Tyrann Mathieu and Two Sides of Sports

Almost exactly a year ago, an LSU beat writer sent word early one Friday morning that big news was coming later in the day.

A few hours later, Tyrann Mathieu was officially kicked off the LSU football team, and everyone was stunned.

It’s not like there had been a series of public screwups over the summer building to that press conference. Mathieu had been suspended a game in the past, and he’d missed SEC media days, but there was no inkling of career-threatening trouble. Then that Friday, we found out he’d failed multiple drug tests since the season ended, and the failed drug tests for weed were apparently enough to get him kicked off the team. It was all over in maybe 20 minutes. No talking heads shouting about whether he should stay or go, nobody defending his right to be 20 years old and make mistakes, nothing. Les Miles dismissed Mathieu at 5:30 a.m. in his office that morning. Asked later whether Mathieu had broken a team rule or a school rule, Miles said, “Both.”

“We extended ourselves personally and professionally to him,” Miles said. “We’ll miss the guy. The football team’s got to go on. We’ll have to fill the void.”

It all felt very matter-of-fact and depressing.

From there, everything got weirder. The day he got kicked off, everyone assumed Mathieu would go play somewhere like McNeese State and then go pro. Instead, Mathieu opted for a few weeks of marijuana rehab and counseling with John Lucas, then came back to LSU as a student. So, just a month or so after getting kicked off the team, the most famous football player at the school awkwardly sat in the stands at football games wearing a Biggie T-shirt.

Then there was the Sports Illustrated cover story in October that questioned whether he was breaking NCAA rules. The reaction to the Sports Illustrated story, where critics alleged the writers had been trying to bribe sources. Then the arrest for weed a week or two after that, rendering the SI controversy pretty much irrelevant. And we were all stunned and depressed all over again.

If it feels like last August’s press conference happened 24 months ago, it’s maybe because Mathieu has packed in multiple redemption and failure cycles since. But he’s playing football again, people are saying good things about what he’s doing with the Cardinals, and now he’s just a regular ol’ rookie getting tortured by Darnell Dockett.

It’s almost like we’ve come full circle. And since it’s August and we’re nearing the anniversary of when all the batshit insanity started, I feel like I should explain why Tyrann Mathieu matters — to me, at least.

There are two obvious reasons for this:

1. God, he was so awesome. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a defensive player more exciting than Tyrann Mathieu in college. The Honey Badger nickname started with his defensive coordinator and viral videos, but it stuck because it captured him perfectly. He was just a tiny little murderer in the secondary, destroying people twice his size, ripping the ball out, picking off passes, and then when the time came, running through defenses on punt returns.

Look at this:

Or this, which wasn’t even a touchdown but still breaks your brain:

As the 2011 season unfolded and LSU went undefeated through the regular season, the Honey Badger legend took on a life of its own. There were YouTube videos and thousands of T-shirts on sale and bars naming drinks after him and everything else that comes with being a folk hero superstar in the SEC. But all the hype aside, just on the field, he was as electrifying as football players ever get.

All of which is to say, the first reason to root for him is pretty obvious: Football is more fun when people like Tyrann Mathieu are making plays and turning the game inside out.

2. Plenty of athletes come from poverty, plenty come from broken homes, but even among a hundred stories of heartbreak, Tyrann Mathieu stands out. As Sports Illustrated reported last year, his father was a drug dealer, then a drug user, then spent time in prison for robbery, and eventually wound up back in prison, sentenced to life for second-degree murder.

His mother either couldn’t or wouldn’t raise him, so Mathieu spent the first five years of his life with his grandparents in New Orleans. He bonded with his grandfather, but when his grandfather died from heart disease at 54, 5-year-old Mathieu moved in with his uncle, who provided more stability in suburban New Orleans. Then Hurricane Katrina hit, and his uncle’s family was displaced to Texas for a year, his high school was underwater, and it took about three years before everything was back to anything like normal. By then he was a senior in high school.

With everything that’s been written about Mathieu, maybe the most memorable insight came when news broke of his arrest last year. With most of the sports world scoffing at Mathieu blowing his second chance, The Sporting News’s Matt Crossman took to Twitter to vent. The text:

I had a long interview with Tyrann Mathieu last winter that resulted in this story. It was the most emotionally draining interview I’ve ever done. At the time, I wished he’d stop talking because what he said was so painful.

Later, I realized it wasn’t that I wished he’d stop talking, but that I wished what he said wasn’t true. He had enough pain for 2 lives. Everybody loves a story about an athlete who has fallen & gotten up. But it was obvious then and evident now that Mathieu was still falling. He desperately wanted someone to trust but was surrounded by people who didn’t deserve to be trusted. He didn’t know how to trust, anyway. I concluded the root of Tyrann Mathieu’s pain is he doesn’t believe anybody loves him unconditionally. Not his mom, not his dad. Nobody. What broke my heart — what made me have to sit there and catch my breath after the interview — is the possibility he was right.

Mathieu was so old by the time he started to call someone mom and dad that he remembers feeling awkward using those words. I wanted to cry. Nobody should remember starting to say mom and dad or wonder if they should call people that or feel like they’re experimenting.

