Jonathan Abrams, Bleacher Report (http://thelab.bleacherreport.com/honey-badger/)
Tyrann Mathieu laughed, thinking Patrick Peterson was joking. The thought of them playing again in the same secondary seemed too improbable to take seriously.
More than three years ago, Mathieu wanted a chance to show a team, any team, that he was far from the caricature his actions had created. He had left behind Louisiana, first to train with Peterson’s father in Florida and then with Peterson in Arizona, all in search of a future that once seemed so bright.
Peterson casually mentioned the possibility of teaming up again with the Arizona Cardinals, where he had already developed into one of the NFL’s premier cornerbacks.
“Man, I’m going to get you to play with me,” Peterson said. “I’m going to do what I need to do to get you to play in Arizona.” Peterson kept a straight face as Mathieu grinned. “You might have a real legitimate chance at getting here.”
Mathieu had admired Peterson for years. In Mathieu’s eyes, Peterson had conducted himself like a professional long before being drafted into the NFL. The two had played together for a memorable season at LSU in 2010.
But that was before Mathieu’s accolades turned him into the Honey Badger, a nickname given to him because of his ability to play tough football against much larger opponents, which mimicked the behavior of the fearless, pugnacious but small animals that go by that name. Little did he realize, however, that the spotlight and distractions that accompanied the moniker would create a significant hurdle in his life.
“I want to succeed for a lot of reasons, but he was one of those people that never turned his back on me,” Mathieu said recently. “He always believed in me. … He never told me anything wrong. He never lied to me, and I think that’s what true friends are for.”
That is the virtue, Peterson said, that allowed them to grow close. Peterson said no when others said yes. “I didn’t want to be one of those friends that was in his inner circle being a yes-man,” he said. “I always told him straightforward things. I always told him if he needed to change something.”
Peterson may have vowed to do what he could to get Mathieu alongside him, but the decision still had to be made by Steve Keim, Arizona’s general manager.
Drafting Mathieu would be a stretch for Keim. Mathieu’s play warranted a first-round selection. But his off-field meanderings forced teams to take second and third looks, if they even considered him at all. After being kicked off the LSU football team for repeated violations of the school’s substance abuse policy for athletes, Mathieu had not played a down in more than a year.
“I grew up in the Leave It to Beaver world,” Keim said. “I grew up in a world where I had a great mom and dad, two older sisters. We were middle class, certainly not rich, but we had a great upbringing. Then…I hear about his background, and I think to myself, ‘How do I get my arms around the fact that this guy’s made mistakes?’ But also I’ve got to understand, he didn’t come from where I came from. He didn’t have the upbringing that I did. So, just the fact that he’s gotten to this point says a little something about this player and his resiliency and how he handles adversity…
“That’s what it’s all about. These guys have made mistakes. … You’ve got to find the ones who absolutely love the game, because if they love it enough and they’re passionate enough, that’s going to keep them away from doing things that will put them in the bad predicaments.”
Peterson did what he could to nudge Keim in Mathieu’s direction before the 2013 draft. That’s partly because he knew what it was like to have the game he loved taken away.
Patrick Peterson Sr. was once a standout at Blanche Ely High School in Pompano Beach, Florida—the type of do-it-all player his oldest son would one day become. A cardiac murmur derailed his career before he could see how far he could take it. “If you’re born with that stuff, it’s not life-threatening,” Peterson Sr. said. “But back in the day, we didn’t have that type of technology to detect anything. Now, I know guys in the league right now got heart murmurs and enlarged hearts.”
Patrick Peterson—then known as Patrick Johnson before he changed his last name to honor his father after his parents wed—appeared to be next in line to uphold the family’s athletic tradition. His cousins, Santana and Sinorice Moss and Bryant and Walter McFadden, were already in the NFL. Some at Blanche Ely High wanted Peterson to play varsity as a freshman. Peterson Sr. decided to bring him along more slowly. He worried that accolades and success would go to his head. Peterson starred on Blanche Ely’s junior varsity that season before his father opted for a stern lesson in his sophomore year.
