Tyrann Mathieu has come a long way in five years

Tyrann Mathieu has rewarded the Cardinals for putting their faith in him. AP Photo/Matt York

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Five years ago, Tyrann Mathieu went to the NFL scouting combine on a mission.

He spent his few days in Indianapolis in February 2013 trying to rehabilitate his image with NFL teams. He had to explain himself. Explain why he was kicked off LSU's football team. Explain why he smoked so much marijuana. Explain why he was arrested. Explain why he was worth drafting after spending a year out of football.

The questions were abundant.

One by one, Mathieu answered them.

After the Arizona Cardinals drafted him in the third round (No. 69 overall) that year -- after five teams passed over him once, 16 teams passed over him twice -- and 10 teams skipped by him three times, Mathieu kept answering them, both on and off the field.

Five years later, Mathieu has become an example of why people give second chances. He's stayed out of trouble. He's signed a mega contract extension worth up to $62.5 million over five years. He's become a household name in the NFL -- by some accounts a bona fide superstar.

But if there was one example of how far Mathieu has come, it happened in September of last year. That's when the LSU Board of Supervisors approved a name change for the Tigers' football players lounge to the "Mathieu Players' Lounge at Football Operations" after a $1 million donation by Mathieu.

Seeing his name on the lounge will be "humbling," Mathieu said, and will make him feel like "one of those old, rich dudes."

"I'm still in awe about that," said Del Lee-Collins, Mathieu's defensive backs coach at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans and a close confidant. "Nothing ceases to amaze me with him. I never would've imagined it. I said things to coaches like, ‘He's going to be a Heisman candidate.' But I would never had imagined that he would have his own legacy on that campus.

"When you think about it, how great is that, that you can play for a university -- and only play two years -- and have trouble and get kicked off of the team, and you can still go back and donate for the betterment of the university and football program? I applauded him for a long time for that."

On a chilly December 2017 winter night in Phoenix, five years ago seemed like a different lifetime.

'I'm just taking it in stride, all of it.'

Mathieu was behind the wheel of his military-like Mercedes SUV, one hand on the steering wheel, the other elbow resting on the door. Chaka Khan's voice filled the car, followed by Stevie Wonder's, Drake's and J. Cole's. Mathieu's diverse taste in music doesn't come as a surprise. This is a man who's as comfortable talking about the intricacies of an NFL defense as he is explaining the latest conspiracy theory he's researched -- and there are plenty of those.

Mathieu was navigating the streets of Phoenix, stopping at homes of families in need, surprising kids with $1,000 worth of food, toys, clothes and cash, just in time to finish their Christmas shopping. The $10,000 Mathieu spent was all his. He didn't take donations from corporations and then put his name on it. He wanted to give back, just like so many gave to him throughout his life, throughout the past five years.

"The inside of Ty has always been a humanitarian side because he gives more than he receives," said Nick Rapone, Mathieu's former position coach with the Cardinals. "The part that's remarkable is Ty is no longer a follower. When you deal with marijuana and all that stuff, you're a follower. Ty now has matured to where he's making decisions for himself, his family and his livelihood. That's the maturity that I saw."

Part of Mathieu's evolution has been the five-year contract extension he received in August 2016.

It was evidence of not just Mathieu's development as a football player, it fulfilled the belief the Cardinals put in him. They gave him a back-loaded contract as a rookie, deferring most of his signing bonus to the last three years of his four-year rookie deal to protect them in case Mathieu wasn't the rehabilitated person he told them he was and who they believed he was. In August 2016 -- four years after he was suspended by LSU -- he was given a five-year extension worth as much as $62.5 million. Of that, $21.25 million was guaranteed at signing.

In November 2016, Mathieu donated $1 million to LSU's football program.

"I don't have any bad vibes with LSU," Mathieu said. "I learned so much there. I experienced so much there. I had so much fun. I met great people. I still have relationships with people there, but they just gave me the platform to really just be who I am and to show the world who I was, and I was cool with that.

"It'll always hold a sweet place in my heart just because of the opportunity it gave me to just be who I am."

To get from 2013 to today hasn't been easy for Mathieu. It's been, to some degree, a daily struggle.

He's not ashamed of his past. He doesn't hide it. He uses it as a reminder of what could've been and what could still happen. Mathieu carries it with him every day, learning from it, using it as his moral compass.

The key to getting through the past five years, Mathieu believes, was staying "levelheaded."

"I think just me being patient, too, with myself," he told ESPN. "All of it is learning experiences and all of it is just taking things as they come, so I don't think you can really prepare yourself for situations or experiences unless you actually live it or do it.

"I'm always thankful for the stuff I went through and thankful for the people I've met, and I'm thankful even for some of the bad times because all of it helps get you to wherever you are in your life."

So, where is Mathieu?

He's 25. He just finished his fifth NFL season. He has two sons, a big house, fancy cars, a lot of money in the bank. He's been an All-Pro and a Pro Bowler. He's had two major knee injuries and has finished just two of his five seasons healthy. He's also been a team captain, and he's one of the Cardinals' NFLPA player reps.

But Mathieu's still not who he ultimately wants to be.

"I'm working toward that person and I'm trying to be that person, and I'm trying to handle relationships and I'm trying to be better with being a father and being a better football player.

"I'm just taking it in stride, all of it."

'Life is funny and weird. It's real.'

He had to grow up faster than most people.

