On his path to NFL stardom, Tyrann Mathieu has overcome poverty, violence, natural disaster, drugs, and straight-up bad luck, including three injuries in three years. Could this finally be the year that the honey badger leads his team to the top?
Some men wear the wounds of their wars; Tyrann Mathieu lugs around a graveyard. Look there, at the ink below his right knee: 22 crosses carved in dark green, a portable shrine to the people he's lost and the talismanic marks they left on him. "I hear their voices always: 'Keep going, keep going,' " Mathieu says. "It's like they passed their strength to me when they died."
Mathieu, the All-Pro safety of the Arizona Cardinals and the game's next megastar defender, turned 24 in May. In doing so, he outlived his wildest expectations: "My dad was a murderer," he says. "My uncles were murdered. I thought I'd be like them, too." Some part of him knew better, sensed that he was chosen. He starred in every sport he turned his hand to. But in the 5th Ward of New Orleans, talent is no certain ticket. Often it's just a ruse to break your heart.
He walks me through the liturgy of his dead. The first cross is for his grandpa Lorenzo, who took in Mathieu when his mom abandoned him at birth. "The heroin got him, though he died of heart failure." Beside Grandpa is Uncle Donell, dead of AIDS, "from dirty needles." Beside Donell is Uncle Keith, "murdered in the street while holding his baby son in his hands." Next to him is Aunt Trina, who "died on Thanksgiving, when some jackass ran a red light." Next to Trina is Uncle Andre, murdered late at night over a projects squabble. The names run together in a blur of urban carnage, their blood tide turned to cruciform squibs of ink. "How?" I ask him. "How are you still here when all these people are gone?"
"I'm a warrior," he says after some reflection. "I've lived through a lot — and it couldn't kill me."
We're in a strange place to be speaking of death: an organic bistro in a Phoenix suburb, where Mathieu and I are the only diners not dressed in tennis whites or yoga pants. The vibe is New Age mindful meets stage II melanoma, but Mathieu's made this spot his cafeteria. Gone is all the greasy junk he grew up eating, replaced by Buddha bowls and blueberry smoothies. His regimen: no sugar, no dairy, no soy, no fried food. Just yoga, reflection, solitude, and prayer. Ninety days into a start-from-scratch rehab from the total tear of his right knee last December — the third major injury in his three-year career; his third consecutive season cut short in its last month — he pushes himself daily to the point of collapse to recover in time for training camp.
He's already running intervals of seven-minute miles on a treadmill called the Unloader, which is equipped with a harness attached to pulleys to mitigate his weight and soften the landing impact as he sprints. In six weeks he'll be off to minicamp, where he'll drill but not practice with his team, and then report — barring setbacks — to the team's facility in Glendale.
It's a preposterously tall order, but Mathieu has done it once before. Three years ago, he wrecked his other knee in a late-season game against St. Louis. Mauled by five tacklers after returning a kick, Mathieu ripped everything you can rip in a knee — ACL, LCL, MCL, and meniscus — and somehow returned to play 10 months later. It was the one season he didn't make the All-Pro team, though he did have 13 starts and was just getting strong again when he broke a thumb making a tackle. So, no, he's not unkillable. He just plays like he is, a 5-foot-9 runt crushing 6-foot-8 tight ends as the best slot defender on the planet.
And here he is once more, on his umpteenth reset, pushing that bad-luck boulder up a hill. To spend time with Mathieu is to marvel at his resolve and good cheer and that very rare quality called grace. It makes sense that he wound up playing in Phoenix, home of hope-seekers and second-chancers chasing salvation in the crucible of the desert. He's been brought here by good fortune (and an astute general manager) to author his own rewrite — and his team's. The Cardinals had fallen hard after losing the Super Bowl in 2009, finishing last twice and playing dull football in front of shrinking crowds. Then they took a chance on a kid who'd plunged as well, crashing out of college for multiple pot suspensions and costing himself millions in the draft. That gamble has netted a payoff rarely seen anymore in the risk-averse NFL: a player and a franchise resurrecting each other. "He just breathes confidence," says Kevin Ross, the Cardinals' secondary coach. "And we feed off him."
