In Tyrone Mathieu’s words, the worst year of his son Tyrann’s life as a football player was a blessing.
For it was in that year that Tyrann Mathieu at last realized football wasn’t just something to do to have a good time — it was a means by which he could secure a future for himself and his loved ones.
It’s because of that year, Tyrone believes, that Tyrann is able to return to his hometown Sunday to play the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome as a promising Arizona Cardinals rookie, soon after his amateur career ended in disaster.
“It’s not just a fun game to him anymore,” Tyrone said. “Now, it’s more, ‘This is ... my livelihood. This is what’s going to take care of me and my family.’ ”
Tyrann Mathieu, among many other things, forced a school record 11 fumbles, recovered eight fumbles (returning two for touchdowns), picked off four passes, recorded six sacks and ran a pair of punts back for scores in two seasons for LSU. As a sophomore, the St. Augustine alum helped LSU get to the BCS championship game, was named the best defender in college football and was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, becoming the first defensive back invited to that ceremony since Michigan’s Charles Woodson in 1997.
None of that, though, saved Tyrann from getting kicked off LSU’s team last year for failed drug tests. Authorities in Baton Rouge later booked him and some former teammates with marijuana possession, making some wonder whether they had seen all that the inimitable player nicknamed Honey Badger had to offer on the gridiron.
His early childhood is well-documented — his biological father was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. But Tyrone — who, with his wife, Sheila, adopted Tyrann, their nephew, when he was about 4 and raised him as their own in New Orleans — disputes accounts that portray his son’s actions as anything but lousy personal choices for which consequences needed to be paid.
Tyrone, a UPS driver, said he and his wife, a registered nurse, scheduled their work days so that one of them was always free to be around Tyrann, his two brothers and two sisters. He said the couple invested their earnings in a Catholic education for their children, thinking it was the best way to prepare them for college and beyond.
“He wasn’t a victim of anything,” Tyrone said. “We were there to support our children through education, parenting and recreation. ... But we all make bad and poor decisions coming up, and we just have to jump back on the track when we do.”
The playmaking ability of the 5-foot-9 Tyrann guaranteed he would receive the opportunity to jump back on the track in the NFL with Arizona, which selected him in the third round of this year’s draft despite his disciplinary baggage.
The Cardinals softened some of the risk by subjecting Mathieu to periodic drug tests. They reportedly gave him 40 percent of his $662,500 salary bonus up front and spread the rest over the next three seasons on the condition he isn’t suspended for substance abuse.
But Arizona seems to be a place where the 21-year-old is set up to succeed. He’s learning how to be a pro alongside former LSU teammate and star cornerback/punt returner Patrick Peterson, who described himself to New Orleans-based media this week as Tyrann’s big brother and assumed the responsibility of keeping his good friend on the straight and narrow.
“He’s taking the right steps,” Peterson said. “He’s doing everything the right way, which he should be doing. I’m not surprised; it’s just that his past is his past, and we are ready to move forward.”
Added Cardinals coach Bruce Arians: “He knew he messed up — we all mess up in life. ... He’s doing everything he can to make sure he does great with (his chance).”
Two weeks into Mathieu’s NFL career, one can’t argue against that. A safety with Arizona, he saved a long touchdown in the season opener by punching the ball out of St. Louis tight end Jared Cook’s possession inside the 10, which resulted in a touchback in the Cardinals’ 27-24 loss.
Last week, Mathieu tackled Detroit receiver Nate Burleson short of a first down on fourth-and-4 on the Lions’ final drive, ensuring a 25-21 victory for his team and a 1-1 record ahead of his homecoming.
Tyrone said he understands why NFL teams were reluctant to bring his son aboard, and he isn’t angry at them. In fact, he said, he’s thankful the league allowed the Cardinals to draft Tyrann because there’s “a great support system” in Arizona.
Tyrann Mathieu will have another great support system Sunday in the Superdome — it will be wherever Tyrone and the rest of his family are sitting.