NEW ORLEANS -- Tyrann Mathieu was back in his hometown of New Orleans on Saturday, hosting his first-ever youth football camp less than two months after he told the New York Daily News, “I don’t think I can go back to New Orleans. I don’t think that’s possible.”
At the time, Mathieu said he received death threats after he called the man who shot former New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith a “coward,” and spoke passionately about the culture of violence in his hometown in a Twitter rant and with multiple media outlets.
But on Saturday, the Arizona Cardinals' All-Pro safety said he believes some of his comments were “misunderstood,” and it was important for him to try to turn them into action by creating the “Heart of A Badger” camp.
“This was a place I grew up at, a place that means a lot to me. All my family’s here,” Mathieu said. “The most important thing is that I lost a lot of family members here. So I spoke from an emotional place, a personal place. And you never want to see anybody lose their life. So that was really the gist of my saying what I said at that time.”
Mathieu said Smith’s death “had a lot to do with” his decision to hold Saturday's camp, which about 400 kids attended in New Orleans’ City Park. But he said he'd long planned to give back to the kids of New Orleans in some way, and he always thought he would start delving into his foundation and charity work after his third season in the NFL.
“I just want to encourage them and inspire them,” Mathieu said. “Most of them just need some direction, some sense of leadership. Hopefully I can give that to them today.
“I think a lot of people should stand up and speak out and give back. I’m just fortunate enough that I have a platform that I’m able to do that. And it was a good turnout today.”
Mathieu, 24, has faced a lot of adversity in his own life, from having a biological father who has spent almost all of Mathieu’s life in prison to being dismissed from the LSU football team for failed drug tests.
Mathieu said being surrounded by so many kids who look up to him now is rewarding for him as well.
When asked what was the best thing a child told him Saturday, Mathieu said, “That I’m his role model and that I inspire him. That means a lot to me, especially with the things I’ve been through in the past. It’s encouraging that these kids still look up to me.”
Mathieu said he also spent time with family while back in New Orleans, celebrating his youngest son’s birthday on Saturday. And Mathieu will be back next weekend to be honored at the annual Hope for 2Morrow gala.
Mathieu was surrounded by many of his own Pop Warner and park ball coaches, who served as instructors at his camp, including the father of LSU and Cardinals teammate Patrick Peterson, according to the Cardinals’ website.
Mathieu also had some VIP guests watching from the sidelines, including his former LSU coach, Les Miles, and LSU’s star running back, Leonard Fournette, who went to St. Augustine High School and knew Mathieu growing up.
“It’s a wonderful thing, a beautiful thing,” Fournette said of Mathieu’s camp. “It’s very important, because where we’re from, kids don’t have that kind of motivation and support that you really need.”
Fournette himself could be counted as one of those kids looking up at Mathieu, but even Mathieu admitted it won’t be long before the Heisman Trophy candidates catches up to him.
When asked who is the best football player to come out of St. Aug, Mathieu said, “I don’t want to say myself, because I feel like Leonard is really taking the cake right now. But for now, I think it’s me. Then in about two years, it will probably be Leonard.”