Mathieu is the game's great freelance disrupter: knifing in from safety to blow up bubble screens; blitzing to stuff runners behind the line of scrimmage; and leaving his man to pick off throws halfway across the field. It's no wonder he's nicknamed the Honey Badger, after the diminutive mammal known to savagely fight far larger predators, even lions. "He's the heart of everything we do," says Patrick Peterson, the team's all-world cornerback. "We're so used to seeing him make hero plays, the kind that lift the whole team during a game."
They've come a long way in their short time together: Mathieu to the peace and stability of adulthood, the Cardinals to a divisional title last year and a berth in the NFC title game. They've built a team without holes or excuses, a veteran group that's grown together and is braced for the final push. One more hump — and a complete season from Mathieu — and maybe they'll gain the ledge, win their first championship since 1947, when the team played its games in Chicago. But as Mathieu can tell you from hard experience, you better make that last step your best one. Because if you slip, it's a long way down and, Christ, will it ever hurt when you land.
On a cloudless Friday night in midtown Phoenix — a swath of pop-art galleries, one-off boutiques, and boisterous gastropubs — I'm sitting on the floor of Sutra Yoga, watching Mathieu attempt a Warrior III pose. It would be generous to say that he's holding his own. His plant leg rattles and sweat pours off him as he fights the Earth's rotation to a draw. In a room full of bendy, ponytailed blondes, Mathieu is like a catfish in Vanilla Coke — something's seriously off with this picture. But don't tell that to the only brother in the house. Mathieu's working it like fourth down on his own goal line.
When the hour's mercifully over, the yoginis roll their mats and make idle chat with their instructor. Not Mathieu: He's still in Corpse pose, which is to say sound asleep. Someone taps him on the leg. He wakes with a snort, then sheepishly towels himself dry. In the foyer, I watch the women circle, well aware of who he is. After the place clears out, I ask him the obvious: "Why would you do this to yourself?"
He smiles his camper–at–Six Flags smile, which makes him look about 11 years old. "Dude, I don't know. I guess for the peace. Yeah, it's about the peace."
A couple of days later, Mathieu asks me to join him at his megachurch, North Phoenix Baptist. The building, a beige dome of pebbled concrete that seats several thousand in air-cooled comfort, is packed with congregants in Sunday casual. Mathieu is the only person of color here. Scott Savage, a young pastor who approached Mathieu on Twitter, takes the stage to speak of "resurrection people," meaning those who've witnessed hardship and survived. His sermon, a long homily on martyrdom and hope, loses me for good about halfway in, but Mathieu nods and grunts throughout the service. When it's over, he sits there hunched in thought, jaw resting on the steeple of his hands.
"What were you thinking?" I ask him in the hall.
"That he was talking directly to me," he mutters. "My whole life, I've seen things I can't unsee."
It started at birth, when his mother dumped him on her parents and ran off "to chase dudes," as he tartly puts it. Beginning at 22, Tyra Mathieu birthed five kids in seven years to two men she barely saw again. Tyrann was her second with Darrin Hayes, a kid off the streets who killed a man in cold blood when Mathieu was only two. "First time I met him, I was 10 years old," says Mathieu. Hayes rarely wrote him or evinced the slightest interest until Mathieu became a star at Louisiana State University. As for Tyra — well, motherhood was never her strong suit. "She'd come back when she was out of cash and stay by her folks for a while. But around when my grandpa died and I asked her point-blank, 'Can I come live with you?' she told me, 'Nope, no, you can't.' And that was that."
In retrospect, Tyra cut him a huge break. At the time, Mathieu was five and living with his grandmother, a God-fearing woman whose chaotic household was the refuge for many of her children's cast-off children. Marie Spellman-Mathieu and her husband, Lorenzo, had raised 11 kids, then found themselves raising their grandkids. Tyrann was one of dozens who spent part of their childhoods in the couple's six-room double shotgun on Orleans Avenue, sleeping on the floor with everyone else and getting up and wearing whatever clothes might fit him and weren't frayed to bits. Marie's house was an Etch A Sketch of people coming and going, cousins and nieces and ex-cons and crackheads all seeking the respite of her affection. "That woman was straight love," says Mathieu, tapping his heart. "She was sort of like our church — or halfway house."