Can you imagine thinking or saying this? “I know if I have a child, I’ll be there for them, no matter what.” That’s Mathieu. What has happened to a kid that he has to say that out loud? It was almost like he had to learn that.

Mathieu on two Mathieus: “There was one who did the right thing, who was loving. There was the one who was out of sync, and didn’t believe in himself.”

I read in SI that Mathieu is going to be a dad. I hope that he sees in that baby’s eyes some measure of what he’s missing.

This was the piece of the story that was missing for most of last year. The Honey Badger made for such a convenient cautionary tale — then redemption story, then cautionary tale — nobody realized there were more forces working against him than any star college that football had seen in a long time. Not just fame, or pressure, but actual-life shit that would break most anyone into pieces. If it doesn’t excuse Mathieu’s knack for sabotaging himself, it helps explain things a little more. This wasn’t just an entitled athlete who didn’t want to stop smoking weed.

It’s hard just to read about Tyrann Mathieu’s family situation, let alone imagine the hundred different ways it could’ve shaped his downfall at LSU. And after everything that has happened, of course I’m rooting for him to prove every doubter wrong on the field, and overcome whatever haunts him elsewhere. Once you realize where he’s been, how could you not root for him to get somewhere much, much better?

Jarko

Now we’re here, 12 months after ESPN: The Magazine ran the “Who’s Afraid of the Honey Badger?” cover story on the same day he got kicked off the football team. And after all the insanity, I think the craziest part is that Mathieu is somehow exactly where everyone would’ve expected a year ago: in an NFL training camp, drawing rave reviews from everyone, ready to make plays. It’s awesome.

Just look at the difference in the stories surrounding him. Before he got drafted, scouts questioned his maturity for quoting Tupac lyrics on Twitter and knocked him for his size and slow 40 time, and his struggles with the bench press at the combine became its own saga. As one writer crowed, “Not being able to bench a lot doesn’t mean Mathieu can’t make it in the NFL. But it might mean he doesn’t have a good work ethic.”

In the past week:
• His GM in Arizona has called his work ethic “outstanding” and says, “He’s a gym rat. He was one of the rookies that was first in the weight room every morning.”

Carson Palmer: “Tyrann is getting his hands on a lot of balls. He’s so quick and explosive in and out of breaks and reading concepts and knowing coverages and weaknesses in where we’re trying to throw the ball.”

• And a scout watching Cardinals practice called him “pound-for-pound, the best player on the field.”

None of this means that much, obviously. You’d think he’s smarter now, and humbled, and that he has got a lot more to prove than he did a year ago. All of that is working in his favor. But we really have no idea what’ll happen from here. All I know is that hearing the gushing reports out of Cardinals camp brought me back to everything Mathieu used to be and everything that has happened since, and reminded me how badly I want him to succeed after all this.

One of the worst parts of being a sports fan happens when you fall in love with an athlete and get personally invested, and then one day you watch everything unravel. I went through this with Gilbert Arenas, for instance. Whether cursed by bad luck or bad decisions or both, sometimes things just don’t work out for people you love — personally, professionally, or (often) both. It’s hard to watch. Then with someone like Mathieu, you look closer and you find out about his background, and wonder if he was maybe doomed from the start. Then, between hearing idiot announcers trash him without a second thought and imagining pain that’s beyond comprehension, it all starts to feel deeply unfair. This is when sports make you feel kinda crappy about the world and all the people who are screwed from the outset.

If you watch sports long enough, you’ll know this happens all the time. You’ll start to love watching guys who, for all kinds of reasons, just can’t seem to stop sabotaging themselves.

They are their own worst enemies, can’t get out of their own way, etc. We have several clichés to describe the phenomenon. The memories and highlights are still there for these guys, but everything is tainted because you know how it ended. It all becomes a reminder that for athletes and anyone else, life isn’t always fair, and endings aren’t always happy.

“I have a lot of fans, and of course I’m happy those guys still root for me and still cheer for me,” Mathieu told Fox Sports this week. “But I think my biggest thing right now is I need to make a few more big plays so hopefully I’ll get a few new fans.”

One of the best parts of being a sports fan is when someone has every reason to fail, and all kinds of forces working against him, but then you watch him overcome everything. This is when sports make you feel better about the world. It’s not proof that life’s fair and karma’s real or anything like that. It’s all pretty irrational. But knowing how often things can go wrong for athletes or anyone else, someone like Tyrann Mathieu can be proof that sometimes things really do work out OK, and bad luck or bad decisions won’t always keep people from getting to good places.

When Mathieu was great at LSU, every play he made felt a little too good to be true. He was just too small to be that much of a terror consistently, we thought. He wasn’t even that fast, so the punt returns didn’t make sense, either. How was he forcing that many fumbles, and still coming up with interceptions? He wasn’t even the best corner on his team; how was he the best defensive player in the SEC? His size and technique and pedigree … none of it was that impressive compared to any other superstar in his conference. It felt like every big play was because he happened to be in the right place at the right time, defying logic all over again. When he was great at LSU, Tyrann Mathieu was the fluke that just kept happening.

Now he’s in the NFL. Let’s hope it keeps happening.

Filed Under: Arizona Cardinals, College Football, LSU

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Andrew Sharp is a staff editor at Grantland.

Archive @ andrewsharp