Mathieu's biological father is in prison for murder. He was adopted by his aunt and uncle, Sheila and Tyrone, at 5 years old from his birth mother -- Tyrone's sister. In 2005, when Mathieu was 13, he had to evacuate New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina was approaching. He lived in Alexandria, Louisiana for two weeks before relocating to Houston for a few months. When his family decided to return to New Orleans, they found four and a half feet of water in their living room. Mathieu then watched them rebuild. In college, Mathieu turned to pot to escape the mounting pressures of being not just an SEC star but a national phenomenon nicknamed the "Honey Badger."

The rest, well, is history.

He was suspended from the LSU football team on Aug. 10, 2012. To this day, former LSU coach Les Miles said it was one of the "hardest things" he's ever done in coaching.

"It was terrible," Miles told ESPN. "It was a standard policy and not one you changed on a whim. It was what you did.

"It was tremendously hard for me because I knew what kind of person Ty was. Ty was going to give you everything that he had and be a great teammate -- a great leader and a quality teammate. He was never going to be a social problem."

Mathieu was arrested in October that year. Any hope of returning to the Tigers was gone. Mathieu left school and began his full-time pursuit of the NFL. He was 20 years old at the time.

Mathieu doesn't know how close he is to being the person he wants to be.

"Life is funny and weird," he said. "It's real. It's challenging. It's all those things. At the end of the day, I just try to balance it all out and not focus on the good, not focus on the negative, but just focus on moving forward, whether things are going good or bad."

When Mathieu was drafted, he made a conscious decision to "walk a fine line."

He knew the stakes. He understood his reputation. He saw the temptations. He just didn't put himself in situations where the ability to make career- or life-defining decisions were easy.

"I just didn't do a lot of stuff," Mathieu said. "I didn't go a lot of places. I didn't put myself in situations because I didn't think I could really handle it.

"Now, I'm cool. It's cool. Temptation is what it is. I think my mind's a little bit stronger."

Mathieu feels like he missed out on the fun of his early 20s as a young adult in the real world with money in his pocket. There were times he stayed home from Las Vegas when his teammates took the short flight for a few days in Sin City. But, while he feels like he missed out, he doesn't see it as a negative.

It was just Mathieu doing what he felt he had to do.

"I was just being me," he said. "Other people were being them, and I was just being me. I try to hold on to that the most because, to me, that's what's so easy to lose, is yourself. That's the first thing you lose before we lose anything else. I just try to be me, hold on to me, and that's it."

The closest Mathieu has come to giving into those temptations was after his first knee injury. Even today Mathieu said he has "about three or four reasons that I could probably use as an excuse to do whatever I want to do," he said. "That was the way I used to think. Now, I'm 25. I feel like I've been in the NFL 12 years.

"I just got a different way of looking at stuff."

'He is a mature man at this point.'

The challenge of not giving in, of not regressing, surrounds him daily. As he keeps fending off temptation, Mathieu said he won't look at life's "scoreboard" to see how well he's doing. He's not even tempted to sneak a glimpse.

"Because, at the end of the day, I'm not perfect, so I don't try to be perfect," Mathieu said. "I don't even worry about the score. I just try to live my life."

Among all his guiding lights, Mathieu believes the biggest are his two sons, Noah and Tyrann Jr. Everything Mathieu does -- good, bad or ugly -- will affect them to some degree, he said. He wants them to learn from him, but he also hopes he's the type of father and man who doesn't have to teach his sons how to do things differently than how he did them.

Unlike Mathieu's biological father, Darrin Hayes, who has been incarcerated for most of Mathieu's life.

"I want to be present for my kids, and my biological father wasn't present for me," he said. "I have an adopted father [and] there's certain things, good and bad, that I try to take from that relationship and try to make myself better at being a father."

Fatherhood put a lot into perspective for Mathieu.

Lee-Collins talks to Mathieu often about providing for and protecting his kids, and when Mathieu sees his sons, he understands what that message means, Lee-Collins said.

"He grew up real quick and real fast when he was able to see it for himself in front of him," Lee-Collins said.

Those who have known Mathieu the best during the past five years have seen the changes in him.

He's more mature. He's more responsible. He's smarter. He's more reserved. He tends to sit back and listen, then analyze what's happening in front of him more now than he used to.

Lee-Collins used to have conversations with Mathieu where Mathieu would pepper questions about any variety of topics at Lee-Collins. Now Mathieu is the one informing Lee-Collins about different things.

When Lee-Collins visits Mathieu in Arizona, he sees an adult. Mathieu's always been an emotional person, Lee-Collins said, but now he doesn't let things bother him like he used to.

"He's really at peace with himself and his surroundings," Lee-Collins said. "You can only see that when you're with him in his own home or with him out to eat. He's really comfortable with himself."

Miles believes Mathieu was trying to please everyone in college, and that's one reason why his story at LSU ended how it did.

"I think he's realized he can't live his life for other people," Miles said. "As long as he controls those things, and it appears he has, he's going to do all the things he's going to do."

Rapone, who saw Mathieu as much as anyone during the season, watched Mathieu mature each year. It started when Mathieu met with the Cardinals in 2013 during a pre-draft visit in a full suit and tie, while others wore buttoned-down shirts and slacks. From there, Rapone said Mathieu has continued to grow.

"Just the accomplishments of him being able to depart from who he was and the world he was living in to what he is now is just remarkable," Rapone said. "He is an example to every person who needs a second chance or third chance.

"Each year, he would get more and more mature. He fully understands the situation he is in at this moment, and that is because he is a mature man at this point."