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The Locker Room Legend of Tyrann Mathieu Knows No Bounds

The Honey Badger has traveled farther up, down, and back up the NFL hierarchy than most guys will in a lifetime. But throughout his journey, he’s been an undeniable leader—and his play as the heart of the Chiefs defense could win him a Super Bowl.

Pablo Iglesias

Syl LaBome was in eighth grade the first time someone compared him to Tyrann Mathieu. LaBome, who’ll be a freshman cornerback at Division II Lane College in Tennessee this fall, played all over the field in middle school, and the way he affected the game at every level evoked images of the Honey Badger from his LSU days. “From that point on,” LaBome says, “it kind of stuck with me.” Throughout his high school career at Fort Bend Marshall in Texas, LaBome pored over Mathieu’s college highlights, studying everything from the way he tracked balls in coverage to the way he’d strip quarterbacks coming off the edge. As a senior, LaBome even wore the no. 7 that Mathieu had proudly rocked in Baton Rouge. That adoration made it all the more shocking for LaBome when, without any warning, Mathieu walked onto his high school practice field last January. “He’s standing right there!” LaBome says. “I was like bro—c’mon, now. Ain’t no way.”

A few days earlier, 17-year-old Marshall cornerback Drew Conley had been shot and killed in a domestic dispute with his uncle. LaBome first saw the reports on Twitter, and when he turned on the local news, he howled to his mother that it couldn’t be real. “I can’t even explain it,” LaBome says. “It was like a standstill moment. A pause.” His team was four days removed from a thrilling 47-43 playoff win, and as they prepared for the state semifinals, a fog of sorrow hung over the entire program. “Guys were still going through it,” Marshall head coach James Williams says. “Guys were still grieving. Honestly, it was the hardest two weeks of my life.”

Mathieu was prepping for a playoff run of his own with the Texans at the time, but he reached out to Williams through a team spokesman to ask whether he could attend practice and address the team. With no advance notice to the players, Mathieu arrived with about an hour left in practice and spent that time making jokes and giving pointers. Then, after the session ended, he stood in front of the group and delivered a stirring 10-minute speech about his own path. He spoke about his biological father, who’d spent most of Mathieu’s life in prison for second-degree murder. He talked about a childhood friend he’d lost to gun violence in Louisiana. “He understood what we were going through at that time,” LaBome says. “We all thought everything was going to fall down. And he gave us some insight about how you can make it out of this.” As Mathieu spoke, LaBome realized he no longer just admired Mathieu, the highlight generator, but also Mathieu, the human being. “It was just like, Wow, he could be any place, but he’s here right now. With us.”

The way Mathieu spoke was enough for LaBome to grasp why Mathieu seems to instantly impact every team he’s ever been on. He was a star from the day he stepped on campus at LSU. With the Cardinals, his first NFL team, he rose from a third-round pick who fell in the draft because of past drug use to become one of the best defensive backs in football. When injuries derailed his tenure in Arizona, Mathieu inked a modest one-year deal in Houston and was voted a captain four months after arriving. And this season—after signing a market-setting, three-year, $42 million deal last spring—he’s helped turn a once-shaky Chiefs defense into a unit capable of winning a Super Bowl.

When Mathieu first entered the football consciousness in 2010, he was the Honey Badger—an exhilarating havoc-wreaker who was defined by his highlights. But in the decade since, he’s turned into so much more. “It was a lot of hard work,” Mathieu told me last season, while with the Texans. “A lot of therapy sessions. A lot of coming-to-Jesus moments. Just looking at yourself in the mirror. And really accepting you for who you are.”

Mathieu has packed a career’s worth of ups and downs into seven seasons. And in the process, he’s become a presence that can transform a defense—and an organization. “You have to get talent,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach says. “You have to build a deep roster. ... But until you get a catalyst, it’s hard. You need that one guy to make everything go. He’s certainly that guy. To have him on our team has been everything.”

Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals
Tyrann Mathieu
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Halfway through the 2017 season, Mathieu came face-to-face with his football mortality. The effects of an ACL tear he’d suffered in the December 2015 continued to linger, and with highly-drafted safety Budda Baker waiting in the wings, the Cardinals coaching staff told Mathieu that he might be headed to the bench. “I tried my best to not to have any hard feelings,” Mathieu says. “I tried to just show up to work every day. But I knew. I knew my days were numbered.”

The ACL tear was the second of Mathieu’s young career. The first had come near the end of his excellent rookie season in 2013, and though Mathieu had fought back and regained his status as one of the league’s premier defenders, it seemed like once again, he was watching it all come crashing down. “I legit felt like I was the best defensive back in the NFL,” Mathieu says. “Which I probably was. And then I got hurt again. Then I’m like, ‘Damn. Why do I always have to take the hardest route?’ I always find myself fighting the same battles. It can mess you up, mentally.” He wore a knee brace the entire 2016 season—which he says felt more like an anvil than a support device. “Every play, I felt like I was getting beat,” Mathieu says. “I probably wasn’t, but I kept looking down at my knee brace like, ‘I can’t cover these guys with this shit on.’”

Maybe the most lionhearted player in football had been overrun with an emotion that he’d warded off for years: fear. And its effects had left Mathieu unrecognizable. “I would worry about my knee literally the entire game. I would not play the game the way I know how to play it.”

On the day that the Cardinals delivered news of Mathieu’s potential benching, defensive backs coach Nick Rapone accompanied him to the practice field. The longtime assistant opposed the move, and didn’t hide his displeasure. As the two walked from the locker room, Rapone delivered a message that’s stuck with Mathieu for years. “He said, ‘Tyrann, you’re the kind of guy who’s going to die on your feet. You’re not the kind of guy who’s gonna live on his knees,’” Mathieu says. “I thought, ‘He’s right.’ Because I’m not that kind of guy. I’m really a warrior. And I should go out that way. I should go out like the guy from 300. I might die. But it’s gonna look good.”

Mathieu eventually staved off Baker and kept his job, but he saw the writing on the wall. In March 2018—only 16 months after signing a five-year, $62.5 million deal that made him the highest-paid safety in the NFL—Mathieu refused to take a pay cut and was released. “It kind of reminded me a lot of Les Miles, when I had that conversation with him when he cut me from school,” Mathieu says about being dismissed from the program at LSU in 2012. “I always find myself in these situations, it’s like déjà vu. I’m sitting here across from Les Miles five years ago, and five years later, I’m sitting across from [Cardinals GM] Steve Keim, and they don’t want me on their team no more.”

Once he officially hit the open market, Mathieu weighed his options. He had initial conversations with the Panthers, Steelers, Raiders, Browns, and Bucs, but he took his first team visit in Houston, two days after his release. Texans head coach Bill O’Brien had previously reached out to then–Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians to inquire about Mathieu and the way things had ended in Arizona. “When [Mathieu] speaks, people listen,” O’Brien told me last year. “That’s what I remember Bruce telling me.”

Early in his career, Mathieu had been reticent about speaking up in front of teammates. Behind that magnetic smile and electric playing style, the Honey Badger is a naturally shy, reserved person. But Arians quickly realized the influence that Mathieu had on his teammates—even those several years his senior. “[Bruce] probably saw something in me I didn’t necessarily see in myself,” Mathieu says. “He would harp on me about being vocal. He would just tell me like, ‘All these dudes are following you. Even 15-year vets.’ In my mind, I’m like, ‘There’s no way a 15-year vet wants to be like me. There’s no way he wants to be like Tyrann.’ But I just had a moment to myself, when a lot of things was coming to light, where I realized, ‘A lot of these dudes do look to me. They want to hear what I have to say.’ Then I started to do it, and then I started to do it more. Then my teammates started to look forward to me talking. It just became a habit.”

