The sport that turned Tyrann Mathieu into a teenage star chewed him up him a year later. Placed him on a national stage as a college kid, only to watch him lose it all with a snap of the fingers.
That’s part of his inescapable history, woven into the comeback story that now defines him. And woven into the role he assumes in NFL locker rooms.
Seven years after Mathieu was kicked off LSU’s football team, the Chiefs made him the league’s highest-paid safety, tasking him with changing the identity of their much-maligned defense. They were attracted to him because of his record, not in spite of it.
In two previous NFL stops — Arizona and Houston — teammates have lauded Mathieu’s leadership qualities. On Thursday, nearing the completion of his first OTAs in Kansas City, he delved into the root of them.
“I think this is our sanctuary. This is our safe haven,” Mathieu said a few feet from the practice field. “The world outside of this can be a lot harder, a lot tougher than we expect it to be. I think me, as a leader, as a guy that’s been cut, been humiliated, embarrassed, whatever you put on it, I think it’s important just to embrace the guys around you, really support them, encourage them and then kinda give them that confidence. Let them know that you believe in them, and hopefully they’ll get to believing in themselves.”
Mathieu’s history has been shared before. The Star’s Sam Mellinger profiled Mathieu last month during a visit to New Orleans, his hometown.
He was kicked off the LSU football team. Failed multiple tests for marijuana. Then-LSU coach Les Miles told Mellinger it was the “hardest thing I’ve ever done in coaching.”
Mathieu was an ideal teammate. Still is, if you ask those who played with him. He plays all out, befitting of his “Honey Badger” nickname. Never takes a down off.
His Chiefs tenure is just weeks old. It doesn’t include a game or even a padded practice yet. It’s early, in other words, to declare him the leader of a retooled defense. He refrained from that, too.
But the Chiefs’ hope is he will become that guy — that his forcible nature of play will transform the personality of a defense that allowed the second most yards in football in 2018.
His words are a start.
“Just really trying to build a defense with an attitude,” Mathieu said. “I think anytime you can have 10, 11 guys with a chip on their shoulder — an edge, a certain kind of presence, a certain kind of attitude, a kind of swagger — you create a collective identity. I think that’s what we’re trying to do. Definitely not trying to do something that’s outside of our characteristics. I think we wake up each and every day and we live that way — just with an attitude and a chip on our shoulder. Like I said, it can rub off on the guys around you.”
The tenacity displayed on Sunday afternoons is difficult to replicate without pads. But there have been other qualities within Mathieu’s skill-set that have already been on display, the same qualities that materialized with the Texans in 2018 and the Cardinals in years prior.
“I love his competitiveness,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “His instincts. Listen, this is all stuff we all know. But his instincts are incredible. They were incredible in college at LSU; they’ve been incredible when he’s been in the National Football League. We’re seeing it out here — the same thing.
“He’s a good teammate. Good leader. He adds that to the mix with everything else.”
The Chiefs will move Mathieu around this year, believing he can play inside the box as well as the last man standing at the back end of the secondary. At his introductory news conference, Mathieu said his role in Kansas City will allow him to be on the hunt again. That will come with time.
So will the effects of his presence. Mathieu said he will be less outspoken in the early weeks inside a new locker room. There’s a respect for those who have been here longer. Eventually, though, the personality will win out.
“Once training camp gets here, it’s a different level of intensity, a different level of excitement,” Mathieu said. “Then when the season comes, you gotta grab the bull by the horns.
“For me, it’s about embracing the guys around me, believing in them but knowing that there’s a certain direction we want to go in. Everybody can’t lead you in that direction. A lot of guys on our side of the ball, we have to follow somebody in the right direction. Hopefully I can lead those guys in that direction.”