As Peterson prepared for practice one day, his father, who was an assistant coach, stopped him. Peterson Sr. found out that his son’s GPA had slipped to 2.3. The average still left him eligible to play, but Peterson had made a pact with his father that he would maintain at least a 2.5 GPA.
“No, you’re not going to practice,” Peterson Sr. told his son. “You failed your commitment to me. You won’t be playing football, period. These things happen when you commit to something. You have to be a man and hold up to your words.”
Peterson Sr. knew he would be benching one of his best players. He could have chosen to sit him out for a week or two and hope he’d learned a lesson.
He held him out the entire season.
Peterson Sr. loved football. He loved the contact, the physicality of it, the risks and rewards. He also recognized that it could be a conduit to deliver life lessons. He knew his son could go far in the game and thought it would be better to teach a valuable lesson sooner rather than later.
“I don’t baby them,” Peterson Sr. said. “Not only my son, just anybody I deal with. You got to be strict. It’s got to be a hard lesson learned sometimes. One or two games, to me, is like a slap on the wrist. I don’t like doing it that way.”
Peterson still came to games, explaining to inquiring spectators why he was not suiting up. “I was miserable,” Peterson said. “But I believe that’s what helped me grow. That’s what helped me always have that mentality that I have to put my best foot forward at all times, because I don’t know when the game is going to be taken away from me.”
By then, Bryant McFadden had started his NFL career as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary. McFadden helped reinforce the tough-love message.
“You have a chance of doing something special,” he told Peterson. “If you don’t like school, OK, who cares? I didn’t really like school, but you have to play the system. If you’re going to school, you have to make grades good enough for you to get that scholarship offer. If you can’t be accountable in the classrooms, coaches on any level, they’re not going to trust that you will be accountable on the football field.”
Peterson brought his grades up and returned to the field. Over the next two years, he made 12 interceptions and recorded 75 tackles while also being featured prominently on offense. In 2007, his senior season, USA Today named him its Defensive Player of the Year. He had his choice of colleges and picked LSU after verbally committing to the University of Miami.
The summer before college, Peterson worked out with McFadden and a handful of other NFL players in Orlando, Florida. Peterson was already 6’1” and about 210 pounds, larger than most NFL cornerbacks. McFadden remembers Ike Taylor, then a Steelers teammate, predicting that Peterson would outgrow the cornerback position and become a linebacker. “Man, I hear what you’re saying, but that’s the only thing he wants to play,” McFadden responded, referring to Peterson’s determination to play cornerback. “He doesn’t care if he’s 220, 230.”
“That’s how gifted he was when it came to a physicality standpoint,” McFadden said. “As a ninth- or 10th-grader, he passed the eye test. When you saw him perform on a high school level, it was unbelievable. When I took him with me to Orlando, Pat was standing out among NFL guys.”
But he needed the stern nudging from his father to get back on track. In the future, Mathieu would also need the backing of Peterson Sr. “That was one of the first stories that [Peterson] told me,” Mathieu said. “I think that just speaks to his father helping him understand the bigger picture.”
Peterson had not heard of Tyrann Mathieu when Ron Cooper, his defensive back coach at LSU, informed him of the prospect he would be hosting. “Man, Pat, I’m telling you,” Cooper said, according to Peterson, “I had this kid last year [in camp]. This guy is unbelievable. Ball skills out of this world. The only thing is, he’s a little guy.”
Mathieu, who stood only 5’9” and weighed 175 pounds, knew of Peterson. As a high school sophomore at St. Augustine in New Orleans, Mathieu had visited LSU with his coach, Wayne Cordova. They came across Peterson working out by himself in a sandpit. Cordova recalled Mathieu saying that he hoped to emulate Peterson, an athlete who worked just as diligently outside the spotlight as he did inside it.
LSU’s coaching staff knew Peterson would likely only play three seasons before heading for the NFL, Cooper said. That contrasted with Mathieu, who had struggled to gain the attention of college scouts.
Mathieu first played running back before switching to defense, said Del Lee, who coached the defensive backs at St. Augustine. “Only then did I realize that he could very well be playing on Sundays,” Lee said. If a player made a sensational play above the high school level, Lee regarded it as a college rep. Soon, Mathieu routinely made plays the coach considered pro reps.
