The people who love Tyrann Mathieu the most came to celebrate.
The high school friends who moved mattresses at a camp to hang out in his room. The pastor of a megachurch he found on Twitter. The coach who once (maybe more than once) paddled him for not dressing out for P.E. class. The older brother with whom he shares a dad locked away on a murder conviction and a mom they didn’t see much growing up.
They all have stories about Mathieu, the new Chiefs star safety who grew up in this city’s Fifth Ward and returned last weekend to help raise money and opportunity for his hometown.
Everybody at the party brought varying levels of love, enough to make it past the armed security outside and through the doors that divided the New Orleans that Mathieu feels responsibility to help and the New Orleans that he must keep at a distance.
Both are part of who he is. Each is part of his why.
Nice party, too. They called it dressy casual but it looked like the Grammy’s: high heels, pressed suits, fancy hats. A band played, and the bar stayed open. Friends caught up. They took pictures. Made sure they have the right numbers. Talked about new jobs, and old stories, and the man and cause they came to celebrate.
This is the New Orleans that Mathieu loves, and it’s never far from his mind. Neither is the other New Orleans. You can hear both if you ask him about the best part of this city.
“For me it’s the culture, right?” he said. “The people. But it’s a double-edged sword. Everybody here knows each other. This is place is full of life, full of tradition. Sometimes it can be the other way around. A lot of jealousy, lot of envy. People who grew up just like you, played the same sports you played, but for some reason they didn’t get to the level you got to.”
So the best thing is also the worst thing?
“Yeah,” he said. “Pretty much.”
As he spoke, few outside his closest circle knew of the cousin who is now under federal indictment for attempting to extort more than $1 million from Mathieu and threatening his family. That news would come the next week.
Mathieu hasn’t spoken publicly about it. Or, at least, he hasn’t spoken directly about it. Looking back, it’s hard not to wonder if that’s what was on his mind — the worst form of jealousy and envy.
The next words provide a good window into who he is, too. The question is who at the party he’s most excited to see. Mathieu answered immediately, with a smile, his eyes scanning the room to see if he could find the man who once broke his heart with a decision Mathieu has come to think of as one of the most important things anyone did for him.
“Les Miles,” he said.
Les Miles and Tyrann Mathieu will be connected forever. That would be true even if they didn’t both want the connection, which they very much do, which is very different than it used to be.
Mathieu became one of college football’s best players for Miles and LSU in 2011. He was just the third defensive back to be named a Heisman Trophy finalist, nicknamed Honey Badger after an animal that fights above its weight in the wild with questionable decisions.
He also failed repeated tests for marijuana. Those were different times, before more than half the country had legalized or decriminalized the drug. Miles thinks the same situation now would have a different outcome. Back then, he had no choice. He had to kick Mathieu off the team.
“I had regrets the day before, when I did it, and the day after,” Miles said. “He was the perfect teammate. We wanted him to stay with us. But you have no rule unless the rule has bite. So there we were. Hardest thing I’ve ever done in coaching.”
This is not a story about Miles’ decision, or Mathieu’s mistakes, because that story has been told. This is a story of what Mathieu has done since, of how he went from there (kicked out of football) to here (a Pro Bowler entering his seventh season entering the NFL).
This is a success story, in other words, born from the precipice of wicked failure.
“I wouldn’t be here without that,” Mathieu said. “I wouldn’t be who I am.”
Mathieu says that often enough he must mean it literally. No man reaches the NFL without overcoming something, but few have overcome more.
That’s part of why Mathieu is here, too. It’s part of who he is.
He’s had family members die from heroin, AIDS, a car wreck and murder. He remembers them with crosses tattooed on his right leg, more than 20 of them, each with a story. Each with him every step. Sometimes, football practices stopped at the sound of gunfire. Other times, they kept going, and you could say the same about Mathieu.
The boy was determined, though. Mathieu went to St. Augustine High, a traditional football power and all-boys school with uniforms and discipline. Once, at a track meet, he talked his way into the high jump. He’d never so much as practiced before, but he cleared 7 feet on that first day.
The story of what Mathieu didn’t have growing up is, sadly, not uncommon. It’s the story of what he did have that sticks out. That is Mathieu’s path.
He and Terry Lucas met at St. Augustine, which they call St. Aug. They had football in common, but at least on the surface, not much else. Mathieu didn’t know his biological parents well. He was raised by grandparents, and then an aunt and uncle. Lucas lived with his parents.
“For me to see that he was still strong mentally and had certain principles I had really stuck,” Lucas said. “I started to not take my situation for granted. He’d get on me when I was lacking, or when my dad was on me for missing curfew, stuff like that. He’s always been strong, always been inspiring.”
