The emotions of Tyrann Mathieu are evident every time he plays. He is the Honey Badger, after all.
But as he prepares to play a second straight Super Bowl on Sunday for the Chiefs, his emotional tie to the Cardinals – the team that drafted him after he lost his college career at LSU – remains integral to the player he is, one that has regained his status as one of the best safeties in the NFL after twice wrecking his knee in Arizona.
"It meant the most to me," Mathieu said this week. "Coming into that organization, so many leaders on that team, Larry Fitzgerald, Patrick Peterson, Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell, these guys really went out of their way to teach me how to become a pro each and every day. Even at a young age, I think those guys believed in my leadership and knew what I was capable of as a player, and it really propelled me to this point.
"When I think of my time in Arizona, I think of all the good people, all my good teammates I had that really put their arm around me, that really embraced me and allowed me to flourish in the NFL."
Mathieu's departure from the Cardinals remains a difficult subject for many of the team's fans. Mathieu was asked to take a paycut in 2018 after struggling following his second ACL injury. Mathieu declined and was released, although reports had him accepting less money to sign with Houston than what the Cards had been offering.
But both sides have ended up in a good place. The Cards, who had drafted Budda Baker in 2017, have seen Baker develop into an All-Pro safety himself, making the kind of plays the Badger once did in Arizona. Mathieu, meanwhile, joined Baker as a first-team All-Pro himself this season and has a chance to win a second straight Lombardi Trophy.
"Seeing him play this game and all the things we always talked about when we were teammates, seeing those dreams be fulfilled on his behalf, I'm so happy for him," said Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson on the "All Things Covered" podcast about his close friend. "I know the grind he puts in."
Peterson, teammates with Mathieu at LSU, was a big reason the Cardinals were willing to take a chance on drafting Mathieu in 2013 in the third round when so many would not. There was no player, no leader making more of an impact than what Mathieu had become – following one ACL injury and a lengthy ramp back up – in 2015, when the Cardinals were driving toward a Super Bowl.
And there was no more emotional gut punch than when Mathieu tore his ACL at the end of the 14th game of the season in Philadelphia, an injury that eventually set the stage for the divorce between he and the team a couple years later.
"Having those injuries early in my career obviously scared people off but I just had to come back to the point where mentally I was as good as I have always been," Mathieu said. "Coming off those injuries, being able to show the mental side of the game, even when you don't run as fast or jump as high, mentally you can always go to a new level."
Mathieu got that Super Bowl ring he was hoping for in 2015 when the Chiefs won last year. But his opportunity for a second just happens to be what could prevent his one-time Cardinals coach, Bruce Arians, from winning his first.
Regardless, the two men remain close, with Mathieu praising Arians once again this week for being one of the first in the NFL to believe in him, and Arians calling Mathieu "my favorite draft choice of all-time."
"Coming in when he was young and healthy-healthy, he was the most dynamic player I had been around and a natural born leader," Arians said. "We had Patrick Peterson, Jerraud Powers, some really good leaders on that team, and he took over. He was vocal.
"But I'm more proud of the man he's become. He's a great football player. He's an even better man."
It was a journey that started in 2013 when the Cardinals drafted him – something Mathieu said "was what I needed."
"A lot goes into it, not just the last couple of years but LSU and my time in Arizona and Houston," Mathieu said. "All those moments prepared myself for the position I am in today."