INDIANAPOLIS — Two years ago, Tyrann Mathieu was a rising star in college football with a hashtag-ready nickname and a string of SportsCenter-worthy highlights.
It all came crashing down last summer when multiple failed drug tests prompted LSU coach Les Miles to kick the cornerback off the team just before the start of his junior season.
On Sunday, the man formerly known as the Honey Badger stood humbled before the media at the NFL Scouting Combine. Once seemingly on his way to millions of dollars in the draft, Mathieu now is trying to convince one of the league’s 32 teams he’s worth the risk of a mid-to-low-round pick.
“I’m not totally asking them to trust me right now,” he said. “What I have asked is for them to give me an opportunity to play the game. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on it, especially without football. It’s really given me a different outlook on life, and it’s just about being the right kind of person.”
To that end, Mathieu said he’s surrounded himself only with people who want the same thing out of life as he does — to play professional football. His NFL player support system includes former LSU teammates Patrick Peterson of the Arizona Cardinals and Morris Claiborne of the Dallas Cowboys, as well as the New York Jets’ Darelle Revis and the New York Giants’ Corey Webster.
“A lot of things that I put before football really aren’t fun anymore without football,” Mathieu said. “Once I get football back in my life, I’m going to approach it a little bit different and it’ll hopefully have a better outcome.”
During a magical 2011 season, Mathieu averaged 17.2 yards on 25 punt returns and scored two touchdowns. He also made 76 tackles, intercepted a pair of passes and recovered four fumbles — returning two for touchdowns.
His highlight-reel play — and the Honey Badger nickname — helped make his one of the most recognizable faces on an LSU team that finished unbeaten in the regular season, won an SEC championship and lost to Alabama in the BCS Championship game.
That seems like ancient history now.
Mathieu hasn’t played organized football in more than a year. He said he’s been working on his coverage skills and technique.
He had informal meetings with several NFL teams Saturday night, and there are formal meetings scheduled beginning Monday.
Teams know all about the baggage. They just want to find out if the big-play ability still is there.
“I don’t think I lost a step,” Mathieu said. “I’m not totally focused on football right now. It’s more about the person and getting those things I’ve done wrong corrected.”
Mathieu said his downfall was caused in part by believing the hype that developed around the Honey Badger persona. The other part was youthful indiscretion. Either way, he knows he must put those days behind him.
He said he hasn’t ingested an illegal substance since
Oct. 26, 2012, and he believes this time his efforts at rehabilitation will stick.
“I thought my bottom was when I got kicked out of school, but I think when I got arrested in October, that was a different bottom,” Mathieu said. “So I decided to go to rehab. This time the rehab was for Tyrann. I just wasn’t going to it for publicity or because my school told me to go. I actually wanted to get my problem corrected.”
An even dozen of Mathieu’s former LSU teammates are with him at the combine in Indianapolis, and he said he still very much feels like a part of the Tigers’ family.
“All those guys definitely support me and encourage me, and I try to do the same for those guys and be there for them like they were for me during my tough times,” he said.
Fame and fortune could come again with an NFL opportunity, and Mathieu likely will be tempted to go back down the same dark path. But he promises that will never happen.
“I know what it’s like not to have football,” he said. “I know what it’s like not to be the center of attention, and I know what it’s like to be humiliated. To go back down that road? Nah, not a chance in this world. Not a chance in my lifetime again. Every day is a process. I’m not saying that I’m totally there, but I am taking strides every day to be the best person that Tyrann can be.”