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NEW ORLEANS – Tyrann Mathieu’s awards from his freshman season at LSU were piled in a dark corner of a side room in the Football Operations Center on Dec. 2, 2012, out of sight unless you happened to really look.
Only a few reporters noticed as they gathered in the room for the Tigers’ bowl announcement that Sunday to play Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. It was a sad discovery.
Mathieu was a first team freshman All-American cornerback, made the All-SEC freshmen team and won the Cotton Bowl defensive MVP in the 2010 season.
In 2011, he put together a spectacular season and earned the nickname “Honey Badger” as he led the nation with five fumble recoveries, led the SEC with six forced fumbles, and finished fourth nationally with a 15.6-yard punt return average and two touchdowns. He won the Bednarik Award as the nation’s best defender, finished fifth for the Heisman Trophy, was the SEC defensive player of the year, a consensus first team All-American and SEC Championship Game MVP.
But after LSU lost, 21-0, to Alabama in the national championship game on Jan. 9, 2012, in the Louisiana Superdome, Mathieu never played again for LSU. The next August, he was kicked off the team after several drug tests were positive for marijuana. Then he was arrested in October in Baton Rouge for marijuana possession, and the Badger eventually skipped town as persona non grata number one. And his awards were put away.
Those trophies are back on display now in that Ops Center along with the hardware from 2011. There is also a Mathieu plaque in the building’s nutrition center as of 2019. Mathieu threw out the first pitch at an LSU baseball game in Alex Box Stadium on March 29.
Tyrann Mathieu Leaving Kansas City
And on Wednesday, Mathieu officially became a Saint. He signed a three-year, $33 million contract to play safety for New Orleans, where he grew up and where he was advised to stay away from after his LSU days.
“I think 10 or 11 years ago when I was a 20-year-old kid, I think it was just important for me to kind of remove myself from certain things, certain environments,” Mathieu said Wednesday in a Zoom teleconference, wearing a Saints’ hat. “So, I could work on myself to get myself to a certain point to where I can come back home and be responsible and be the person that I know I can be.”
Mathieu left New Orleans and Louisiana with an arrest record in 2013 to go to Phoenix, which took a chance on him with the 69th pick of the NFL Draft in the third round. After five years there, one in Houston and three in Kansas City, Mathieu is back home with a Super Bowl ring won with the Chiefs in the 2019 season along with All-Pro seasons in 2015, ’19 and 20 and his third Pro Bowl after last season.
He’s ready for his second life in New Orleans, a crime-riden city where kids often grow up hard, particularly in the Central City area, where Mathieu was raised by grandparents and then an uncle. His father, Darrin Hayes, was sentenced to life in prison for murder in 1994 when Mathieu was 2. His mother was not around for much of his young life.
“It’s kind of sinking in,” he said. “I’m grateful, blessed, very fortunate to be in this position. I look forward to being around my people, our people. I want to make my teammates better, and I want to make our community better as well. It’s a full circle moment for me.”
Mathieu, 30, has been coming home a lot in recent years to visit family and friends. He also has regularly staged youth football camps for kids at the Saints’ facility in Metairie.
“My family’s extremely excited,” he said. “Most of them are really proud of me. I’ve kind of been manifesting this for a while now. Just to have this opportunity means a lot to me. I’m sure it’s going to lift a lot of people, especially my family and people that really know me. Once everything aligned with the Saints, I thought it was the right decision – the perfect decision.”
The Chiefs did not make an offer for him to return. Neither did Houston after the 2018 season and Arizona after the 2017 season.
“As good a football player as I think I am, maybe I’m not good enough,” Mathieu laughed. “So that’s what’s kind of keeping me going, keeping me motivated.”
Alabama wasn’t interested in him either when he was coming out of St. Augustine High in New Orleans in 2010 because he was too short at 5-foot-9. Mathieu was 2-1 against Alabama as an LSU player.
Mathieu has been watching Saints games since he first started playing football at Goretti Playground in the city. He just had to leave before he could come back.
“To be honest, this is something we’ve been preparing for for the last 10 years,” Mathieu, now the father of two sons and a daughter, said. “This is something we’ve all been hoping and praying for. It’ll be a surreal moment running out in the dome. I’m sure it’ll turn me up to another level.”
How many more levels does a 30-year-old have in the NFL, though?
“You’re saying 30 like that’s old,” Mathieu said to a reporter, laughing. “I think I’m just heating up, man. It’s a three-year deal. I’m hoping that I can earn it all and hopefully some more.”
Mathieu is guaranteed $18 million. But this is not just about home and money. Mathieu is a Who Dat, and he loves the way the Saints play defense.
The Saints finished seventh in the NFL last year in total defense, but failed to make the playoffs at 9-8, ending a string of four straight NFC South titles and playoff appearances.
That defense has carried a team with offensive problems over the last three years because of injuries to quarterback Drew Brees in 2019 and ’20 before his retirement and to new starter Jameis Winston last year.
Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen became the new head coach when Sean Payton retired after last season.
“This defense – they just have an identity,” Mathieu said. “Every time they take the field, they’re going to hit everything that moves. I think they can be the No. 1 defense in the league. Just hoping I can come in and put my hand in the pile and help those guys.”
And come out with another Super Bowl ring. Mathieu was a senior at St. Augustine when the Saints won their only Super Bowl on Feb. 7, 2010.
“I just remember me and my home boys just getting the car and going down Canal Street,” he said. “It felt like the whole city was down there. Some people say memories can last a lifetime. That was one that I’ll never forget – just the moment and just the pure joy that it really brought to the city. Being a former champion, I understand how hard it is to win and to get to that point. Definitely want to bring a championship back to New Orleans.”