, they'd give me things if I signed an autograph, signed a football. I didn't know how to handle this, man. I was a rock star. I was the president of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

"It happened too fast for me. … Way too fast for me."

He was booted from LSU after multiple failed drug tests. Looking to turn the page, he asked the world to drop that "Honey Badger" nickname entirely. Every interview he gave, Mathieu pleaded to the masses to please, please call him "Tyrann." He didn't want people visualizing a stoner.

"Tyrann" proceeded to take the NFL by storm, so "Honey Badger" ended up sticking anyway, for all the right reasons. But then injury to injury to injury, that aura gradually faded away.

As a razor slices the stubble beneath his right cheek, Mathieu insists he relishes this current crossroad because everything molded him into who he is today.

As livid as he was—fatherless, motherless, answerless—he now realizes there's zero chance he's sitting here today if he wasn't passed off to an aunt and uncle.

"Lord knows the kind of s--t I would've gotten into," he says.

He knows he would've ended up in jail like so many of his cousins, friends. Or worse.


He might look at peace, but he's not. Not completely.

The Nat Geo on TV is turned down, that detector beeps again, and Mathieu's mind trails off to that thin line. He cannot shake two what-ifs. In 2012, his best friend was shot dead on New Year's Eve. Trying to get his own life back on track after leaving LSU, Mathieu had lost touch with Jared Haynes for a few months. Jared moved back home, Jared (he heard) was "set up," and Jared's life ended.

"What if we would've talked?" Mathieu says. "Would things have been different? I don't know."

Haynes, he laments, was full of potential.

And in 2016, another friend died after the Ford Focus he was driving smashed into the back of an 18-wheeler. Sam Brooks' vehicle became lodged under the trailer and was dragged to the shoulder. Brooks was supposed to come to Arizona the week before to hang with Mathieu and didn't. What if they talked then? What if something changed? He apparently felt the need to escape in the middle of the night—and was pronounced dead at 3:14 a.m.

"You're always playing chess in your mind trying to figure things out," Mathieu says. "Maybe he needed another friend. Maybe he needed to hang around other people."

So Mathieu never loses sight that there are thousands upon thousands of kids exactly like him in New Orleans. Kids tightroping that fine line. He makes a point to consciously remember the precious dominoes that needed to fall for him to live here in serene Trovita Place. Those kids' neighborhoods aren't protected by a gate with a four-digit code. His foundation helps. And he knows his presence—check that, the Honey Badger's presence—can serve as a beam of light for everyone to "sing," to "dance," to do anything that can change their narrative.

Reach that Jordan, that LeBron stratosphere, and he'll change lives.

There's no choice. The Honey Badger must re-emerge.


Across the room, Tyrann Jr. needs our attention. Now. Standing in front of a miniature soccer ball, he repeatedly yells, "I'm kicking this!" before finally screeching "I! AM! KICKING! THIS!"

Dad redirects his attention, cheers on his son and turns back with a laugh.

Yeah, this little badger will be a wide receiver.

Photo by Tyler Dunne

"You see how he wants all the attention," Mathieu says. "He might be the next Odell."

Moments later, he watches his son leap from five steps up, crash, not cry, and Dad changes his mind. Never mind. He sees a future "top-five safety." Tell Tyrann Jr. he's going to be a "bruiser," and the 3-year-old interprets that as "loser," scowls and shouts, "I'm going to be a winner!" We eat lunch—Tyrann Jr. removing the meat to eat the bun only—and as his son falls down repeatedly, Dad jokes that maybe Tyrann Jr. will be a basketball player with all of that flopping. "James Harden!" he yells after one spill before kissing his son's arm.

No doubt, Mathieu takes pride in the fact that Tyrann Jr.—and his 5-year-old son who lives with his mother in Louisiana—will never grow up like him.

Says Mathieu, "I can be the dad I never had."

He knows if he hadn't gotten his life together at 19 years old, any children he ever had would've been forced to live in a dark shadow. He would've been one colossal "what-if" himself, an NFL star that never was.

"Overnight, people would've forgotten about me had I not gotten my act together," Mathieu says. "My sons would've had to grow up and listen to those stories. I don't want them to listen to that narrative. At that point, it's really deep. Because you can't really think shallow at that point. You have to really dig deep, and I was conscious of it."

Hooked on marijuana, he turned his career around. Finally healthy, he vows to turn it around again. To illustrate, he brings up a photo stashed away somewhere upstairs from Dec. 10, 2011. The night he was up for the Heisman Trophy in New York. You see him and Robert Griffin III and Trent Richardson and Montee Ball and Andrew Luck.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Three of the five, Mathieu notes, are out of the NFL.

He brings up Justin Blackmon. The fifth overall pick was devoured by his demons, repeatedly violating the league's substance abuse policy to the point of no return.

He brings up Johnny Manziel because, by God, he can relate to Johnny Football.

Like Mathieu, his legal name took backseat to a nickname that became larger than life. Mythical. Unlike Mathieu, he partied and partied, and virtual bouncers tossed him from the NFL. Mathieu tried contacting Manziel when Manziel was at his lowest. He knew that if anyone could dig Manziel out of this pit, it was him.

Unfortunately, he never received a call, never received a text, and Manziel's current comeback attempt is likely too little, too late.

"We all had the same potential," Mathieu says, "and the same story."

So this is why Tyrann Mathieu is so undaunted by this next mountain in front of him. If he didn't live without a father, if he wasn't kicked out of school, if his name didn't bleed across that bottom line on ESPN, if he didn't lose two of his closest friends, maybe Mathieu wouldn't know how to handle this current adversity. But he has. This all "defined" him, he says.

Part of Mathieu sounds like it's searching for an answer to a question posed by a season that got him cut. But part of him sounds like he's never been healthier and never thought this clearly so it truly doesn't matter whether he's playing for Arizona or Houston.

Beep!

Being introduced as a Texan, Mathieu wears a navy suit and red tie, and his hair, of course, is groomed to perfection. For most of his 15-minute news conference, Mathieu sticks to the introductory cliches. He can't wait to play alongside J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. He can't wait to join Deshaun Watson. He flashes the blinding grin of a dad excited to live closer to his oldest son, while bringing Tyrann Jr. on a new journey.

And when asked where the pop behind his hits comes from, that raw Honey Badger emerges.

"It's everything I've been through," he says. "Always being doubted, always being counted out.

"I try to play as if I have a point to prove. I try to play as if no one believed in me."

Soon after, he posts a graphic on Instagram showing that he's one of three players in the NFL with 300 tackles, 10 picks and 15 quarterback hits, along with the message: "I'm always in rare company, I think some y'all just hating." The next graphic shows only one other cornerback was targeted more without allowing a touchdown with the message: "Don't play with me…"

There's no shortage of motivation. Never has been.

The Honey Badger, it's obvious, is found.

               

Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.

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