ESPN The Magazine: Hi, My Name Is Tyrann

Hi, My Name Is
Honey Badger

Tyrann Mathieu is out of rehab and living alone, trying to convince himself (and NFL GMs) that he's more than his old habits and nicknames.

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Tyrann Mathieu has tried a dozen forms of therapy since drugs derailed his life, but on this morning he decides the best antidote to temptation is a long walk alone. He arrives at Pompano Beach in southeast Florida just after sunrise and parks his car in an empty lot. He pulls a hooded sweatshirt over his famous shock of yellow hair and tightens the waistband on his mesh shorts. Then he kicks his shoes into the sand and starts walking barefoot toward the surf.


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The idea of a beach walk started as a recommendation from his athletic trainer -- another drill meant to prepare him for the 2013 NFL draft, another psychological exercise he initially dismissed as "pointless." But as draft day nears and his anxiety mounts, Mathieu relies on the walks as part of his routine, an escape between timed 40-yard dashes and interviews with NFL executives who want to rehash his mistakes. He has never been particularly good at dealing with stress, its effects already reducing him from a 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist to a recovering addict with an arrest record. The walks are part of his rehab, what he calls his Phase 2, and he says they have helped him stay sober for three months and counting.

"Walking alone, just thinking -- that's treatment, man," he says. "That's the most comforting rehab I've known."

It is more comforting than the family counseling sessions at LSU, the group therapy in a converted fraternity house or the inpatient rehab in Texas where counselors checked his toiletries each week to make sure they were alcohol-free. More comforting than the boxing lessons he started, hoping to release anger. More comforting than the therapeutic rap songs he has begun writing, trying to make sense of his complicated life. More comforting than talking on the phone every night with his sponsor, a 40-year-old recovering addict who cautions Mathieu to remember: "This is your life. An addict is never truly cured."

It's more comforting, on the best days, than lying on a couch and lighting a blunt -- the habit that caused so many problems in the first place.

Mathieu's path on Pompano Beach is always the same: a mile down the sand to a black-and-white lighthouse and a mile back, with his head down and his breathing steady. He listens to the cry of the gulls. He smells the salt and sand. He walks on the edge of the water and lets the waves crash against the partial tattoos of lightning bolts and Bible verses on his legs, which he started at LSU but left unfinished, like so much else.

The goal on his walks is to let stress slip away and to find clarity for what his sponsor calls the big questions. Does he like the person he is becoming? Is he continuing to make his recovery a priority? Can he manage his stress and stay sober even as the NFL draft nears and the scrutiny increases, with his career and his reputation again in the balance?

Sometimes the answers come to him easily on the beach.

Other times he reaches the lighthouse and keeps walking.

Tyrann Mathieu sits down with ESPN The Magazine to discuss his past and the upcoming draft.

He moved to Florida by himself five months before the NFL draft, hoping to scrub his life clean of temptation, and all that remains is a Spartan daily schedule that hangs on his wall: A beach run or walk after dawn. Some lifting at the gym before lunch. A deep-tissue massage in the early afternoon. Then a two-hour workout with a training group of former college players in the Florida heat.

By 4 p.m. Mathieu is usually back at his antiseptic apartment in Delray Beach, a one-bedroom stucco in a gated community of retirees, with manicured palm trees and a swimming pool. The place is filled with white New Englanders who are there for the winter. He has yet to meet any of them. "I think they might be scared of me or something," he says.


Mathieu works out in the Florida heat.

John Loomis for ESPN

One afternoon in early spring, Mathieu returns to the apartment and drops his workout gear on the floor. His agent found the place for him and rented it fully stocked. There are paintings of seashells on the walls and pink and purple beach towels hanging on a rack by the entrance. "I never use any of this," Mathieu says. "It's like being in a hotel." He has never lived by himself, so he asks his girlfriend at LSU to email him grocery lists of foods that are easy to prepare. Now the fridge is filled with frozen mashed potatoes, a 50-pack of hot dogs, Kraft cheese, peanut butter and Popsicles.

