A look at the legacy of former LSU football star Tyrann Mathieu
By Cody WorshamPosted Aug 15, 2012
“I’m getting high just to fight the lows, cuz that’s all I know.” – J.Cole, “Cheer Up”
It has never been easy to put a finger on Tyrann Mathieu.
So it is on the football field. Look no further for proof than last year’s SEC Championship Game. The Georgia Bulldogs’ 11 punt defense specialists barely touched Mathieu, who torched them for 119 yards on four returns and a touchdown en route to winning the game’s MVP Award.
And when he lines up on defense and prepares to blitz, there’s not a blocker in the country who can stop Mathieu from getting to the quarterback. He’s just too shifty.
Elusive as he is on the football field, however, Mathieu’s even harder to pin down outside the lines. Getting a read on The Honey Badger away from the game is a challenge no one – including Mathieu himself – has met.
So when news broke last week that Mathieu was permanently dismissed from the LSU football team for violation of team rules, it only muddied that picture even more.
Who is Tyrann Mathieu? And what is his legacy?
Mathieu never wanted to be “The Honey Badger.” In fact, he hated the moniker at first.
The nickname first appeared on LSU sports forum TigerDroppings.com in August 2011, when user “Mike Linebacker” posted an already popular YouTube video on the honey badger and called the animal’s resemblance to Mathieu “uncanny.” The two shared ferocity and small stature; they even looked similar, with Mathieu’s blonde mohawk resembling the badger’s dorsal patch of yellowish fur.
As Mathieu began the 2011 season with a host of highlight-worthy plays on nationally televised games against Oregon and West Virginia, the meme took off, crossing cyberspace with increasing velocity and making its way into the vernacular of college football media across the country.
It was funny. It was unique. It was relevant. And everyone loved it.
“I didn’t embrace it at first,” Mathieu said in January. “I didn’t like it. Especially the ‘honey’ part.”
It was only after he was badgered to death by the nickname that he reluctantly accepted it. Mathieu didn’t like it, but everyone else did.
“It’s going viral,” Mathieu said last fall, as the nickname was gaining popularity. “I pretty much have to accept it now.
“I just go with it,” he added later in the season. “My teammates do a great job of having my back. Anything I can do for those guys to lift their spirit. I think the Honey Badger can do that sometimes.”
If a football team is a family, it’s not surprising that Mathieu has always found it difficult to abide by the rules at LSU. Consider the context of his childhood:
The fifth child of a Fifth Ward mother, Mathieu never knew his father, Darrin Hayes, who has been serving a life sentence in federal prison for murder since Mathieu was 2 years old. And after his mother Tyra decided she couldn’t – or wouldn’t – raise her youngest son, Mathieu’s maternal grandparents took him in as their own.
Lorenzo and Marie Mathieu raised Tyrann to the age of five, when “Red” – as Lorenzo was nicknamed – passed away. The emotional Mathieu took the death of his grandfather – whom he still calls his “best friend” – extremely hard, weeping for days.
He then moved in with his uncle Tyrone, who had three children of his own in New Orleans. There, Tyrann grew up safely, but was exposed to the lifestyle that saw his father imprisoned.
“It was rough,” Mathieu said. “It was not the kind of place you want to be. It was not safe around there.”
But his uncle provided, and Mathieu found outlets. While others fell victim to the street scene, Mathieu turned to athletics, where his natural abilities earned him praise and recognition.
“Sports was my avenue versus hanging out with my friends and doing all those things,” Mathieu said.
Still, there has always been a parent-shaped hole in Mathieu’s life. Though his uncle did his best, Mathieu has always struggled with his estranged maternal relationship and has always questioned why his mother refused to raise him.
“I really don’t want to know why,” he told FoxSports.com last year.
There’s nothing that Tyrann Mathieu can’t do on a football field.
Never one to stick to just a single position, Mathieu bounced from quarterback to cornerback to safety as a prep star at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans. But though that versatility proved invaluable to his high school coaches and teammates, it proved detrimental to his collegiate prospects. Recruiters didn’t think he was refined enough at any one position to play Division I football, and, coupled with his slight frame, no one wanted to take a chance on Mathieu.
No one but LSU. When Mathieu showed up at an LSU camp in the summer of 2009, he locked down every receiver he went up against – and then he let everyone know about it, including the coaches, constantly talking trash and drawing attention to himself.
It worked. Mathieu eagerly accepted his one and only Division 1 scholarship offer, joining the Tigers in 2010 as a lowly touted three-star prospect. Despite his relative anonymity in a class of more well-known talents, Mathieu made an immediate impact, as much because of his talent as his willingness to play anywhere on defense, be it nickelback, corner, or safety.
“It doesn’t matter where you put him,” LSU Defensive Coordinator John Chavis says. “He makes plays.”
Success followed, but the chip never left Mathieu’s shoulder. He always had something to prove.“You want to make plays, and let everybody around you know that you’re not a little boy,” Mathieu said.
