After rounding out his sophomore season as a Heisman Trophy finalist and as the nation’s premier defensive player, LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu’s life spun completely out of control.
One failed drug test led to another, until coach Les Miles had no choice but to kick his superstar player off the team. Mathieu chose to remain enrolled at LSU as a regular student, instead of transferring to an FCS or Division II school, where he could have played football right away.
The Honey Badger had been hoping to rehabilitate both his habits and his public persona, with the hopes of returning to the Tigers for the 2013 season.
Then, in October, Mathieu was arrested on charges of possession of marijuana, and whatever slim chances had remained of his returning to the Tigers’ football program went out the window — potentially along with his lifelong dream of playing and starring in the NFL.
[Related >> Photos of Mathieu's arrest on marijuana charges]
It was that arrest, Mathieu told ESPN, that finally opened the uber-talented player’s eyes to the reality he now faced: No future, no friends, no nothing.
“Sitting in that jail cell, it clicked,” an emotional Mathieu said. “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.”
He said a lot of his drug usage stemmed from his poor play in last season’s BCS National Championship game loss to Alabama. The game was played in New Orleans, his hometown, and Mathieu said that caused a series of distractions that ultimately led to his sub-par play.
“I remember worrying about me playing in my hometown and showing up and damn, I don’t think I’m going to show up,” he said. “I hope I show up. I hope I have a game like I did against Georgia or Auburn. And it really took me out of my preparation for the game. I didn’t give up a touchdown but I gave up four or five passes. Passes when I knew they were going to run that route. I mean, I knew they were going to run that route. But I didn’t prepare myself. I was worried about everything outside the game.”
It is hard being 20 years old and having that type of pressure put on yourself. Mathieu was obviously not ready at the time, but he realizes there are several things he could have done differently. He understands now what steps he should have taken to help keep him focused.
Basically, it begins and ends with his cell phone.
If he had to do it over, Mathieu said, “I would have shut my phone off. I would have stayed in my hotel room.”
Unfortunately, he did not stay in the hotel room.
Metaphorically speaking, Mathieu rarely stayed in the hotel room. Eventually, his actions got him kicked off the team, and Mathieu’s world was destroyed. He had worked to become the ferocious, fearless player the country knew him to be. At only 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, it was not easy. It was not easy competing, day in and day out, with the biggest and best players in the nation, the 250-pound fullbacks, the 300-pound offensive linemen. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound wide receivers. But he did it, and he did it with the tenacity of a living legend.
[The rise and fall of the Honey Badger -- A Tyrann Mathieu timeline]
But after Miles sent him packing, the legend of the Honey Badger was no more.
“Devastating,” Mathieu said, tears flowing. “It’s all I had. Football. And to think back on it, as I told you, for the BCS game, I abused myself. I took it out on myself. So many people were trying to help me. Coach Miles, he was basically like my LSU father. And our head trainer, Shelly (Mullenix), was like my mother at LSU. Those people did everything for me. All they wanted was for Tyrann to make a play. They just wanted me to show up. I prepared myself so hard in the spring and summer just to let everyone down.
“I’d tell the world I abused myself though marijuana,” Mathieu said. “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.
“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 felt I was a loyalty person. Looking back, I didn’t know anything about loyalty. I could talk it, but you know, walking it, was a whole different thing. And when you realize you’re not loyal, that’s what hurts the most. When you realize you lied to people, that’s what hurts the most.”
Mathieu understood the type of person he wanted to be, but he did not know how to get there. He wanted to be a Tiger, he wanted to show his friends, family, teammates, coaches and the world that he could finish what he started at LSU.
“I had to regain everything that I lost at LSU,” Mathieu said. “I didn’t want to go to another school and they call me the Honey Badger. They didn’t know how hard I worked to become the Honey Badger. They don’t know Tyrann. LSU is the only fan base that truly knows Tyrann. I couldn’t play for another school. I just couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t have given my all playing for another school. I was only going to give my all for LSU.”
Now the Honey Badgers lives in Boca Raton, Florida, training with his friend and former LSU teammate, Patrick Peterson. Peterson is now with the Arizona Cardinals, and while he was out in Phoenix, Mathieu lived with Peterson’s parents in order to get away from it all.
He is training for the NFL Draft, but he knows there will be several teams that will view him as an immense risk. NFL teams are investing millions of dollars in these rookies, and obviously they want to try to minimize all risk on their end.
Mathieu talked about what he has done to get better, and how he will react to the pressures of once again having the eyes of the world focused directly on him.
“I know what it feels like to be on the dark side,” Mathieu said. “I know what it feels like every day not being able to sleep. Just thinking about football. I know what it feels like to hurt. I know what it feels like to lie to people. I know what it feels like for people not to trust you. I know my mistakes throw red flags up. But I want people to trust me. When I get back on that field, I don’t want to get off. I don’t ever want to leave this game again.”
Tyrann Mathieu will, after suffering through the worst life and offer and coming out the other end intact, better and stronger for it. He will harass quarterbacks, push around bigger wide receivers, and flatten massive running backs.
He will, once again, be the Honey Badger.