His main problems in Florida are loneliness and boredom. Counselors and therapists instructed him to end relationships with people who added to his stress and triggered his addiction, which turned out to be most of them, so he has changed his cellphone number twice in the past three months to avoid old high school and college friends. He avoids text messages from the mother who gave him up for adoption a lifetime ago and the uncle who took him in. He's tired, he says, of the family members who have repeatedly disappointed him and want only his validation and time, if not his money. He's done giving at his own expense. "All that drama and negativity just drags on me," he says.

One of his old college teammates, quarterback Jordan Jefferson, is also training in Delray Beach, but Mathieu has kept his distance. (Jefferson, Mathieu and two other ex-Tigers were arrested in October 2012 on drug-related charges.) Mathieu prefers to pass the time alone by obsessively washing his car, even though he rarely drives it. The clubs of South Beach are less than an hour away, and Mathieu thinks it is too tempting to have his car nearby at night. "I'd rather be trapped here without having to think about it," he says, so after dark he lends the car to his agent's assistant, who drives it away, then brings it back each morning before Mathieu's first workout.

When the assistant leaves with the car, Mathieu grabs a Popsicle from his fridge and turns the flat-screen TV to the History Channel. He has always been contemplative -- sometimes, according to his counselors at LSU, too pensive for his own good. Other college kids make their mistakes and move on; Mathieu would obsess about blown coverages and light a blunt. Regret became self-hatred and anger, which became depression, which became days of sleeping 14 hours and missing class to smoke weed in his apartment with the shades drawn.

"I like trying to understand why things happen," he says. "I want to know the root causes."

The show on TV is about a Civil War general charged with treason. Mathieu grabs the remote and punches up the volume.

"What the hell?" Mathieu says. "What made him do that? What made this dude go wrong?"

The big problems for Mathieu in Florida? Loneliness and boredom.

John Loomis for ESPN

Mathieu started to go wrong just when he was starting to realize his potential.

He had played well as a backup cornerback for LSU during his freshman season, and he returned the next year as the presumptive leader of the team's secondary. He changed his jersey to No. 7, which his best friend and former teammate Patrick Peterson, an All-American, had worn the year before, and dyed his hair yellow because his sister said it would give him swagger. He was 5-foot-9 but physically reckless, and he led LSU in tackles and forced turnovers. Teammates and fans began to call him the Honey Badger, after a small and ferocious animal from Asia and Africa, but Mathieu hated the name. He asked people to call him by one of his old monikers, Tyrannosaurus Rex or Mr. Chaos.

But what he had gained in notoriety he had lost in control: Honey Badger became a drink named in his honor at the New Orleans bars and a T-shirt sold at tailgates, and Mr. Chaos came to mean something else. Chaos was the high school friends who started road-tripping to LSU to watch him play, then stayed on his couches all week, playing video games until dawn and filling the apartment with the haze of Black & Mild cigars. It was 25,000 new Twitter followers every week and an ex-girlfriend posting old pictures of him naked. It was infighting among his family members as they told their contradictory stories about Mathieu's upbringing to the media -- a father in prison for second-degree murder who suddenly wanted to offer advice, a mother who had given him up as a baby and now hoped for forgiveness, an uncle who had adopted him and wanted more credit, Mathieu says.

What resulted for Mathieu was a season of contradictions: He led LSU to an SEC championship one week, then met in secret with a school psychologist at an empty Tiger Stadium the next. He went back home to New Orleans to play for a national title and spent 14 hours a day sleeping in the team's hotel, too depressed to see visitors in the days before the game. "I don't even want to play," he told Sydni Russell, his girlfriend, who was then a freshman at LSU.

"He was lonely in his head. That's the best way to describe it," says Shelly Mullenix, the athletic department's director of wellness, who counseled Mathieu that year. "I've seen emptiness before, and that was it. Part of him was still a lost and lonely kid."