The week before I met him, Mathieu buried Marie at a massive funeral service in New Orleans. (She succumbed at 75, after a number of strokes.) He was the only one who spoke, taking the pulpit for 30 minutes to consecrate the things she'd tried to teach him. "With her, it was always about 'we,' not 'me,' " he said, "and that we're put on Earth to help out other people." Those used to be foggy concepts for a neglected child who burned to be part of anything. It's taken him decades to finally trust the people he loves and who love him. One of those people is his uncle Tyrone, who is also his adoptive father.
"I took Tyrann with me after his granddad died — I could see how bad he wanted what my kids had," says Tyrone Mathieu, 49, a longtime driver for UPS, who became Tyrann's guardian when the boy was five and finalized the adoption 12 years later. Tyrone and his wife, Sheila, a registered nurse, are the moral girders of the Mathieu clan. With three kids of their own, they raised Tyrann and Tyrone's niece Keviah, then opened their door to Tyrone's younger brother, Anthony. "We loved 'em like our own. But Tyrann, it took longer. He questioned if it was real till probably college."
Tyrone owned a house in New Orleans East, in a neighborhood of parks and youth-league sports, and he enrolled his new boarder in all of them. One night he went down to pick up his kids and saw the other parents standing and screaming. Tyrann, six, was playing short center and turning everything hit his way into a double play. "He didn't get the concept of throwing to first," say Tyrone. "He just ran down all the runners and tagged 'em out." Several months later he had another surprise. Tyrann, a linebacker in the novice league, was bursting through the line to rip the handoff from the tailback and take it 40 yards to the house.
By nine or 10, he was going against teens, a 90-pound blur playing sandlot ball and stuffing kids twice his size. Everyone knew about him in the 7th Ward, and big things were expected of him at St. Augustine High, where he would eventually start both ways at tailback-corner. But first he had to get through middle school — and the worst act of God in city annals. "August 29, 2005: Katrina took everything we owned," says Sheila Mathieu. "There was five feet of water in my living room. Furniture, wedding pictures, most of Tyrann's trophies. We basically had to start from scratch." They fled to Humble, Texas, for six months, then lived in a hotel while Tyrone gutted the house and rebuilt it. They were homeless almost a year, and the chaos was more than Tyrann's nerves could bear. Plagued by mood upheavals and sleep disruptions, he began having nightmares about jumping off bridges or being murdered by people he knew. "I knew he was hurting bad, but he wouldn't open up," says Tyrone. Adds Sheila, "He's Michael Jackson onstage when he's playing ball, but in the house you couldn't get a word from him."
Two things sustained Mathieu through his teens. One was organized sports, the other was marijuana. Around the time of the storm, someone handed him a blunt. He took his first hit and felt . . . better, he says. Not high or happy so much as numb or neutral. "That's why I wound up smoking so much weed. It smoothed out all my highs and lows." He certainly wasn't alone in that. "Most of my team was smoking," says Mathieu. "I mean, we practiced at this park where half the time gunshots were going off." This was six miles from Isidore Newman, the prep school that produced Peyton Manning and his brother Eli. It's probably safe to assume that neither of those princelings ever had to hit the dirt during a drive-by.
Of the thousand things that set Mathieu apart from other stars — his candor when discussing hard subjects; his off-field quest to, as he says, "be part of something bigger and serve others" — one of the more striking is that he faithfully answers his phone instead of screening his calls. This isn't always useful. His birth mom calls every day, "asking for various things," he says. His birth dad calls from prison, ostensibly to talk football but really to persuade him to use his influence with the governor or the state parole board. Then there are the unnamed others, the cousins and nephews and childhood friends who need a little something to get by. Mathieu does what he can when he's able. It pains him that he can't save everyone.