Go back to that 2011 SEC Championship Game. The most spectacular play of the game – and possibly of Mathieu’s career – wasn’t even the 62-yard touchdown that put LSU on the scoreboard after a dismal first half offensively.
No, the best play – the one that we’ll never forget – is the 47-yard return in the third quarter. On that play, Mathieu picked up the ball off a bounce, then juked and jived for 13 seconds, making almost every Georgia defender miss before a shoestring tackle prevented the play from ending in six.
At one point, Mathieu actually ran back away from the LSU endzone for several yards, drawing several would-be tacklers toward him before breaking back into space.
That was the play that best defines Mathieu’s career. It was utterly unpredictable. No one knew where Mathieu’s next step would be.
Not even Mathieu.
When Les Miles talks about Mathieu, he never focuses on just the football player. He has never seen Mathieu as just “The Honey Badger.” He’s seen him as the kid he first met at an LSU camp in 2009; the kid who wouldn’t shut up; the kid who needed Miles’ attention.
“I think there’s a part of Tyrann Mathieu that is definitely the Honey Badger,” he said in January. “I think on the football field he takes what he wants or what he can get his hands on.
“But I know Tyrann Mathieu to be much more than just a Honey Badger. [He’s a] very quality young man, does a lot for his team,” he added. “He’s a leader. I like the Tyrann Mathieu tag myself.”
His teammates, meanwhile, call him “a philosopher” for his outlook on life and “a brother” for his love and willingness for intimacy.
“He’s got a really big heart,” said fellow cornerback Tharold Simon. “He thinks he could tackle a 400-pound person. He’s got the most heart I’ve ever seen out of a little dude.”
Still, Miles has always struggled to keep Mathieu reined in. Miles “withheld” Mathieu from play last season against Auburn after Mathieu reportedly tested positive for synthetic marijuana. Afterward, it seemed Mathieu had learned his lesson.
“It means a lot to be a student at LSU, to wear those colors and take the field every Saturday with those guys,” he said when he returned from the suspension. “You work so hard. You practice all day so you can take the field with those guys, and that day that you can’t take the field with those guys, it feels like something is missing in your heart.”
Though that episode seemed to have been placed in the past, Mathieu was kept away from the media all summer per Miles’ request, for reasons unknown to the public.
Miles only offered vague reasoning.
“So many times, he’s such a pleasing guy, he wants to please everybody,” Miles said. “He need not be so insistent to please others.”
When news broke of Mathieu’s dismissal last week, the pervading question across the landscape of college football was, “Why?”
Miles, again, only offered vague reasoning, saying Mathieu broke team rules. Later, reports emerged that Mathieu had, yet again, failed a drug test, reports which Miles and LSU will neither confirm nor deny.
But, for Mathieu, the question remains. Why? Why, if the reports are true, did he elect to break LSU’s substance abuse policy when he knew another violation would lead to his dismissal? Why, after repeated warnings and second chances, did he give up a chance at the Heisman Trophy, a national championship, and all the glory – deserved or not – that comes with being one of the best players in college football?
His teammates and coaches agree: he’s a good guy. Miles chalked it up to “a behavior issue.” Maybe so. Maybe the absence of his father and mother bred an attitude of disruption in Mathieu; an attitude that both fueled his flame on the football field and sent his career down in flames. Maybe the chip on his shoulder was too heavy.
Or maybe was trying to escape; that he was running away from everything – the pain of the past, the expectations of the present, and the prospect of both in the future.
He just ran the wrong way. Only, unlike the SEC Championship Game last season, it didn’t work.
Sports are, in their most basic sense, an exercise in realizing intentions. The mind tells the body what to do, and the body follows. It’s dualistic, requiring a unity of brain and biomechanics that, when performed by truly great athletes, can be profound and beautiful.
What makes Mathieu so fun to watch is that you can see him thinking on the football field. His vision, his anticipation, his instinct – it’s all very evident when he’s on the gridiron.
But what makes Mathieu a truly great football player is the boldness of his intentions. Who else would think to punch a screen pass vertically and field it like a punt, as Mathieu did against West Virginia last year? Who else would think on a blindside blitz to bypass the sack, and instead reach over the quarterback’s arm, strip the ball on a spin, and pivot to pick up the ball for an easy score, as Mathieu did against Kentucky last year?
What makes him such a disappointing figure, however, is this: the football field excluded, Mathieu couldn’t realize his intentions anywhere else.
“I’m just trying to be an all-around player, an all-around person,” Mathieu said after last season’s suspension. “You want to be a good guy off the field and make good decisions.”
Mathieu never intended to make the mistakes he made. He intended to learn from his failures.
But life, as Mathieu has learned all too well in recent days, isn’t a football game. Actual mistakes aren’t punished with yellow flags and whistles. When we run the wrong way, we might not get the chance to cut it back and get on track. When we drop the ball, we aren’t guaranteed another down.
Yet, if, by some turn of fortune, we are lucky enough to get new life, we’d do well to remember how we got there, and recall who we really are – if we ever knew it at all.