NEW ORLEANS – Smoke billows from the grill and the bounce house wobbles in the corner of the backyard as the gathering swells on this humid June afternoon.
Cousins, both second and once-removed, aunts, uncles and friends fill up the house of Tyrone and Sheila Mathieu. All are hoping to get a moment with their son, Tyrann, who now lives across the country in Arizona.
Hugs and handshakes meet Tyrann every couple of steps. More than one Cardinals Mathieu jersey is the clothing of choice. Mathieu floats around to greet as many people as he can, before settling down on a couch to say hello to his godson, a toddler named Titan.
It's the second birthday of Tyrann Mathieu's youngest son, Tyrann Jr. It's a perfect time to have a party and see family. Tyrann Mathieu will lead a youth football
camp later that day in the same stadium he rose to high school stardom. First though, there is the family get-together, in a house far from the bars and bright lights of Bourbon Street.
Tyrann Jr. lives in Arizona, so Tyrann Sr. is happy his son gets a chance to be around extended family. That's something Mathieu wants to teach the kid at a young age, especially after it was family that looked out for Tyrann growing up.
The trip provides inner conflict for the Cardinals all-pro safety. His hometown is where his family lives, where he first made his mark as an athlete, where he remains a hero. But Mathieu is also frustrated with a place where he sees too much violence, too much disrespect for fellow humans.
He has come back to run the youth camp as an initial step toward reaching out to the community in an attempt to change things. He is having the birthday party. But he also will only be home briefly, arriving Friday night and leaving Sunday. He has a security detail with him, because coming home isn't necessarily safe anymore.
"People see New Orleans and think, 'It's a great city to have a drink in or have a party in,' and for me, it's like, not really," Mathieu said.
"The city comes together for great causes, different festivals, Mardi Gras, so there is a lot of great celebration, a lot of good times. But there are more days in the year than just the weekends."
"HE JUST WANTED TO BE WANTED"
Most of the rooms on the bottom floor of Tyrone Sr. and Sheila Mathieu's house have some reminder of Tyrann, the nephew they took in at a young age and later adopted.
His high school diploma and senior picture are in the living room, along with those from the Mathieus' other kids. Football awards and jerseys adorn the walls from his time at St. Augustine and LSU. Cardinals memorabilia is starting to pile up.
As a toddler, Tyrann – whose biological mother, Tyra, was Tyrone's sister – stayed with his grandparents. Every day, he would play there with the cousins that would eventually become his siblings.
Photos from Tyrann Mathieu's house in New Orleans and his trip back there in June
"Tyrann would sit on (my grandmother's) lap on the porch every day as we were leaving," said Tyrone Jr., Tyrann's older brother by five years. "With those eyes, like, 'I wanna go with you guys.' "
When his grandfather passed away, Tyrann finally did go with them, becoming part of the family.
"Very quiet," Tyrone Sr. remembered. "Like any kid, he just wanted to be wanted."
Mathieu slowly figured out his new life. Despite his small size, he excelled in most sports, starring in football even against older kids. He says with a smile – but still a serious bent – that he believes if St. Augustine had played him on offense his whole career he would have won "two or three" state championships.
His scholarship to LSU begat the "Honey Badger" nickname, a friendship with Patrick Peterson and a Heisman Trophy campaign before it was derailed by failed drug tests and getting kicked out of school. His brother said he never had any doubt Tyrann would rebound, although Tyrone Sr. admitted he had been worried.
Now Tyrann returns to New Orleans a local hero and a national star, soon to sign a new multi-million dollar contract with the Cardinals later in the summer. He is far from the little boy who needed a home 20 years ago.
"While I am blessed and happy, I also understand it's his life," Tyrone Sr. said. "That's what he does for a living and I try not to wear that a lot. But I am very proud."
Tyrann talks to many of the family walking through the door (and the back gate) this particular afternoon, although he spends a good amount of time tending to either Tyrann Jr. or Noah, his son that still lives in New Orleans. He walks around like he never hurt his ACL – wearing jeans despite the heat – and when it is suggested he probably isn't healthy enough to jump in the bounce house, he smiles.
"I am, actually," Mathieu says, chuckling. "But I'll leave that for the kids."
He'll be running around later that evening anyway. He has a camp to conduct.
TOO MUCH TRAGEDY
It's the first time Mathieu has come back to New Orleans since the tragic murder of former Saints defensive end Will Smith, who was gunned down on a crowded street in a road rage incident in April.
Mathieu was incensed, not because a former NFL player lost his life but that yet another person lost his life. He had lived it too often. Among Mathieu's many tattoos include a cluster of crosses meant to represent loss: Uncles who had been murdered, others that had tragically died before their time. In late 2012, as Mathieu – by then kicked out of LSU – trained for the upcoming NFL draft, one of his best friends, Jared Haynes, was murdered "by a guy who was supposed to be his friend," Mathieu said.
"That's kind of how it goes," Mathieu said. "This is a small city, everyone knows each other, and jealousy is usually one of the big reasons people get
After Smith's murder, Mathieu immediately took to social media to denounce both the act and also the man responsible, and followed with national interviews on NFL Network and ESPN. Some of his message was well received. Other parts were not, especially by those in New Orleans who were friends of the accused.
