Beyond his family, the part of New Orleans Tyrann Mathieu loved the most was the sports.
The sports are what got him through turbulent times in the city where he was born and raised, the city where Mathieu will return this weekend as the rookie safety and his Cardinals’ teammates play the Saints. Sports – and football, in particular – got him noticed locally, got him to the college stage and eventually got him to the NFL.
“Man, New Orleans, you can’t cling on to many things and most of the things you cling on to are bad things,” Mathieu said. “But for me, it was all about sports. I played sports all year round. Sports saved my life. There aren’t many outlets. There aren’t many things you can do besides pursue a career in sports.”
Mathieu’s story can’t be told without the backdrop of the Big Easy. It’s home, the place from which Mathieu acknowledges he probably needed to get away from as he tried to rebuild a football career that had been derailed by marijuana issues in college.
There will be a game at home but it isn’t a homecoming. The Cardinals don’t get to the city until Saturday night and between meetings, curfew and a noon local kickoff the next day – the Cards fly to Florida after the game – there will be
“I know we’ve talked to (Tyrann) about distractions, and he’s basically going to play the football game and wave to everybody after the game,” coach Bruce Arians said.
Yet Mathieu’s NFL debut will resonate. For all the problems Mathieu had at Louisiana State and missing football all of last year, Mathieu has forged a comeback trail now that he is in the NFL, and he remains a beloved figure for many in New Orleans.
“As far as the youth are concerned, they look up to him like no other, because they are in similar situations and can easily go left instead of going right,” said Dell Lee, one of Mathieu’s football coaches when Mathieu was at St. Augustine High School. “Tyrann is a prime example of being able to be human, making some mistakes, but at the same time, he has even more of a following because he has been strong enough to come back and handle the things he is handling right now.”
GROWING UP IN THE BIG EASY
Mathieu was born in downtown New Orleans. He never spent much time around his biological parents – his father is in prison – and after living with his grandparents the first few years of his life, he was adopted by his aunt and uncle when he was 5.
Mathieu bonded with his cousins who were now his siblings. And he made a name for himself in athletics, at one point as a 10-year-old being named “King of Willie Hall Park,” a title that went to the best player in a 103-pound football league and brought local attention.
Before high school came, Mathieu and his family lived through Hurricane Katrina. Mathieu was 13, and while the Mathieus evacuated the city before the actual devastation started, it made life difficult. First came a couple weeks in a shelter, and then the family moved to Humble, Texas, outside of Houston for the remainder of 2005.
They moved back to New Orleans early the next year, to a place Mathieu didn’t recognize.
“I can’t even describe it,” Mathieu said. “It was like a ghost town. They didn’t have a lot of food, there was no fast food available, the FEMA trucks would come around and we’d have to eat the nasty red beans, the uncooked chicken. It definitely affected me. But I was young. For the most part, it was like a vacation for me. I didn’t have any responsibilities.”
Soon after, Mathieu reached high school. Lee, who was the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach at St. Augustine, met Mathieu initially when Mathieu was a freshman and playing running back. The rest of Mathieu’s friends played defense, however, and eventually, talked Mathieu into switching sides of the ball.
Even someone as talented as Mathieu had an awkward transition, Lee said, because it’s often difficult for young player to understand how to move smoothly backward as needed from a defensive back. Nevertheless, “as a ninth grader, I kind of knew he’d be special down the line.”
Mathieu turned into a star, stayed “home” to go to college at LSU at nearby Baton Rouge and was living the dream – until his drug use got him kicked off the LSU team and jeopardized his NFL hopes.
The only other time Mathieu played in the Superdome, in fact, was his final college game, when the Tigers were manhandled by Alabama in the national championship game.
That’s just one reason he is embracing a chance to go home. Asked if he is treated like a king when he is in New Orleans, Mathieu smiles.
“I’m kind of the young prince when I go back home,” Mathieu said.
But he also knows that being in Arizona full-time is best for him and navigating his still-fragile career.
“Like I said, for me, it’s a process and it’s a long one,” Mathieu said. “I can’t get comfortable, I can’t get complacent. I’ve got to stick to my script, stick to my routine, things I promised myself I’d do. I have to stick to those things.”
HONEY BADGER GOES HOME
Saints quarterback Drew Brees was asked how familiar he was with Mathieu and he barely let the questioner finish.
“The Honey Badger, are you kidding me?” Brees said. “That was all anybody wanted to talk about around here.”
“I hope,” Brees added, “we don’t make it a really great homecoming for him.”
The day Mathieu became a Cardinal back in April, he was in the heart of New Orleans, having a draft party at a local
Lee, who had talked Mathieu through the difficult process of watching so many draft picks be called without his former player being taken, also liked the idea Mathieu was headed to Arizona.
“There are a lot of high school kids that I have pushed away from here,” Lee said. “There are coaches who have told players, ‘Get away from here for a minute, go out and see some things. Find out what life is like outside of New Orleans.’
“I’m not saying this is a bad city, but for youth, sometimes things can get tough and kids can get sidetracked. I thought it was good for him to get away, and start his career and not be around anything that was reminiscent of anything negative.”
Lee, who also flew to St. Louis to watch Mathieu’s first NFL game (and saw Mathieu’s amazing forced fumble of Rams tight end Jared Cook), hopes to see Mathieu at some point this weekend. He isn’t sure how that will go.
Mathieu isn’t sure exactly how his trip home will go either, but he said he wasn’t nervous.
“I know most of those people are rooting for me,” Mathieu said.
Not that Mathieu is necessarily going to personally make sure they are in the stadium. Asked how many tickets he was asked for, he shook his head. “Actually, I changed my number today, so at this moment, I don’t have any.”
That’s one way to block out the distractions of going home. Yet home will never change.
“Being from New Orleans, there’s a certain type of spirit about you,” Mathieu said. “You are happy-go-lucky. It’s a certain type of culture. It just taught me to never give up.”