Occasionally Tyrann Mathieu thinks back to the day that changed his life. It’s April 26, 2013 and he is stood on the balcony of Happy’s Irish Pub in New Orleans, overlooking an unassuming parking lot. For much of the evening he cuts a frustrated figure, clasping the handrail and looking occasionally to the heavens, perhaps for inspiration, perhaps for some form of relief to the pain he is feeling. The pain he has felt since he was a small child.
In the end, that relief would come not from divinity but a single phone call. On the end of the line were Michael Bidwell and Steve Keim, men who had started the draft process wanting nothing to do with the LSU superstar but ended up offering him a lifeline. All through that day Keim, the Arizona Cardinals general manager, had been fielding calls of his own. From his six-year-old son who met Mathieu at dinner some weeks before and thought he was “really cool”, to his star cornerback Patrick Peterson, who had played with the troubled safety in Baton Rouge and become something of a father figure to him.
“Being able to talk to Pat about Ty was hugely important,” says Keim. “He was responsible and very mature. I mean, the minute he got through baggage claim he was a pro. So to hear it from his mouth was an added level of trust for me and for the organisation. And to know that Pat, with whatever Tyrann’s been through, would always be there for him. That meant a lot.”
Peterson was there for him that night too. The balcony at Happy’s led inside to a smart, oak-panelled private room. The pair texted back and forth as lesser players were picked ahead of him. Frustration built. Peterson remained calm. As Mathieu huddled up inside a jacket and hoodie and stepped back outside to the balcony, his agent’s phone rang. A Phoenix number.
It was time.
There’s another day that changed everything for Mathieu. It came many years before on a visit to LSU. “I was a senior in high school,” he tells Gridiron from the Cardinals locker room ahead of their Week 3 clash with the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football. “The Tigers were one of my official visits and Pat was my host for the weekend. Here I was, this really raw kid, lot of things going on in my life and there’s Pat. All the awards and the accolades. I was a fan, man. When we first met, we just clicked. Connected. Talked sports and life and the world. That was cool and so naturally he and I became really close.”
That day and the thousands since are why it was easy for Peterson, a six-time Pro Bowler, to talk to the Cardinals ownership and vouch for Mathieu when others were hesitant, after marijuana use derailed his career at LSU, saw him kicked out of school and nearly ruined any chance of an NFL future.
“He was real quiet when we first met,” Peterson tells Gridiron. “But he had a real confidence. He had……” His voice trails off as he reflects on a man he calls the ‘brother I never had’. “He had a very different swagger. He could laugh at himself which was good to see from a young high-school football player. You know, he’d tell me that he was going to be even better than me. I was like, ‘This guy’s for real’. He never, ever, ever lacked confidence.”
Externally at least. Internally, Mathieu’s self-doubt was raging. “I’ve always had a lot of fears about myself. I was a small guy. Lots of people said I couldn’t play at the highest level. Could I handle the big time? But in return, that only made me work harder. People telling me I was never going to do anything, so I had to prove them wrong by putting in the work. But those words have an impact on you. Pat’s right, I was confident, but inside it was tough when people were running you down.”
In person Mathieu is softly spoken but serious. He doesn’t waste a word, yet is passionate about the things he stands for, and in making sure everyone remembers how far he has come, that he is not the guy who “lost count” of the number of drug tests failed at LSU. Some teams had it as high as 12, but he declines to give me the real number, not out of the displeasure of being asked; it’s just that he doesn’t actually know.
“I was very young when I became a superstar. I had a lot of things pulling at me in a lot of directions. And it’s not easy coping with that. You know man, it’s tough to find real friends and real peace when you’re an 18-year-old on the national stage. I was Tyrann but I was also this persona, ‘Honey Badger’. It took its toll. I wanted to be great and greatness comes at a price. But the price for me was the distractions.
“You know, I’ve been around the worst of the worst people, people you can’t trust on any level, people that take advantage of you. I’ve always had that around, and what I’ve had to learn is that not everyone’s bad. I’m learning that people are smiling because they’re happy, not because they’re out to get you. I had all these stereotypes about people, because I’ve been mad, and I’ve had to let some of those things go.”
So what changed? “I just realised that I had to stop feeling sorry for myself.”