That's why his fall from grace in college still stings: As a lottery pick with a big enough bonus "to buy four or five McDonald's," he'd have been a one-man stimulus package, able to put his people to work. Instead he's on the last year of his four-year rookie deal at rock-bottom NFL wages ($1.7 million, including his signing bonus). That isn't savior money when you support two children — Tyrann Jr., two, and Noah, three — and their mothers. Mourning the distance from his sons, who visit regularly, he's resolved to be the kind of father Tyrone was, an anchor for his kids and extended clan. That's a heavy burden and will only get bigger when he signs a huge deal this year or next. "I'm the ticket, and I'm talking hundreds of people," he says. "I'm the only way they're getting out."
Small wonder that he still has trouble sleeping through nights, wakened by harrowing dreams. What keeps him up, apart from the above, is the thing that's roiled him for years: He burns to show the world how wrong it was to ever sell him short. He rattles off his haters — the head coach in high school who sat him on the bench and played someone vastly inferior at tailback; the college scouts and coaches who laughed in his face when he said he hoped to play in the SEC. "He went to all their camps, locked down every kid he covered, and these people told me, 'Nah, too small,' " says Del Lee-Collins, his defensive coordinator in high school. Only LSU made him a D-1 offer, and "in his first day of practice, he had five interceptions," says Peterson, a teammate at LSU before the Cardinals. "From that moment on, I knew he was special and took him under my wing."
By his sophomore season, Mathieu was the biggest star on the LSU campus, headlining a team that finished 13–0 and played Alabama for the national title. With his big-play frenzy and penchant for ripping the ball away from wideouts (six forced fumbles, two interceptions, four touchdowns), he won the Bednarik Award as the best defender in the country, became only the third defensive back ever to be named a finalist for the Heisman, and couldn't go anywhere in the state of Louisiana without being mobbed.
The scrutiny, the pressure — it was too much, too soon. As a freshman, he'd been able to hedge his pot use, smoking only as needed to get by. But then Peterson, his buddy and campus big brother, left early as a lottery pick, and suddenly Mathieu was alone in a football factory. "Big-time college ball is a business, and they work you to death," he says. "You're in the gym at 7 am, got classes all morning, then five hours of practice a day. After that, man, I needed to hit the blunt."
As a sophomore he failed drug tests twice for synthetic marijuana and was suspended for the 2011 matchup against Auburn. "I've kept my mouth shut about this, but damn near everyone was doing it. I wasn't the only one who failed two drug tests." (Tharold Simon, a defensive back, and Spencer Ware, a tailback, were also docked a game.) "But with the type of fame I had, I took the fall."
Whatever you make of his offenses, they were forgiven by year's end: He led the Tigers to the national title game in, of all places, his hometown. Everyone he knew was at the Superdome or a sports bar — the buildup in New Orleans was obscene. And then LSU laid the mother of all goose eggs, mustering just 90 yards of offense, barely crossing the midfield stripe, and losing a team-wide stinker, 21–0. "It was my big moment, and I fumbled it," Mathieu says.
In the months following the game, he got "lonely and depressed" and thought, "Fuck it, I might as well smoke." He tested dirty that summer and was kicked off the team, though he stayed at school and attended class with the hope of reinstatement. But that fall there was a bust at his off-campus place that netted baggies of pot from a former teammate. Mathieu was charged with simple possession and spent a night in a county cell. It was the best and worst thing that could have happened to him, his dead-cat bounce off the bottom.
"There was this gangster in a cell yelling shit at me: 'Nigger, you represent us. You represent me. If I see you here again, I'll murder you!' "
Bailed out by his parents, he made a decision: "I'm done with weed forever." He called his old friend Peterson, whose father lives in Florida and trains players for the NFL Combine. Peterson Sr. took Mathieu in and worked him furiously for months, though no one could really prep him for the grilling he'd face from teams. "Man, they had me on the hot seat, making me out to be something I wasn't," he says. "I've got two parents, I don't ride around with guns, and I've never put my hands on a woman. But the only team that believed me was the Cardinals." Even they hedged their play, demanding that Mathieu take a drug test before joining the team. He was neither shocked nor insulted. Of all the hills he'd been asked to climb, this one was clearly of his own making.