O’Brien took Arians’s message to heart, and not long after Mathieu signed a one-year, $7 million deal with Houston, the Texans coach started subtly nudging his new safety to find his voice. “My plan was to not say two words the entire season,” Mathieu says. “I was just going to work my ass off. But OB would just look at me every day like, ‘What are you waiting on?’ I hadn’t been there two weeks, and he was like, ‘Let’s go. Lead us.’”

When O’Brien tabbed a dozen players to address the team individually during training camp, Mathieu was one of the first names on the list. And as he stood in front of the group and told his story, the entire room was transfixed. O’Brien says that in his 25-year coaching career, he’s never seen a player alter the tenor of a locker room faster than Mathieu did for the Texans. When Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo called a Houston assistant in March to inquire about Mathieu in free agency, he received the same report O’Brien had a year earlier. “His quote to me was, ‘This guy just changed the culture of this place the day he walked through the door,’” Spagnuolo said. “That stuck with me.”

Ahead of the 2013 draft, Travis Kelce and Mathieu trained together in Florida. During that time, Kelce—who’d end up going six picks ahead of Mathieu that April—says the Honey Badger mystique was unmistakable. “You heard about him,” Kelce says. “He’s the Honey Badger for a reason. Not many guys in college have a nickname.”

Even among NFL players, Mathieu is something of a celebrity. He’s been famous for almost 10 years, since first bursting on to the scene in Baton Rouge in 2010. LSU was a preseason top 25 team when Mathieu arrived, and the secondary was lined with future NFL talent. Over the next few years, three Tigers defensive backs—Patrick Peterson, Morris Claiborne, and Eric Reid—would be drafted in the first round. But even among that star-studded group, the 5-foot-9 freshman stood out. “I remember some of the older guys saying, ‘That little Tyrann kid can play,’” says former LSU defensive backs coach Ron Cooper. “He wasn’t the biggest, and he wasn’t the fastest. But when he played, it felt like he was the biggest and the fastest. He’s always had that.” During the Tigers’ season opener that fall, Cooper waited only a handful of plays before putting Mathieu into the nickel role and moving Peterson to the outside. “That was about all she wrote,” Cooper says. “You know who he was and what he was about from that point on.”

In an instant, Mathieu turned into a phenomenon. He tallied 16 tackles for loss, six sacks, four interceptions, and 11 forced fumbles in two years. As a sophomore in 2011, he scored four touchdowns—two on punt returns, and two on fumble recoveries. For a brief stretch, a safety had become the most recognizable face in college football. “A freshman couldn’t even walk on campus without someone stopping him and talking to him.” Cooper says. “He couldn’t even walk into a McDonald’s without people knowing who he was.”

Mathieu’s production was unassailable, but there was always an aspect of the Honey Badger ethos that went beyond his on-field impact. Cooper keeps several photos on his phone of his son and Mathieu from those years. Deuce Cooper is 15 now, but in those pictures, he’s only 5 or 6—and beaming as he stands next to Mathieu. “You could almost see Tyrann’s innocence [in that photo],” Cooper says. “He’s got something to him, a little air about him. The way he carries himself, in 35 years, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it before.”

Mathieu may be an all-world talent, but for so many young players like LaBome, he represents something oddly attainable. He isn’t a hulking safety who clocked a sub-4.4 in the 40-yard dash. He’s built like a person they could see on the street every day. They’re connected to him—because he is them. “Sometimes, you can see yourself in somebody else,” Labome says. “It’s like, I could be him. I could meet him every day, in my day-to-day life, if he wasn’t who he is.”

