Last Modified: Saturday, August 18, 2012 5:42 PM
There’s a punt returner in Oregon who no doubt will be greatly relieved now that Tyrann Mathieu will soon no longer be one of the lead stories on ESPN every night.
The motion surely will be seconded by a hapless Kentucky quarterback and an unsuspecting West Virginia receiver. To say nothing of the entire Georgia punt coverage team. Arkansas’ too.
They all played the straight men, chagrined victims in the highlight reel that was Mathieu’s first two years at LSU.
Even in the last week as a young man without a team, the defensive pest they call the Honey Badger was the most famous player in college football.
And the sportscasts certainly haven’t lacked for background highlights — sometimes he seems as much a force of nature as a mere football player — as his latest chapter has unfolded last week.
Before Mathieu was booted from the Tigers for what was reported as repeated failed drug tests, the coaches’ preseason poll had LSU ranked No. 1. Without Mathieu is a drug rehab clinic in Houston, The Associated Press Top 25 poll came out Saturday with the Tigers’ downgraded to No. 3 in the nation. Ralph Russo of the AP, who puts the poll together, said the Tigers were on their way to being No. 1 in his poll, too, before he was dismissed.
LSU will surely miss him.
For opposing offenses, the diminutive Honey Badger is the pesky house fly at the picnic, the one they keep swatting at but just can’t get out of their hair.
Mathieu is also seemingly made for the college spotlight, which culminated last season when he was a rare defensive player among the five finalists invited to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation.
Fans are drawn to him, a little 5-foot-9 guy wreaking havoc in a big man’s sport, all the while confidently chattering about, sometimes bordering on taunting far bigger players, usually backing it up and almost always seeming to have a blast doing it.
Honey Badger ain’t shy.
LSU’s media guide claims he has more followers on Twitter than any college football player — and, until going mostly silent in the last week, he didn’t leave them wanting, 140 characters at a time, all over the map.
One minute he’d be Twitter-sparring with Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, the next promising to prove the “haters” wrong, the next thanking his fans for the “love” or updating them on how early and hard he was working and “balling” this day, how humbled and God-fearing he felt the next.
The whole Honey Badger phenomena didn’t hurt his fame, a movement that went viral after some LSU fans came across a whimsical take-off on a National Geographic television segment about the animal.
Honey Badger don’t care. Honey Badger takes what he wants. It almost replaced “Tiger Bait!” as LSU’s rallying cry.
It helped that he can play, although for a Heisman finalist the jury is still out on his NFL potential.
College ball, no problem. Even if it’s hard to classify him.
He’s kind of a cornerback, certainly not a classic one, and usually more effective from LSU’s nickel formations where teams never knew what direction he might be attacking from.
But it’s often argued that his true football position is really “playmaker” or, as often as not, “game-changer.”
Call him the Honey Badger, if you must, but the peskiest breed of gremlin might fit just as well.
Often the smallest guy on the field, Mathieu more often seems to be all over it. There’s an uncanny sense to seemingly always be at the right place (where the ball is) at the right time (when it’s about to be up for grabs).
“He’s a playmaker,” LSU defensive coordinator Chavis said last season. “It doesn’t matter where you put him, he makes plays.”
His playmaking almost seems to be some kind of sixth sense as much as the speed or agility. He did it in the first college game he ever played, in the Chick-fil-A Classic against North Carolina in Atlanta, getting one of his trademark strip-and-recover quarterback sacks on the first defensive series he appeared.
“His mind operates to see the play in advance and make the big play,” LSU head coach Les Miles said. “He always thinks there is something else to do in the play. Those types of guys come up with turnovers.”
Game-changing turnovers. And many happy returns.
Late in the year against Arkansas and the next week in the SEC championship game, LSU eventually won both games handily, but needed some Honey Badgering to turn around floundering performances.
Mathieu had not done a whole lot as a punt returner last season until he woke up LSU with a 92-yarder against Arkansas to pull the Tigers into a 14-14 tie. Moments later he forced a fumble that set up the go-ahead touchdown. Just that quick, Arkansas was suddenly on a downward spiral.
The next week LSU was really in a slumber, trailing Georgia 10-0 without a first down when Mathieu got loose for a 63-yard return late in the half. He recovered a fumble to open the second half that set up the go-ahead score and the 42-10 rout was on after his 42-yard punt return, more impressive than either of the two he scored on, set up another touchdown.
Yeah, he seemingly had it all.
And he let it slip away.
But to know how much those closest to him at LSU felt about him, you only had to observe the genuine long faces in the athletic department at the news conference that announced he was no longer part of the team, reportedly for failing one too many drug tests.
“He is a quality, quality guy that had behavior issues,” Miles said. “We are going to miss him.”
“He’s a really good kid,” Athletic Director Joe Alleva said. “He really is a good kid. It’s a shame.”
From afar, former Tiger teammate T-Bob Hebert, now trying to catch on with the St. Louis Rams, checked in on Twitter to call Mathieu “one of the best men I know; he is a leader and never quits working. I know he made me a better player through his example.”
The Honey Badger had a lot going for him.
Despite never really knowing his biological father — who has been in prison for second-degree murder since he was born — and with a mother who decided at his birth that she couldn’t raise a fifth child, Mathieu enjoyed a decidedly middle-class upbringing thanks to his extended family in New Orleans.
First it was his maternal grandparents who fawned over him, until his grandfather died when Tyrann was 5 years old. But then his uncle Tyron — his mother’s brother — took over the duties and provided a solid, stable, two-parent home environment where young Mathieu didn’t lack for many of life’s creature comforts, including going to a private Catholic school in New Orleans, St. Augustine.
But it was obvious something was up this summer, even before the final straw last week. LSU didn’t mount even a hint of Heisman campaign in the offseason, didn’t take the SEC’s most visible player to SEC Media Days in July and kept him off-limits to state reporters except for LSU’s media day when the whole team is available.
Now he starts over.
“He really has a unique strength,” Miles said on the day Mathieu was cut loose from LSU. “I really think that this could be a redirect that would benefit him greatly.”