Until he tore his knee last winter on an innocuous play (a gift-wrapped interception against the Philadelphia Eagles — 50 yards of green grass to pick-six pay dirt, until a back-foot pivot twisted his leg and dropped him in a heap, untouched), Mathieu was having precisely the rebirth year he'd set forth for himself that spring: eight interceptions, three turnovers returned for touchdowns, and the Defensive Player of the Year award. "He just had that It factor, like a J.J. Watt or a Von Miller," says secondary coach Ross. "If you didn't game-plan for him and find him before the snap, he was going to ruin your whole day."
It was sweet vindication for another slight. The team seemed to lose faith in him after 2014, when he dragged around all year on a rebuilt knee. After showing up to minicamp in the spring of 2015, Mathieu was stung by a demotion to dimeback, slated to play only on passing downs. "It pissed me off a little, but I understood," he says. "I hadn't been the Badger the year before." Being the Badger means being like no one else in football, a player so disruptive wherever the ball winds up that he doesn't really have a set position. "His position is called 'what's needed,' and we put him wherever — safety, linebacker, run blitz," says Ross. "He's got a microchip in his ass that tells him where the play is going," adds Peterson. "It's a knack that you can't teach and which we haven't really seen since Troy Polamalu or Ed Reed."
You always hear about quarterbacks camped in the film room, and sometimes about a linebacker like Luke Kuechly. But Mathieu views so much tape his eyeballs might as well be square. Some of that stems from the need to prove himself, but mostly he's just a glutton for the game. He doesn't watch much sports or waste time on schlock TV; studying wideouts is what he does for fun. Show him something once and he's got it down cold, which explains how he's able to dominate players who outsize him by half a foot. "I don't try to jam you," he says. "That would be stupid. I just get to the spot you're going before you do." It's infuriating to play against someone like Mathieu because he's living inside your head from the opening gun.
He has some choice stories about the receivers he's broken down, stars who, he claims, flat quit on him during a game. The great tight end Jimmy Graham "stopped looking for the ball, said, 'I don't care anymore.' " (Graham did not return several phone calls for comment.) Mathieu figures 80 percent of the men he's covered gave up during a game, then came over after the gun and showed him love.
In three years the shy kid from Orleans Avenue has become the spitfire leader of his team. He gives the pregame speech, "making everyone think their dick is as big as it can be," he says, and calls out Pro Bowl teammates when they half-step during the week. "I'll tell 'em to their face, 'We ain't practicing like this! This is a defensive team, and we set the tone!' " It's hard to overstate the value of such a player. On a team whose biggest stars (Peterson, Larry Fitzgerald, Carson Palmer) are soft-spoken, Mathieu is the blue flame in the engine. The Cards went pancake-flat after his injury last year, crushed by Seattle in the season finale, then crushed for the conference title by Carolina. "It took the air out a lot when Tyrann went down," says Peterson. "We missed him bad, especially in the box, where he makes those miracle plays."
Clearly, the Cardinals know what they have in Mathieu. They've made a serious offer, hoping to sign him by the start of camp. "They're ready to pay him as the game's best safety, but that won't get it done," says someone close to Mathieu who asked not to be named. "His impact is much bigger. Pay him as what he is: a top-10 defender." Those players, the J.J. Watts and Ndamukong Suhs, make between $14 million and $19 million a year, which is a far piece from the $10 million per year that the great safeties earn.
For everyone's sake, you hope it works out and Mathieu winds up staying where he is. All his life he's yearned to be wanted, to be part of something stable and binding. He has that in Phoenix, where he is cherished by all and where he's planted the flag of who he is. "I'm young to think legacy, but I know what I want," says the oldest 24-year-old you've ever met. "I want to be a beacon to kids like me, the ones who grow up without hope. I want them to say, 'Life kept knocking him on his butt, and he kept getting up and kicking ass.' "