Last Modified: Monday, September 09, 2013 6:19 PM
McNeese State football is 2-0.
The program is energized, the campus is excited and there is a buzz in the community.
Yet head coach Matt Viator’s best move of the last 13 months might be a very subtle one between himself and a football player who never made his roster.
It was late Friday night in August 2012 and the Cowboys were just starting camp.
While Viator was busy putting the plan into place last year, a star player who had fallen on hard times fell into his lap.
That player was former Heisman trophy candidate and LSU standout Tyrann Mathieu, a.k.a. the Honey Badger.
As a sophomore in Baton Rouge, Mathieu had captured the hearts of America with his play and colorful nickname. His ability to get turnovers and wreak havoc on opposing offenses made him the fun Heisman pick.
That and helping LSU to the national title game.
Mathieu found himself in trouble and was finally kicked off the Tigers football team for reportedly failing more than the allowed drug tests — as if failing one should not be enough.
Several schools came calling, some almost begging, for the Honey Badger.
It was, besides getting a great player, a public relations dream to have this type of star fall into your program. Anybody would jump at the chance.
Well, almost anybody.
People within the LSU community suggested McNeese State as a soft landing spot for Mathieu. Made perfect sense to all. He could play football, get his life back in order and be on his way to millions of dollars in the NFL.
As for the Cowboys, they would get the best free agent college football had to offer.
This was a win-win situation.
So, Mathieu came to Lake Charles with most of his valuables already packed in his car. He was here to stay, most figured.
After meeting with Viator, it seemed the Honey Badger was sold on his new home the same day he was officially kicked out of his old one.
Viator was more than willing to put out the welcome mat out for Mathieu, but he just wanted everybody to be sure.
Instead of tucking Mathieu in for the night, Viator suggested the All-American take a deep breath, head home and take the weekend to think about it.
“Things were moving very fast and I wanted him to be sure what was the right move for him next,” Viator said at the time.
Mathieu did just that and decided against playing at McNeese. Instead, he went to rehab in Houston in an attempt to play once again at LSU.
A setback last fall ended those dreams, but Mathieu appears to have gotten the help he needed.
Sunday, the second-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals had seven tackles in his pro debut.
That made Viator smile at his news conference Monday, just as much as his team’s 2-0 record.
“He is a great kid and I just wish him well,” Viator said.
There is no telling what would have happened had Mathieu come to McNeese. He could very well still be playing for the Cardinals, still have had seven tackles in that first game, still have the same amount of money in his pocket.
Or, he might not have.
Viator did what he thought was best for a young man and not his football program when he sent Mathieu home to think things over.
It was an unselfish move in the selfish world of college football.
More importantly, it is the move a person who cares about players would make, even if those players are not yet his own.
Jim Gazzolo is managing sports editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org