Mathieu and Lucas have been best friends since, from the time they were both trying to make varsity to now, when Mathieu has a new $42 million contract with the Chiefs and Lucas runs T. Lucas Management with Mathieu as his first client.
Like all of us, Mathieu is imperfect. He has flaws. He makes mistakes. Those mistakes used to define him to many, but now he likes to think of himself as defined by his ability to work through those imperfections.
“I love who I am today,” he said. “Am I perfect? No. Does everybody love me? No. But I love who I became, and I want kids to feel the same way.”
This is the way he often talks. He doesn’t have a stump speech, exactly, but when addressing big groups, he will refer to “my ups and downs.” When addressing groups here in New Orleans, where he’s from, he has often added, “You all have been with me through my ups and downs.”
Scott Savage, the pastor that Mathieu befriended while the latter was in Arizona, playing for the Cardinals, calls Mathieu “the most resilient person I’ve ever known.”
Mathieu has been tested in every way imaginable: his dad locked up, his mom not around, some of his closest friends dying, the punishment at LSU that took him from the most famous player in the country to a third-round pick, a shoulder injury, two major knee surgeries and a thumb injury.
The Cardinals signed him to a long-term contract, then cut him, so he went to the Houston Texans on a one-year “prove it” deal. They voted him team captain before he ever played a game.
Think about this: Seven years after being told he could no longer play college football, the Chiefs made him the NFL’s highest-paid safety, praising his brain as much as his body, and his example more than either.
How the hell did he do it?
The answer is complicated. Miles talks about “too many social gates opening” at LSU as a setup to praise Mathieu’s ability to correct. He’s a homebody now, newly engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Sydni Paige Russell.
Mathieu says “The easiest thing in the world is to lose yourself.” Finding himself was a deliberate process that included a reorganization of priorities, self-reflection, a closer relationship with God and the acceptance of his own imperfections.
He lost himself. Now that he’s fixed that, he doesn’t want to go searching again.
“I think he just knew: ‘There’s a lot of people counting on me,’” Lucas said. “He had to balance it out: ‘I have an obligation to fulfill. I have to finish it.’ I think he’s mastered that. It’s ignoring what the outside world is trying to put in your world.”
News of the extortion attempt puts those words in a new light. Same with his insistence on helping New Orleans.
In this together
Tyrann Mathieu is rich enough that he could fix some problems by writing a check. He’s made about $31 million so far, with another $26.8 million guaranteed from the Chiefs. He is generous with his money, too, but has a reason he works to raise money from others.
“I want to bring you guys with me,” he said to a crowd during his trip home to New Orleans. “We can do this together.”
That word — together — is important to Mathieu. Redefining who he is together with helped save, and then build, his career. Working with those he feels together with now can help provide opportunities for kids dealing with the same stuff now that he did years ago. They won’t all have his physical gifts. But they can have his hope.
Already, he’s put on camps, met a gajillion kids and bought computers and guitars and other stuff — he always calls them “opportunities” — for kids in New Orleans.
Together. It didn’t always feel that way.
“We never really had people like that around here,” Mathieu said. “A lot of people say they believe in you, but they don’t necessarily back you. I always told myself if I ever got into a position where I’m at now I’d do everything I could to reach every kid I possibly could.”
He’s told it sounds like he has a complicated relationship with New Orleans.
“Yeah, you could kind of say that,” Mathieu said. “You could say that.”
The unfortunate irony is that as Mathieu goes back to New Orleans to help, he must also protect himself. He hired eight armed security guards last weekend, and his motorcade included four black SUVs for safety.
It’s part of the reason that when Mathieu comes home he doesn’t stay long.
“Not a lot of people reach a level of success and want to come back home,” Mathieu said. “Guys like Lil Wayne and all those guys, they’re from New Orleans, but they never really come back and try to dive into the community. I always thought there was some restriction with that. People don’t always support that.
“We all grew up together. New Orleans is a small city. People get caught up in the fact that you made it and they didn’t. So that’s part of the struggle. I’m in a great place in my life. People say what they want to say. I know my true intentions. I know what I want.”
Mathieu is smart, introspective and almost certainly more in touch with his emotions than most young men. He chose the life of a football star, but nobody tells you that the life chooses you, too.
He was 19 years old the first time he danced with fame, and he was admittedly unprepared. Now he is 27, with enough life experience for a man twice his age. None of this has been easy.
All of it is part of who he is now, and who he wants to become — for him, for his family and for his city.
“It’s important to keep your balance,” he said. “To not let people overrun me. Stay focused as much as you can. It’s important for me to stay on my track, and to live my life. I’ve got a job to do and I’ve got responsibilities. A lot of times people want you to focus on their life.
“But at the end of the day, I have my own.”