Marijuana had always been his favorite coping mechanism. He smoked it for the first time with his cousins when he was 13, two weeks after Hurricane Katrina wasted his house with four feet of water and forced him to relocate with family to Humble, Texas. He smoked some more during high school back in New Orleans, after LSU explained that its scholarship offer was contingent on Mathieu's raising his GPA. He kept on smoking as he transitioned to college, because LSU coach Les Miles had a reputation for smelling the alcohol in a player's sweat during practice, which made marijuana the players' drug of choice. Sometimes they smoked weed proper; other times they smoked synthetic marijuana, a blend of herbs and chemicals. Mathieu smoked whichever was around.

"A blunt, a few friends, just chilling out -- that was a good Saturday for me," Mathieu says.

He failed his first drug test in July 2011 and failed another in the fall. Both tests found traces of synthetic marijuana in his system, and they cost him a one-game suspension. After the season ended with a loss in the national championship game, he started smoking three or four times a week, he says. If he had a drug test scheduled for Friday, he would stop smoking on Tuesday and hope the drugs cleared his system. He passed some and failed others. He didn't really care.

LSU placed him on probation in the spring, and for a few months he stayed clean. Then he returned to school for his junior year -- as a preseason All-American, a Heisman front-runner and a likely LSU captain -- and smoked on his first day off.

His brother, Tyrone, warned, "Stop acting like you're invincible."

Mullenix, his counselor, warned, "Watching you is like seeing a train wreck in progress."

Russell, his girlfriend, warned, "You have God-given talent, and you are smacking God in the face."

Mathieu told Russell to stop worrying about his drug tests. "What," he said, "are they going to kick me out?"

Coach Les Miles congratulates Mathieu, who was named the MVP in the 2011 SEC championship game.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Miles called him into the training room on Aug. 10 at 5:30 a.m.

"You're done," he said.

Three people were in the room -- Miles, Mullenix and Mathieu. Nobody was angry. All of them were hurt. Miles had always liked Mathieu, sometimes inviting him to have dinner in his office on Thursday nights, even when Mathieu was suspended or on probation. Mullenix thought he was "troubled but genuinely big-hearted," and his dismissal felt in some ways like defeat. Mathieu mumbled and cried and apologized. "I did this to myself," he said again and again. "I did this to myself."

Then just as the meeting was ending: "So what do I do?"

He waited until his roommates left for practice, then returned to his apartment to pack. The uncle who raised him and his brother drove from New Orleans to help. Several Division I-AA coaches called to recruit him, descending like "piranhas ready to use him," Mullenix says. A few hours after he was kicked out of school, the Heisman Trophy finalist packed his boxes in the car and drove 130 miles west to visit McNeese State University. "Like going from the Marriott to a Motel 8," says his brother, Tyrone Mathieu Jr. "We were walking around in a haze." They stayed for an hour and drove back to New Orleans.

Mathieu spent the next two days at home, eliminating bad options. He couldn't go back to LSU, at least not right away, and he couldn't play on the team for at least a year. He couldn't yet declare for the NFL draft, not just days after his reputation had been decimated. He couldn't stand the thought of transferring, trading Saturday nights at LSU for half-empty stadiums of 6,500. He couldn't stay in New Orleans, where old friends and old habits would always find him.

He needed time to collect himself and restore his reputation. Two days after his last practice at LSU, he boarded a plane for Houston and checked into 30-day rehab.

He lasted 18 days. "It is just a little damn weed!" he told a counselor. He left early on a whim, jumping into a car with his girlfriend and driving back to Baton Rouge. He re-enrolled at LSU and then, nearly two months later, was arrested for marijuana possession. His lawyer suggested rehab again -- a different one, also in Texas, where leaving wouldn't be so easy.

Mathieu arrived at the facility in November, the costs paid for by members of his family, with a new beard and his hair dyed back to its original color so nobody would recognize him. The rehab was a 40-bed facility with stucco walls, set on 50 rural acres, a private place that didn't promote itself to the general public. Mathieu accepted no visitors. He slept in a single bed in a room with whitewashed walls; other patients slept in medically supervised detox lodges. The patients in his therapy group were addicted to meth, heroin and PCP. Nobody else, he says, had come to rehab for marijuana. He spent six hours a day with his therapy group, working through the 12-step approach popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous. They worked to acknowledge their mistakes. They talked about summoning strength from a higher power. They ate every meal together in a cafeteria and watched movies about addiction on Friday nights in the lounge.