Mathieu was small but had a knack for finding the ball and forcing turnovers—intangibles that cannot be taught. Lee became frustrated that colleges were not offering Mathieu deeper looks.
“I never really let him see that part of it with me, but I would often fuss with my head coach about that at the time,” Lee said. “Tyrann didn’t even make all-district at cornerback. That’s insane.”
LSU finally came around after hosting Mathieu at a camp. “He probably had eight interceptions during the seven-on-seven in that day period,” Cooper said. Cooper told Lee that Mathieu would become a recruiting priority, and he vaulted over other recruits. For Mathieu, a New Orleans native, attending LSU was an easy decision.
“The next school under that was maybe Tulane, Southern Miss,” Mathieu said. “So LSU was a no-brainer for me, going there. But obviously, playing with guys like Patrick and Eric Reid, who was also a top prospect at the time, and Morris Claiborne—I mean, it was just a good fit for me.”
With an experienced defense around him, Mathieu slid in nicely as an impact player.
“The hunger that he had, I’ve never seen nothing like it before, especially coming from a guy who already had that label of [being] undersized, a guy who has that label that he may not play past this level,” Peterson said. “The odds were always against him, but you could tell that he always had that prevailing mindset that, ‘I told you so.’”
Everything came together for Mathieu in the 2011 Cotton Bowl. He earned the Most Outstanding Defensive Player Award after making an interception, recording a sack and forcing two fumbles.
As expected, Peterson left for the NFL in 2011, when Arizona took him with the fifth overall pick. Mathieu assumed Peterson’s No. 7 jersey and returned for a sensational sophomore season that earned him the fitting nickname and made him a finalist in the Heisman Trophy voting.
The fanfare leveled him. His near downfall has been chronicled countless times. LSU suspended and eventually dismissed him for failing multiple marijuana tests.
Lee still serves as a mentor to Mathieu. They don’t have long conversations. When they do talk, they exchange few words of substance. Lee once handed Mathieu a three-ring binder with photos and stories of athletes who had once had it all before flushing it away. The back pages featured a photo of Mathieu with a blank page next to it. Lee suggested that Mathieu could still avoid such a fate, but he had a lot of work to do.
“I knew that football was his passion, and after conversing with him about it, it was really just a matter of what’s more important at this point,” Lee said. “What do you want your life to venture off to? Do you want to go left or right?”
Those close to Mathieu decided his best option would be to get away from Louisiana. He decided to train with Peterson Sr. in Pompano Beach, where Peterson had learned the game.
“They thought it was a no-brainer for him, just to get away from the environment that he was in, clear his mind and get a fresh start within a new environment. They thought that would be a better choice for him versus being in New Orleans or Baton Rouge training and still getting in trouble,” Peterson said.
“My dad loves football, and that’s the one thing he hates seeing—great talent go to waste. He definitely wasn’t going to let that happen with Tyrann, either,” Peterson added.
Peterson Sr. had known Mathieu from his son’s days at LSU. Then, he regarded Mathieu as a quiet introvert. The same traits held true when Mathieu arrived in Florida.
Peterson Sr. instructed Mathieu on the rules of the house. Mathieu responded with, “Yes, sir.” Peterson told him when they would train, when they would eat, when they would rest and when Mathieu would attend drug rehabilitation.
They trained every day for nearly three months, focusing on shaving time off Mathieu’s 40-yard dash, reducing it from 4.6 to 4.43 seconds, according to Peterson Sr. At one point, McFadden arrived to work out. He saw Mathieu singularly focused on returning to the right track.
“It was about, could he not allow the distraction of the Honey Badger to take over him as a football player?” McFadden said. “I think that’s what happened at LSU. He was not only Honey Badger on the football field, but he was the Honey Badger away from the football field. Going down to work with Pat Sr. was a humbling experience, but also I got a chance to see how much this kid actually loved football.”
The story of Peterson sitting out a year of high school football resonated with Mathieu. “You realize where he gets his work ethic from, how hard he works and the different things that he’s learned,” Mathieu said. “I was fortunate enough to have a coach in high school that kind of showed me a lot of things that Pat’s dad showed me, but I never had that person growing up. You can tell that Pat has been bred in football for a long time.
