METAIRIE, La. — Tyrann Mathieu felt like an idiot.
Two weeks before the 2013 NFL draft, Mathieu was touring the Arizona Cardinals facility in a three-piece suit on the advice of former LSU teammate Patrick Peterson. Mathieu was 20, on the heels of missing the 2012 season after his dismissal from LSU and being arrested on charges of possession of marijuana.
The safety was eager to prove himself after everything that happened the previous fall. So he put on the uncomfortable suit, tie and all, hoping to make a good impression.
“But then I went upstairs, they [were] like, ‘Dude, why do you have on a suit?’ Mathieu said. “I thought I looked good! Like I was trying to present myself, you know what I mean? The right way.”
Mathieu, now 30, recalled this story almost 10 years later while standing in front of his locker at the New Orleans Saints facility. He returns to Arizona to play the Cardinals, the team that drafted him in 2013, on Thursday (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video). It will be his first game back in Arizona since the Cardinals released him on March 14, 2018.
After leaving the Cardinals, he played with the Houston Texans for a year before moving on to the Kansas City Chiefs, where he made two Pro Bowls, was named first-team All-Pro twice, won Super Bowl LIV and was named to the NFL’s All-Decade team in 2020.
Mathieu faced long odds in getting here after he declared for the NFL draft. He spent the next year on a redemption tour of sorts, visiting at least half the NFL teams in a jam-packed schedule rarely seen for NFL prospects these days.
“I definitely had a lot of lonely days,” Mathieu said. “Just being away from family, friends.”
He remembered riding in a car in San Francisco with a 49ers scout, who pointed out an apartment that cost $5,000 per month.
“I’m like, I don’t even think I got $5,000,” he said.
The three-time All-Pro returned to his hometown and signed with the Saints last spring in free agency, a full circle moment for the player who admitted his home state wasn’t the best place for him to be early in his career. The move was significant enough that Peterson texted Mathieu after the signing, simple song lyrics by Drake to celebrate his return to the city he left behind.
Just hold on, I’m coming home.
“That was big for him, man. I know how much Louisiana [and] New Orleans means to him,” Peterson said. Mathieu can stand at his locker now and say he “made it.”
But none of it would have been possible without the team that took a chance on him in 2013.
THE 5-FOOT-9 MATHIEU was never going to impress scouts physically.
Tommy Moffitt, LSU’s strength and conditioning coach from 2000 to 2021, recalled the day scouts first saw 6-foot-6 quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who went on to be the first pick in the 2007 draft. Scouts practically tripped over themselves trying to figure out who Russell was as he walked by the window of the weight room.
There was no such moment with Mathieu.
“They all thought he was gonna be too small,” Moffitt recalled.
“He was just a little guy,” Peterson said, laughing. “That was just the only knock on him, because he played hard. … He was just a 5-foot-9 corner and weighed 160 pounds probably.”
But Mathieu had other qualities that couldn’t be taught. Former LSU safety Ryan Clark, now an analyst for ESPN, recalled the moment he realized Mathieu was special.
Clark, then with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was working out at LSU the summer before Mathieu’s sophomore year. He remembered seeing the defensive backs go through 1-on-1 and 7-on-7 drills with no coaches. Mathieu was running the show.
“You could tell amongst all these very talented young players that one of them was different. One of them was the leader, one of them, everyone looked to for instruction. And it was Tyrann,” Clark said. “And it was the intensity in which he played in 1-on-1. It was 7-on-7 mattering to him. I would be lying if I knew the ‘Honey Badger’ would be born that year, but the way it happened, I wasn’t shocked at all.”
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT is a small part of Mathieu’s story.
Mathieu put up almost mythical numbers his sophomore season: nine pass deflections, three fumble recoveries with two for touchdowns, six forced fumbles, two kick return touchdowns, 1.5 sacks and two interceptions.
Mathieu’s success and a viral video transformed him into the “Honey Badger” almost overnight. The nickname, which came from a YouTube clip describing the animal, was originally suggested by a fan on a message board in August of 2011. It was given to him because of the ferocious nature of his play and his tenacity in trying to strip the ball away.
Relive Tyrann Mathieu’s ferocious style of play at LSU that earned him his Honey Badger nickname.