Given where he’s come from, it’s hardly surprising he felt vulnerable and insecure. Before Mathieu became the Honey Badger, he called himself Lil Bread, after his father, Darrin Hayes, who was known as Cornbread. Hayes grew up near the violent St. Bernard housing projects in New Orleans. A star in high school, he was regarded as the best running back in the city. He signed at Alcorn State but never played a snap after being caught with a gun and kicked out of school. Hayes hung around New Orleans playing semi-pro football for a few years before a cocaine habit ruined his game and then life. Jailed for two years for robbery, he shot and killed a man within hours of his release. Hayes was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.
Tyrann was two.
He was five when he his mother gave him up. He lived with his grandparents, then an aunt and uncle, falling far off course along the way, just as his star was rising. The reasons for his fall and for his quiet, reserved nature, lay bare in a letter to his father in prison: “Dad, the only reason I didn’t smile is because I just don’t like to smile.”
Where once stood Darrin Hayes, now stands Patrick Peterson. Hero, father figure, example setter?
Just someone to make him smile. And to make him feel wanted.
“College was a gift and a curse,” Mathieu tells Gridiron from the locker room, before someone shouts something in the background. “Hold on”, he tells me. Then he’s back. “That was Pat,” he says, an air of pride in his voice. So did Peterson have any hard truths for him after he was kicked out of LSU? “Man, he was just so genuine. That’s always been his thing. He ain’t ever lied to me. About anything. So when I got thrown out of school, I’m thinking about how I’m going to explain this to Patrick. I took on the responsibility of wearing No. 7, just like he had. So I had a responsibility to him also. He just told me about being the right kind of person and of never letting myself down. But I was embarrassed. It was embarrassing.”
Peterson didn’t stand by and do nothing. But he didn’t offer his support. Instead he offered his world. “When Ty got kicked out he went to get ready for the combine with my pops,” says Peterson reveals. “Pops is a role model for us both. He played a huge role my life and in Ty’s. He has a lot of football knowledge, but a lot of life knowledge as well.”
To get away from the glare of Baton Rouge, Mathieu moved to Pompano Beach, Florida to train and get his life back on track. The Petersons gave him a home, stability and a second chance. Turns out that’s all he needed.
“He went down there in November and I joined him in January and we worked together until March,” said Peterson. “All the while I sold the team on Ty the person. I spoke to everyone, Mr Bidwell, Steve [Keim] and BA [Bruce Arians]. I told them who he was. What sort of person he was. I mean the tape spoke for itself. But behind the scenes, I wanted to show them that he wasn’t the guy being portrayed.
“Ty’s a very loveable, soft-spoken, disciplined person. He just got caught up in a bad situation. It’s something he regrets. At the end of the day it was a blessing because if he hadn’t been suspended, who knows where he would have been? We probably wouldn’t have had a chance to grab him and he and I would have never played together.”
Mathieu has come a long way in a short time, battling through the sort of adversity that would have felled many. That he has developed into a superstar is proof of his talent. That he has become one of the senior leaders in one of the best run franchises in sport is testament to so much more. “I’ve been through a lot in my life,” he says. A lot of different situations. Now I understand that friends are good and it’s OK to laugh and have dinner and enjoy relationships and talk about life.”
Gridiron asks if he recognises the person he was at LSU and he pauses. “I think…..” He stops again and considers where he’s been. “I know him. I know the experiences he had and he lived. I think it’s like any other person in life. They mature. I’m the same person really. I just grew up. I look at it that way. I don’t think I changed too much, just in the areas I needed to. And that’s because of Pat. We’re two very different people but we’re identical, if you can understand that. At the end of the day you want to do the right things for yourself but I want to do the right things for Patrick as well. Our friendship runs much deeper than football. He’s always been the guy I can lean on.”
The traffic lights on Poydras Street change just as Mathieu’s agent hands him the phone on the night it all changed. The relative quiet on the street below suddenly becomes a cacophony of engine noise. You can barely hear the softly spoken safety as he greets Bidwell. “Hello… Hey, how you doing?” Mathieu turns to the window. He’s seconds away. “Yes sir,” he says. “You got my word.” He falls silent as the voice on the other end speaks. “You’ve got my word. Thank you for this, man.”
He walks back inside and takes off his hoodie and his coat and sits among family and friends on a large sofa. His eyes are red now and, as the announcement begins, he chews his gum and then his world stops in the milliseconds before he hears his name. He takes a deep breath before bursting into tears. And then, finally he smiles.
Somewhere in Arizona, Peterson smiles too.
This article originally appeared in Issue XXXIII of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE