Tyrann Mathieu couldn't hold back the tears when he was finally drafted.
Tears fell from Tyrann Mathieu that April evening he was drafted a little more than a year ago.
He sat in a local New Orleans restaurant – Happy's Irish Pub – with friends and family when he heard the Cardinals were drafting him. That's when it hit him, everything that had built to that moment. The safety is in a different place now, because he has proven himself an NFL star-in-the-making and that he was able to rise above his off-field issues.
Mathieu thinks back on the time he was drafted and allows a knowing smile.
"It was a lot of emotions," Mathieu said. "I was blessed enough to eventually get drafted and to be able to play with Pat (Peterson), it felt like everything was coming back together. It was definitely emotional. I was trying to fight back the tears.
"I was relieved, man. Everything from that past year, getting arrested, getting kicked out of school, going through the whole draft process and the questions, trying to be yourself, it was tough. I was just happy to get through it."
Mathieu was even in New York the first day of the draft (although not at Radio City Music Hall where Commissioner Roger Goodell was hugging the first-round picks as they came on stage), hoping he would be a first-round pick. That didn't happen, and he flew back to New Orleans to wait.
Even with his troubles, he had been convinced he was a viable prospect, and really, that never was seriously in doubt. Yet
that hadn't always been true, at least for Mathieu. It wasn't until his sophomore year at LSU when the possibility of an NFL career truly resonated.
"Maybe that's why I didn't take things as seriously at LSU," Mathieu said. "I never dreamed of one day playing in the NFL. Those things were a long shot, growing up where I did. I was just happy playing the game."
Mathieu's draft process was far from normal, thanks to his banishment from the LSU football team that left him sidelined for an entire year between his last college season and entrance to the NFL. Teams wanted answers to his drug issues.
He talked to every team at the NFL Scouting combine in February. He estimates he met with "11 or 12" teams at their facilities around the country as they grilled him about his past and how he envisioned his future. Football wasn't the primary topic.
The longest interviews? One was with the Patriots. The other was with the Cardinals, who already knew a lot about Mathieu since close friend Peterson was on the team.
"Everything I watched on tape is what we liked," General Manager Steve Keim said. "We all knew what the risks were. We spent a significant amount of time with him and got to know the person. I've always felt that if you have a guy that is as passionate about the game as he is, you have a chance to steer him down the right road."
Mathieu was in a sort of no-man's land leading up to the draft, working out and wondering what would happen. His life was one of the most discussed among pundits, not only where he might land but also if he would be able to get past his problems and last in the NFL.
Running through football drills – "I didn't go in the weight room as much," he said with a chuckle – left Mathieu at peace. It was his time to get his mind off the media and everything being said. Not that everything was negative. Hall of Famer Deion Sanders was "in my ear," Mathieu said, assuring Mathieu he would be drafted.
Where, Mathieu couldn't guess. He had worked out some in Arizona with Peterson, so he had a comfort level with the area
and certainly liked the idea of playing on the same team as Peterson. He had grown close to another former LSU defensive back, Steelers safety Ryan Clark, and wouldn't have minded going to Pittsburgh. Anywhere, Mathieu figured, that had an older player to guide him through the journey. The Honey Badger was most certainly self-aware.
When draft weekend arrived, Mathieu was in New York. A couple of teams – he didn't say which – told Mathieu they would likely take him late in the first round. Mathieu believed. Then it didn't happen.
He went back to New Orleans and sat through the second round, waiting, hoping, hurting. Mathieu insists he just wanted a chance and would've played as an undrafted free agent. But the sting of his draft status hasn't totally waned.
"You see 15 (defensive backs) drafted before you, it's heartbreaking," Mathieu said.
For the Cardinals, Mathieu's drop was fortuitous. Before the draft, the Honey Badger was on the radar. In the second round, the Cardinals went after LSU linebacker Kevin Minter and waited to see if Mathieu would last until pick No. 69.
He was, and the decision was all but automatic.
"There's a thing on now, 'What was your favorite call?' " coach Bruce Arians said. "In my 30 years, he was my favorite call. Because I knew what it meant to him to get that opportunity. You could feel it over the phone."
A year has passed. Mathieu's excellent rookie year was cut short when he wrecked his knee in December, but he comes to the facility daily to work on his rehab believing he will somehow be back sooner than expected. Whenever it is, he will be part of the team's future.
He is a starter in the defensive backfield, but Mathieu's career goes beyond football. He has more than just stayed clear of any further trouble. He already is one of the most popular players on the roster. A year ago, Keim and Arians talked about the risk of drafting the Honey Badger. Now, he's one of the players the team put on their live TV draft special last week. The team had him record a video to send to season-ticket holders. Mathieu might have taken the rough road, but the NFL has been a good fit.
"I feel like I've been in the league four or five years already," Mathieu said. He smiled. "My coaches are asking me these veteran questions and I need to provide a veteran answer. Got to talk to Steve (Keim) like a veteran, not a 21-year old."
This year's draft doesn't hold a lot of interest for Mathieu. He wants to know where some of the guys he knows will end up – Jadeveon Clowney, Johnny Manziel, LSU receiver Odell Beckham – but he has little use for draft analysis. He heard plenty of that last year.
Injury aside, Mathieu is happy. The draft put him in the right place.
"It all came together on draft day," Mathieu said. "That's why I was crying.
"I'm not crying anymore."
Images of the Cardinals' third-round draft picks since the team moved to Arizona in 1988.