AFC Championship - Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs
Tyrann Mathieu
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Dave Merritt was apprehensive about Mathieu during their first few weeks together. The Chiefs defensive backs coach had spent the 2018 season in the same role with the Cardinals, and Mathieu’s acrimonious ending in Arizona the previous year had left a stain on his reputation. “I was a little standoffish at the beginning, because of what I’d heard in Arizona,” Merritt says. “After a couple weeks of being around him, I found out, ‘This guy’s a little different.’ I say different in the sense that his energy and his passion for the game, it’s like nothing else. This is what he is.”

Merritt’s original plan for Mathieu in Kansas City was fairly straightforward. The staff wanted to keep him at free safety, rather than moving him around the defense like other teams had in the past. But when slot corner Kendall Fuller went down with a thumb injury in Week 6, that plan went out the window. “I knew he could play nickel, but I just didn’t know the magnitude of how he would think in that package,” Merritt says. “When I saw he was flourishing and he wanted more knowledge, it became, ‘OK, let’s put him at nickel for this play. And let’s move him back to safety. Then let’s put him at linebacker.’”

Mathieu’s on-field role has followed a similar trajectory at nearly every stop of his football life: After initially taking on a somewhat basic job within the defense, an injury to a teammate forces Mathieu to change positions. And as coaches see how easily he takes to the increased workload, his responsibilities expand. During his sophomore year at LSU, Mathieu filled in for Reid at safety in a crucial matchup against Arkansas with a trip to the SEC championship game on the line—and he was spectacular. When both Andre Hal and Kevin Johnson were sidelined for the Texans in 2018, Mathieu took over the nickel corner. That initially made O’Brien feel a bit guilty, because before signing with the Texans, Mathieu had told O’Brien that for the first time in his career, he wanted to focus on and perfect a single position. O’Brien had given Mathieu assurances that he’d strictly play safety—but circumstances dictated otherwise. Despite his initial request, though, the move didn’t bother Mathieu in the slightest. Frankly, sticking to a single spot had gotten a bit dull. “I don’t know what I was telling myself about just playing safety,” Mathieu said last year. “But I was bored. A lot.”

Moving Mathieu around has plenty of practical utility, but it also serves to heighten the energy of the defense. By affecting the game at every level, he’s able to inject life all over the field. And as the Chiefs defense has hit its stride over the second half of the season, that impact has been inescapable. Since the team’s Week 12 bye, Kansas City has allowed only 15.3 points per game—and even that number is inflated by a pair of turnover-induced Texans touchdowns in the divisional round. In his past five games, Mathieu has eight passes defended, and his nine-tackle performance against Tennessee in the AFC championship game was among his best outings of the year. The way that Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz sees it, Mathieu is acutely positioned to maximize his intangible impact on the players around him. “What he brings is a certain attitude and determination that is especially important for defense, which is way more attitude and passion driven,” Schwartz says. “That’s something that’s infectious to play both with and around, and he kind of requires that of the people he plays with.”

As Mathieu has lifted his teammates, the Chiefs defense has gone from the 26th-ranked unit by DVOA in 2018 to no. 14 this season. And only nine months after keeping Mathieu at arm’s length, Merritt was able to send Mathieu a congratulatory text message when he was voted to the 2019 All-Pro team. “He’s been everything that was advertised,” Spagnuolo says. “What you see on the field is only half of what he’s doing to our football team. The other guys react and respond to him like nobody I’ve ever seen.”

Mathieu is still just 27 years old, but he’s already traveled farther up, down, and back up the NFL hierarchy than most players would in a 15-year career. He’s been the top defensive back in the league, and he’s been unceremoniously shown the door. And now, he’s playing in the Super Bowl. “I don’t think guys like Patrick Peterson or Jalen Ramsey could go from no. 1 to being out of the top 10,” Mathieu says. “That’s hard to deal with, when you know guys are playing better than you. I had to get back to myself.”

As he gets ready for the most important game of his life, Mathieu knows that this moment—and the way that the Chiefs have embraced him—is only possible because of all that he’s endured. “It may not have always gone my way,” Mathieu says. “But I’ve held up my end of the bargain. And I think I can live with that.”

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