Honey badgers fear nothing. Small in stature, they have been known to pick fights with predators significantly larger than them. That was Mathieu.
“Fearless, fearless. You know, sometimes great athletes are still paralyzed by fear, by the fear of failure,” Moffitt said. “Whereas he, Tyrann, was fearless. Fierce competitor. And not afraid … to take chances on the field.”
LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis played the Honey Badger YouTube clip for the team on the ride home after LSU beat West Virginia on Sept. 24, 2011, and the name stuck. While there have been attempts to distance himself from his Honey Badger persona over the years, Mathieu eventually embraced it.
“He’s the second best player to ever play at LSU and he’s only second because the other guy [Joe Burrow] played quarterback,” Clark said, referring to one of LSU’s two Heisman winners.
Peterson, who had been taken by the Cardinals with the fifth pick of the 2011 draft, checked in on Mathieu from afar. Peterson wished he could have been there to help guide Mathieu as he grew into a superstar.
Peterson remembered the young player who constantly talked about doing whatever it takes to “make it,” when he was a freshman in 2010. But Peterson saw him waning from his commitments the following year. Mathieu and two other players were suspended for the Auburn game in 2011 after failing a drug test.
“At that age … coming from where he came from, he just didn’t handle the success,” Peterson said. “And he’ll agree with it, he just didn’t handle the success the way he was supposed to. You know? And I wish I was there to be able to guide him in a better direction, make sure that he understood the position that he was in and didn’t wanna jeopardize that.”
Mathieu was called into a meeting by LSU coach Les Miles at 5:30 a.m. on Aug.10, 2012, and dismissed for failing multiple drug tests. He entered a drug rehabilitation program before re-enrolling at LSU for the fall semester.
But as far as rejoining the team for his junior season, the arrest ended the chance for Mathieu and the three other players who were charged with simple marijuana possession. He said he had “plans on sticking around” for his senior season.
“The plan was at some point … for me to rejoin the team,” Mathieu told ESPN. “And then when the arrest happened, I think that took it all off the table.”
By November, Mathieu made the decision to give up his remaining eligibility to declare for the NFL draft.
“Everything worked out perfect the way it did. I just think at the end of the day, there was just so much going on, on the LSU campus. … Like the Honey Badger, he grew past all of that,” Peterson said. “Now it was time for him to take the next step.”
MATHIEU SIGNED WITH agent Pat Lawlor, who also represented Peterson at the time. Lawlor moved Mathieu down to South Florida to train with Peterson’s father, Patrick Peterson Sr., at Lynn University.
“I thought it would be a perfect opportunity for him to just go down and get a head start on the game and drills and help lower his 40 time, which was a huge point of emphasis for him,” Peterson Jr. said.
With the draft six months away, Lawlor set out to rehabilitate Mathieu’s reputation.
In January, he arranged unrestricted interviews with ESPN and NFL Network where all topics were fair game.
“Just to get out there that he had nothing to hide, that was No. 1,” Lawlor said. “That was the biggest thing.”
Lawlor took Mathieu to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, later that spring with the stated mission of supporting those playing in the game. The underlying goal was for Mathieu to get in front of as many coaches as possible.
Coaches met Mathieu — who was there as a spectator, not a player — and started having conversations with him.
That was followed by an impressive performance at the combine and then Mathieu’s pro day. Lawlor sent a letter to every team after the combine, explaining Mathieu’s situation.
He urged them to schedule a pre-draft meeting before Mathieu’s schedule filled up.
Mathieu ended up meeting with about half of the 32 teams during a three-week period before the draft, including the Cardinals.
The Cardinals liked Mathieu, but so did the Patriots, Bills, Colts, Seahawks and Texans.
WHEN MATHIEU SAT down with the Cardinals, it felt like a relief. Peterson had urged Mathieu to be completely honest, but repeating everything that happened over and over sometimes left him feeling dazed.
“I’d probably say the only thing that saved me was that I’ve always been humble,” he said. “So you try not to take nothing personally. But yeah, I think you do leave some of those rooms saying like ‘What just happened?'”
He remembered sitting down with the one team for a pre-draft interview as they quizzed him about his tattoos, feeling like he was being picked apart.