“He just pretty much showed me the ropes and really just showed me how to be a pro when I had no clue how to be a pro,” Mathieu said. “Just teaching me consistency in my work ethic. You can’t show up one day and not show up another day. That was one of the things he preached the most to me.”
It is the same message Peterson Sr. had delivered to his own son.
“I didn’t get where I wanted to be, but I’m happy with me putting my work in and getting these guys an opportunity,” Peterson Sr. said.
When the time came, Peterson told Steve Keim he believed in Mathieu. “I don’t know if you’re looking at him or not,” Peterson recalled saying. “I’m telling you, Tyrann Mathieu is a ballplayer. He’s your type of guy. He’s a straightforward guy. He’s very, very smart. He’s very, very interchangeable. He’s a baller, and I believe he’s the type of guy that understood that he made a mistake and won’t let it happen again.”
That endorsement carried weight with Keim, who had great respect for Peterson. But his words alone would not have landed Mathieu in Arizona. Before the draft, Keim invited Mathieu to dinner at Fleming’s Steakhouse.
He had trouble finding a baby sitter for the evening, so his young son tagged along. Halfway through the dinner, Keim’s son told him how cool Mathieu was and that the team had to draft him.
“If it wasn’t for what I saw on tape, if it wasn’t for what Patrick told me and if it wasn’t for flying him in and getting to know him as a person, my old-school scouting mentality would have been, ‘There’s no chance I’m going to take a flier on this guy,’” Keim said. “More than anything, it was looking Ty in the eyes, understanding that he was humbled by the mistakes that he made and that he was so passionate about the game that I felt like if there was anybody that you could point in the right direction, it’s him, because he doesn’t want the game taken away from him, and he’s already had that happen once.”
Still, Keim doubts the Cardinals would have gambled on him any higher than the third round, where they took him in 2013. “When you start talking about risk versus reward, I think it’s probably not responsible for a general manager to take a guy too much higher than where we did, knowing some of the information we knew.
“He’s got a huge heart, and probably in his life, maybe if he had any downfall, it’s because he’s a pleaser,” Keim said. “He wants people to be happy, and that’s actually a great quality. Yet, at the same time, it’s a quality that can put you in tough predicaments. … The hardest thing to do is say no sometimes. And that’s the task that a lot of these players are put in. A lot of us can’t put ourselves in those shoes. It’s easier said than done to say no to friends that you’ve grown up with your whole life.”
Peterson Sr. remembers tearing up over the selection. He told Mathieu to continue on the right path. Mathieu told him not to worry.
“That’s one thing about him: When he tells you stuff now, he does it,” Peterson Sr. said.
Arizona’s coaching staff marveled at how quickly Mathieu mastered multiple positions in the secondary. “We don’t got enough of him,” said Kevin Ross, Arizona’s cornerbacks coach. “How ’bout that? He should be playing defensive end, linebacker and corner, and safety and nickel. Then we’ll be all right.”
In August, Mathieu agreed to a five-year, $62.5 million extension with $40 million guaranteed. “Where he is now, it’s nothing that he’s just gained,” Lee said. “I hear people say, ‘Man, he came a long way.’ No, that’s not about him coming a long way. He had all of those tools, and he lost his way for a minute, and then he realized what he had, and now he’s back on track.”
Mathieu was one of the NFL’s top defenders last season before a torn right ACL forced him to miss the final two games. He is still working himself back into form. “I’m going to take it slow, because I want to go out there and be Tyrann Mathieu,” said Mathieu, whose rookie season was interrupted by a left ACL injury. “I don’t want to be half of that.”
Last season, Mathieu joined Peterson, who’s entrenched in the discussion about the game’s best cornerbacks, as a Pro Bowl selection, an accomplishment that had seemed so improbable three years ago.
Mathieu jokes that Peterson can see into the future. In this case, he did.
They are reunited, patrolling Arizona’s No Fly Zone. Each hopes to take the Cardinals further than last season’s NFC Championship Game and into the Super Bowl.
“They’re still young, and that’s what they are aiming for,” said Cooper, their position coach at LSU.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that you put those two together and good things happen.”