In hindsight, Mathieu said some of his comments may have been premature, but he spoke from an emotional place that was inevitable he'd reach. Not only was Haynes someone Mathieu thought about "every day," but his family had been impacted on the other side -- Mathieu's biological father, Darrin Hayes, has been in prison most of Mathieu's life after being convicted of second-degree murder.
"What a lot of people have to understand, I grew up there, I've seen the highs and the lows," Mathieu said. "I have lost family members, I have lost my best friend to gang violence. All those things are personal to me. Then you see a guy of Will Smith's stature, a guy who has won a championship and who has done a lot of good things for the community, you see him murdered – senselessly – it strikes a nerve in you."
Del Lee-Collins has watched the kid he met as a high school freshman develop into a role model. Lee-Collins was an assistant coach at St. Augustine High School when Mathieu attended. As defensive backs coach, he helped Mathieu transition from underused running back to star safety.
Lee-Collins remembers a kid who was fearless, even if he wouldn't say two words. Mathieu has had to grow into being more vocal, "which is needed now."
"(Tyrann) said some things we were probably all feeling but really didn't say," said Lee-Collins, himself a New Orleans native who played briefly with the New York Jets in 1999 and 2000. "That's quite all right. The city is not that kind to our youth. Our city is creating sub-cultures that are really killing us. It's tough. We have to create things for them to do, and I think that's what Tyrann spoke out about."
Mathieu planned to hold a youth camp in New Orleans for that very reason, but the Smith murder and Mathieu's reaction intensified the spotlight.
While there were no public threats, it would have been naïve not to be cautious, not only because Mathieu was a famous athlete but because of those who didn't like what he had said about the city or Smith's accused killer Cardell Hayes.
During the birthday party, parked next to the mailbox with the telltale birthday balloons, was an off-duty New Orleans police officer. Mathieu also had security which would accompany him to the camp later in the day at Tad Gormley Stadium. His dad acknowledges that whenever Tyrann comes to visit, he immediately wants to ask when he is leaving – "You worry," he said – but all the Mathieus think Tyrann's message was important.
"Tyrann was using his platform to stand up, to speak up and be righteous about humanity," said Tyrone Mathieu, Jr. "I think he did a good job.
"I think a lot of concern was about our safety, but if you don't know anything about New Orleanians, we're fearless. It's not much we don't experience on that level."
INSPIRING A GENERATION
Everybody at the birthday party fills up on food and makes their best attempt to squeeze into the living room and connecting sun room to sing "Happy Birthday" to 2-year-old Tyrann Jr., who looks like he'd rather be anywhere else but among the swarm of family.
Mathieu finally takes leave of the house, heading the 10-minute drive to his high school stadium for the camp. Seeing family was important. But so too was seeing these kids of New Orleans, fulfilling his promise of a few months earlier.
The coaches on hand to run each station are the coaches that taught Mathieu the game at some point in his life, including Lee-Collins -- now an assistant coach at John Ehret High School in New Orleans -- and Peterson's father, Patrick Peterson Sr. These coaches are also part of Mathieu's New Orleans family. LSU coach Les Miles makes an appearance to support Mathieu. Star LSU running back Leonard Fournette, who attended St. Augustine after Mathieu, is also
Every day, Mathieu sends Fournette text messages about staying focused and hanging with the right crowds. Fournette, who grew up near Mathieu and is three years younger, is another New Orleans native who wants to aid Mathieu in healing the city.
"Where we are from, kids don't have that motivation," Fournette said. "We are surrounded by drugs, violence and each and every day friends are getting killed, family members are getting killed. You don't have that support you really need. But by him having this camp, or me coming out, they can see people who are inspiring that generation."
The camp is emotional for Lee-Collins, watching his former player -- who dominated play on this same field -- bouncing from station to station, encouraging children, challenging them, squirting water on them with the high-pitched Honey Badger laugh. The kids can't get enough Mathieu, who at once is the NFL hero, the hometown boy made good and the guy who put on a quality football camp for free.
When Fournette mentions that Mathieu can be a father figure to kids in the community, it rings true, even with Mathieu just 24 years old.
"Not many people who make it out of New Orleans, per se, to have the stage that he has," Tyrone Jr. said. "Don't get me wrong, there are many successful people here. But to have the kind of popularity he has and for his word to hold the value I believe it does, it's going to make a difference."
The camp lasts for three hours. The weather – which had dumped rain on the city the night before, and would bring more rain later this night – holds up during the time on the field. Mathieu moves around to all the groups as they work, cheering on effort and engaging in some friendly trash talk with those bold enough to chirp at an NFL star.
At one point, Mathieu grabs a pass intended for a group of younger kids, and they group-tackle him to the ground – a moment that makes one flinch, given Mathieu's ACL rehab. But Mathieu laughs under the pile, having fun with it all.
The result is exactly for what Mathieu wished, if only for an evening. Kids away from trouble, learning a game Mathieu loves so much. He hopes the message will resonate.
"I want them to believe there is life outside of New Orleans," Mathieu said. "I think most of us grew up, we kind of just wanted to get a job at UPS or be a working man and that's the equivalent of the NFL. I want them to understand there is life outside New Orleans, that their goals aren't too big, their dreams aren't too big. Dream as big as you can."