“I was just like, ‘Man, can we just like, get back to football?'” he said.
Arizona wasn’t like that. The Cardinals felt good about their locker room, with leaders like receiver Larry Fitzgerald and defensive end Calais Campbell, both of whom would win the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
Mathieu met with coach Bruce Arians, owner Michael Bidwill, general manager Steve Keim, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross and defensive backs coach Nick Rapone.
Rapone and Mathieu spent 30 minutes together in a room with the door closed, just the two of them.
“When he walked in that door, I said ‘Geez.’ … He was serious as a heart attack. He had that look in his eye, just an outstanding interview,” Rapone said. “I said ‘Todd, this kid may have just been prepped, but I don’t think so. I think this kid’s authentic.” He added: “I put him on the board, he answered everything. He looked me in the eye, and all this kid wants is an opportunity.”
Mathieu’s yearning for an opportunity wasn’t lip service, and Arians knew it. His talent was obvious: The instincts, the ball skills. He had “it.”
“It was just, ‘Was he gonna be able to straighten himself out?'” Arians remembered asking. “When I met with him personally, the one thing I loved about him, he didn’t blame anybody but himself. He took all the blame. Then I knew he had a chance. He had a plan how to fix it. I just fell in love with the kid.
“I thought that he needed that chance and that he was gonna make sure that he did right with it.”
WHEN DRAFT WEEK arrived, Mathieu knew he wasn’t going to be a first-round pick. He went to New York anyway for an ESPN The Magazine party the night before the draft.
Mathieu flew back to New Orleans to watch the second and third rounds of the draft with friends and family at a sports bar in Louisiana.
Lawlor remembered the Cardinals and Patriots both calling him about Mathieu as the second round began, but both teams passed in that round.
“We were very upset,” Lawlor said.
Mathieu’s high school coach, Del Lee, could see Mathieu getting frustrated and pulled him to the side. He explained to Mathieu that he just needed one team to believe in him.
That team turned out to be the Cardinals.
Lawlor got a call from Keim right before the third round began. Keim, Bidwill and Mike Disner, the former Cardinals director of football administration and owner Michael Bidwill wanted to know if Mathieu would commit to drug testing and restructure his contract to include a delayed signing bonus that was tied to the tests.
“It was part of his admission and how he was gonna get fixed,” Arians said.
Mathieu and Lawlor agreed, and the Cardinals said they would draft him if he was still there when they picked.
Lawlor recently said they would’ve agreed to the stipulations in the second round if they had been asked, and the slide to the third round probably cost Mathieu about $1.75 million off his signing bonus.
To Arians, the evaluation process of Mathieu was easy. The decision to draft him was the tough part.
“It was just, would we take the risk?” Arians said.
When the 69th overall pick came up, the Cardinals took Mathieu, who cried when he got the call.
“I thought it was the perfect spot for him and for us,” Arians said. “It was a lower risk, high reward type of pick. And that’s a third-, fourth- round type guy.”
IN 10 SEASONS, Mathieu has never had a drug-related issue in the NFL. His success paved the way for players similar in stature and style of play to come after him, like the 5-foot-10 Budda Baker, who was drafted in the second round by the Cardinals in 2017. He was teammates with Mathieu for a season before replacing him the following year after Mathieu was released.
“When I first threw on the tape and watched [Baker], gave me some of the same feel that I had when I watched Ty,” Keim told azcardinals.com after Baker was drafted.
Mathieu’s relationship with LSU, where he was recently a guest speaker, has long been repaired. He donated $1 million to the athletic program in 2017, and the players’ lounge is named after him.
And it was all thanks to a second chance — something Arians has always preached, but only to those who own up to their mistakes.
Mathieu never did that. He did the opposite. He took responsibility for himself, leaving Arians proud almost a decade later.
“He proved me right,” Arians said. “He’s my favorite draft choice ever.”
Mathieu is several teams removed from Arizona now. He’s not even sure his return will be more than just another game for him emotionally. But his appreciation for that time in his life lingers.
“It meant everything, to be honest. And not just like Pat and them,” Mathieu said. “I went to some good coaches, like some real dudes. … I think all those coaches, they were relatable, I think they were real. … I just feel like that situation, it was what I needed. It was a blessing. I was around good people.”