"It was competitive, like, 'If those dudes can beat this other stuff, I better be able to beat marijuana," said Mathieu, shown working out in Boca Raton after his second stint in rehab.

John Loomis for ESPN

Three days after Mathieu checked in, a law student from New York told him he looked familiar. "Hey, you're the Honey Badger," the New Yorker said. Mathieu denied it, but the law student pulled up pictures of him online. Mathieu's identity became their secret, the trust that formed an unlikely bond. The law student was a sports fanatic from a wealthy family, a lousy athlete who was addicted to OxyContin. Mathieu talked to him about football, and the law student talked about addiction.

"You can still go in the second round," he told Mathieu.

"You can still go back to finish law school," Mathieu said.

Mathieu told him his own addiction wasn't so bad. "Just weed," he said again. "More of a habit really." But the law student used that word to challenge him. Wouldn't a "habit" be easy to give up? Wouldn't a "habit" have allowed him to stay in school and play for LSU? How much more would he let this "habit" cost him?

"He had this will to quit that was inspiring for me," said Mathieu, who for the first time began to think of his marijuana use as an addiction. "It was competitive, like, 'If these dudes can beat all this other stuff, I better be able to beat marijuana.' "

Before he left rehab, Mathieu was asked by his counselors to make a list of the qualities he liked about himself and the qualities he wanted to change. The past few weeks had shaken him. He started by writing what he liked and filled half a page: Loyal. Genuine. Talented. A lover, even if he hadn't experienced true love yet.

Then he moved to the qualities he wanted to improve, a list that spilled onto a second page: Disloyal. Not assertive. Not able to tell people no. Impulsive. Unlucky. No types of boundaries.

"I have so much to fix," Mathieu said.

After they left rehab, the law student and the other patients moved to a halfway house. Mathieu flew to Florida, signed with an agent and declared for the NFL draft.

Counselors and therapists have instructed Mathieu to end relationships with people who triggered his addiction.

Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports

Progress manifests in a hundred tiny ways, and late one morning in the Florida heat, Mathieu decides that one opportunity to showcase his recovery is to crush the 40-yard dash. It is a trivial drill that has nothing to do with drugs and little to do with actually playing football, but the NFL's relentless process of talent evaluation has a way of exaggerating the inconsequential. Maybe, Mathieu thinks, if he can consistently run the 40 in less than 4.5 seconds, a general manager will see that he is fit, that he is disciplined, that he can set a goal and achieve it. Maybe his stock will rise and he will be picked in the first or second round.

“You have God-given talent, and you are smacking God in the face.”

- Sydni Russell, Mathieu's girlfriend

"I have to nail this," he says one afternoon, bending into a sprinter's crouch on an empty field at Lynn University in Boca Raton. A lawn mower whirs in the distance. Two college students stop on their walk to class and watch.

Patrick Peterson stands at Mathieu's side with a stopwatch. Mathieu's best friend, now a two-time Pro Bowler for the Arizona Cardinals, shares the same agent and has agreed to devote three months of his offseason to mentoring Mathieu. Peterson is everything Mathieu wants to become: a 22-year-old with Hall of Fame potential, a mansion in Arizona and a sterling reputation. Peterson has started a journal to detail his work with Mathieu, taking daily notes on their drills and writing down the motivational aphorisms "Eyes to the future" and "Win it all back" and "Put all your eggs in one basket."

On this morning, Peterson decides that Mathieu is not even ready to sprint the entire 40 yards in practice. First he needs to master the 10-yard start, perfecting every micro-movement of his acceleration.

"Come on, Ty. Not good. Get your hips lower," Peterson says after Mathieu runs one, in 1.47 seconds.


Endorsement deals, pre-draft workouts, the pressure to perform -- all issues that stand before Mathieu.

John Loomis for ESPN

"Straighter, faster," he says, after another one in 1.43.

