TEMPE, Ariz. — The Honey Badger is going home in a mixture of triumph and redemption.
Two games into his pro career, Tyrann Mathieu is showing he can play in the NFL. Now he heads to New Orleans, where his Arizona Cardinals face the Saints on Sunday.
The diminutive, dynamic defensive back says he wants to change the minds of those in his hometown who wrote him off as a failure after he was kicked out of LSU and spent a year out of football.
“Obviously, I have a chance in front of my hometown but I also have a chance to get everybody back on my side,” he said, “those same people when those negative things happened said all those negative things about me.”
Mathieu grew up in New Orleans and was a star at St. Augustine High School before taking his energy and skill to LSU.
At 5-foot-9, Mathieu was no sure thing coming out of high school.
“Early on, he was kind of laughed at, being too small,” said Tulane assistant David Johnson, Mathieu’s coach in high school. “I told people he was the best player I’ve ever seen and he’s going to make plays if you just put him in position to do those things. So now you see him make plays in the NFL and you kind of sit back and smile and think, ‘I told you so.’”
After a standout 2011 season at LSU, he was a Heisman Trophy finalist.
But trouble loomed.
He was booted from the LSU team for failed drug tests, then his image and presumably his NFL future took another hit a few weeks later when he and three former teammates were arrested on marijuana charges after police officers found 10 bags of pot and drug paraphernalia in his Baton Rouge apartment.
He spent all of 2012 out of football.
The Cardinals, though, took a chance on him, selecting him in the third round.
It helped that Arizona had Mathieu’s longtime friend and former LSU teammate in budding superstar cornerback Patrick Peterson. The Cardinals counted on Peterson to guide Mathieu in the right direction.
“We’re practically brothers,” Peterson said. “I feel that I’m the big-brother role-model type for him. I’m definitely not taking that duty lightly. Tyrann looks up to me, and I want to make sure that I’m doing everything right on my part to make sure that he is following the right footsteps and make sure that he does everything the right way.”
Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said there won’t be much chance for Mathieu to get in trouble this weekend.
“With all the LSU guys and Louisiana guys, it’s always exciting going home,” Arians said. “For him, it’s extremely, I think, exciting, because he gets to play a football game. I know we’ve talked to him about distractions, and he’s basically going to play the football game and wave to everybody after the game.”
Then it’s on the team bus for the airport, where the team will fly to Florida. Rather than go back to Arizona, the Cardinals will practice next week in Bradenton in preparation for that weekend’s game against Tampa Bay.
When he went to the Cardinals, Mathieu said he wanted to leave Honey Badger behind because it recalled those bad days. But it’s just too good and too fitting a nickname, and now he just accepts it. He even tweeted this week that the people at his bank call him Honey Badger.
They certainly know him in New Orleans.
“The Honey Badger, are you kidding me?” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “That was all anybody wanted to talk about around here. He was as exciting a college player as there was, so I’m very familiar with him and his abilities.”
Those abilities were on display in the Cardinals’ opener, when he raced from nowhere to knock the ball out of the grasp of St. Louis’ Jared Cook just before the Rams tight end crossed the goal line. In last week’s 25-21 victory over Detroit, Mathieu tackled Nate Burleson on fourth down a yard shy of the first down on the Lions’ final play.
“He’s someone obviously that has great instincts, just the hustle play he makes on the strip-fumble earlier in the year,” Saints head coach Sean Payton said. “He’s someone who has a good feel for the game. He’s got good football IQ, you can see that on tape. He also has good ball skills, so that’s something that’s stood out in two games.”
Mathieu said he takes inspiration for his comeback from the comeback of his hometown in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
“Being from New Orleans, you have a certain type of spirit about you,” he said. “You’re happy-go-lucky, a certain type of culture it provided me with. It just taught me to never give up.”
Mathieu is relishing his return to football as he goes back home.
“For me it’s a huge accomplishment, a huge achievement,” he said. “I’ve grown up watching the Saints play on the local channels my entire life. To finally go out there and have an opportunity to play against those guys, I’m extremely blessed.”