"You're not impressing anybody," he says, after another in 1.41.

Peterson often tells Mathieu that a good defensive back needs to be in the best shape of any player on the field, and he uses that mantra again and again to push his protégé to the brink of collapse. They sprint together in a sandbox. They do aerobics in a swimming pool. They stretch with resistance bands. They spin in circles to dizzy themselves before sparring in a boxing ring, disoriented, punch-drunk, leaning against each other or the ropes. "I want to find your breaking point," Peterson tells him.

It is the same breaking point his counselors have repeatedly warned him to avoid, which is the dichotomy at the heart of being both a recovering addict and an NFL prospect. How can he tend to his sobriety from the brink of exhaustion? How can he avoid stress when even running 10 yards in practice results in scrutiny and dissection? How can he re-dye his hair, shop for sponsorship deals, hold news conferences and re-embrace the Honey Badger nickname for what he calls brand reasons when that very brand fueled his addiction in the first place?

He runs four more times, none of them fast enough, then walks off the field. "Break time," he says. He goes back to his apartment, his head a jumble of commitments. An autograph dealer wants him in New York. A television show wants to film him lifting weights at a gym in Detroit. At least a dozen NFL teams want to interview him in person, which means a dozen trips and a dozen more long conversations about marijuana. Nike and Under Armor are thinking about endorsements, he says, but those depend on what happens at the draft, which depends on his 40 times, which depends on those damn first 10 yards.

Darkness comes and his apartment starts to feel small. His agent's assistant has already taken his car for the night. He tries to call his sponsor but fails to connect; Mathieu changed his number again earlier in the day to cut ties with more old friends, and now his phone is temporarily out of service. He thinks about knocking on a neighbor's door to borrow a phone, but he doesn't know any neighbors. He turns the TV on. He turns the TV off. He opens the fridge. He is tired of heating up hot dogs.

"I'm tripping," he says.

He decides to go for a walk.

The question for Mathieu is whether he can manage his stress and stay sober, even as the NFL draft nears and the scrutiny increases.

John Loomis for ESPN

He heads out the front door, out the community gate and onto Linton Boulevard. The six-lane road is a rush-hour traffic jam of horns and headlights, and Mathieu squints against the neon. He wears sandals and mesh shorts, with high socks colored to look like rainbows. His yellow hair glows in the streetlights. He walks over a bridge and beyond a traffic light. After he travels nearly a mile, he stops at a gas station.

He buys a phone card from the clerk because he wants to call his girlfriend, but the clerk explains that the gas station has gotten rid of its pay phone. The nearby McDonald's doesn't have a pay phone either, so Mathieu buys some chicken nuggets and keeps walking. He makes it to an Outback Steakhouse, where the pay phone is out of service and where the hostess at the front desk offers to call him a cab. "Screw it," Mathieu says. "I'll get one myself." He mumbles his way back to the sidewalk, his words drowning in the hum of a nearby interstate. He stands at the curb and tries to wave down a taxi.

"Hey!" he says, motioning to a driver. The cab drives by, oblivious to the former Heisman candidate on the sidewalk.

"What the hell, man," he says.

Then after another cab drives by a few seconds later: "This is bulls--t! This is crazy. This is one of those nights when I want to just smoke a blunt, man. But I can't! I can't."

He remembers a tip that a rehab counselor gave him once -- a last resort for when his sobriety begins to feel threatened. He walks to another gas station and buys a can of spearmint chewing tobacco. The traffic on Linton Boulevard starts to thin, and the sidewalks are empty. It is almost 8 p.m. The stores around him are dark and unfamiliar. "What am I doing here?" he says. "Where am I?"

He is somewhere between stressed and in control, between addicted and sober, between rehab and the NFL.

"I have to take the edge off," he says.

He tucks a pinch of chewing tobacco against his lip and imagines the beach and the lighthouse. Then he lowers his head and starts to walk.

John Loomis for ESPN

Eli Saslow is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @elisaslow Follow ESPN_Reader on Twitter: @ESPN_Reader. Follow the Mag on Twitter: @ESPNmag

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