Who's afraid of the Honey Badger?

Editor's note: This story was published prior to Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal from LSU's football program on August 10.

THIS IS THE thing about Tyrann Mathieu. It's not the cartoon nickname, the punk-rock hair, the superhero highlight reel. It's not that he was a Heisman finalist as a sophomore or that he plays the game with an unbridled joy that's both infectious and obnoxious. The thing is this: Strip away the flamboyance, the head-bobbing arrogance, and the man the world knows as the Honey Badger is actually a bit shy.

Put a microphone in his face and Mathieu tenses. He fidgets and avoids eye contact, leaving thoughts unfinished and sentences incomplete. He speaks in a muted monotone. Stops, starts, stutters. The most visible player in college football, a spotlight-hogging iconoclast, works hard to reveal little.

It's a contradiction, but hardly the only one for the LSU cornerback. Duality, for Mathieu, is definition. He's overrated...yet underappreciated. He's cocky...but riddled with self-doubt. He's too small ... and proof that size matters little. He's the most important player in the SEC ... but not even the best cornerback on his own team. He's a reckless gambler whose lack of discipline hurts his team ... and a game-changing playmaker his team could not live without. He's a T-shirt-slogan-ready national brand ... and a young man struggling for identity. He might not be the game's best player. But he is fodder for its best debate: Is Mathieu worthy of all the attention?

Or the beginning of a cautionary tale?

THIS IS PROOF that the LSU Tigers are afraid of Tyrann Mathieu: You won't read a single quote from Mathieu in this story. Over the course of several months -- through countless emails, calls and letters, one stealth visit to Baton Rouge and one offer to buy coach Les Miles a pizza to plead our case -- The Mag attempted to persuade the Tigers to let us talk to Mathieu. Each request was politely declined.

That was not all. LSU, we also learned, would not be conducting a Heisman campaign for Mathieu this fall. A kid sits in the front row
of the Heisman ceremony as a sophomore, returns for the following season, and the school buries him? That may be a first. When Miles left Mathieu home for SEC Media Days in July, he brushed off questions about the decision with a joke. "If we brought Tyrann," he told the assembled media, "no one else would have any time to talk."

Later, one-on-one, when asked why it was that LSU was attempting to limit Mathieu's media exposure, Miles didn't mention the incident in the middle of the 2011 season when LSU suspended Mathieu for its game against Auburn after he reportedly tested positive for synthetic marijuana. Or how the same week Mathieu was named a Heisman finalist, MediaTakeOut.com posted naked pictures of a man they claimed was Mathieu -- which Mathieu all but confirmed. Instead, Miles answered the riddle with a riddle of his own.

"Ty is a wonderfully good-hearted man. He wants to please his team, please the coaches, please the press, please the people in the state. He wants to please everybody. And many times, you can't. You can't be everything to everyone. You have to realize what's important. Many times, what's important is realizing you can't please somebody who really wants you to be something you can't be."

THIS IS WHY placing a gag order on Mathieu is nearly impossible: His story is an open book available for free online. The cornerback is one of college football's most prolific tweeters (@TM7_Era), averaging 11.8 tweets per day since joining the social network in September 2011. With more than 135,000 followers, he's by far the most popular college football player on Twitter. In 140-character bursts, he is honest, emotional, inspiring, hilarious and embarrassing. He tweets about his desires, his insecurities, his family history, his search for identity. He offers advice, opines about love, mopes about breakups, feuds with strangers. And more often than not, to read his entire timeline (some 3,600 tweets and counting) is to watch a man fighting a war of his own making.

@TM7_Era: It is hard to stay humble when you stunting on a jumbo-tron. @TM7_Era: Never felt so hated on in my life!!! Sore losers. @TM7_Era: Man my whole life ppl have came and gone & I'm at the point where I trust nobody! @TM7_Era: Football just releases all my anger and problems!! I hate when ppl say they love me. @TM7_Era: Can y'all tell me why the hell the devil after me? What the hell I did to him?! @TM7_Era: Who am I??

THIS IS WHY becoming the Honey Badger was almost the worst thing that ever happened to Tyrann Mathieu: too much, too soon.

It was Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011, and after pummeling West Virginia 47-21 in Morgantown, the Tigers were flying home to Baton Rouge. The plane had Wi-Fi, and on the flight defensive coordinator John Chavis cued up the YouTube video "The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger." The hilarious, profane three-minute clip is narrated by a flamboyant comedian known only as Randall. It features footage from a National Geographic special on the honey badger, a small but ferocious species named "most fearless animal in the world" by the Guinness Book of World Records. Since it debuted on Jan. 18, 2011, it's become a viral sensation and has been viewed more than 48 million times.

In the video -- for the handful of human beings who have not yet seen it -- we learn the following things: The honey badger "is pretty badass." It "runs all over the place." It runs backward. It hunts cobras in trees. As we are repeatedly reminded, "Honey badger don't care."

Mathieu had just completed a typically remarkable game -- six tackles, one forced fumble, an interception he plucked at the line of scrimmage and nearly returned for a touchdown. Chavis, struck by the similarities between Mathieu and the monomaniacally aggressive weasel, showed the video to members of the team. Many, including Mathieu, laughed until they shed tears. When teammates began calling Tyrann "Honey Badger" and LSU fans followed suit, it was instant viral marketing.

"After seeing that video, I mean, Tyrann deserved the nickname," says former LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne, now with the Cowboys. "Because the honey badger takes what it wants, and Tyrann takes what he wants on the field."

There was just one problem: Tyrann Mathieu did not want to be the Honey Badger. Tyrann Mathieu wanted to be Tyrann Mathieu. He was annoyed by the nickname. It sounded too feminine. He said as much on his Facebook page. (I'm NOT the Honey-badger ... I am TM7!!! get it right.) Besides, he was proud of his family name, and he wanted it to ring out when he made a play. When he picked @TM7_Era as his Twitter handle, it was done with intent. He wanted to signal the beginning of the Tyrann Mathieu era at LSU.

But no one chooses his own nickname.

In time, perhaps sensing that there was no stopping it, Mathieu made his peace with it all. @TM7_Era: You can call me what you wanna call me!! Then, sensing that any identity -- even that of a larvae-eating omnivore -- was better than none, he actively embraced it. He retweeted fans who used it on Twitter. @TM7_Era: Google alert says 2012 is the year of the honey badger "according to the Chinese calendar." He gave himself a "BadgerHawk" haircut -- a Mohawk dyed blond -- matching the stripe on a badger's head. LSU fans printed "Honey Badger Don't Care" T-shirts. The meme fueled his fame. A bar in New Orleans named a drink after him. Kids in Baton Rouge swarmed to him after games. They loved his head bob, his cocky smile, his relentless energy.

Few of them seemed to notice how frequently he was getting burned on coverage.

THIS IS WHY Tyrann Mathieu may fail: He's a lousy cover man.

"He's a great ball hawk, but he won't even be the best cover corner LSU has this year," says KC Joyner, football analyst for ESPN. "If you put Mathieu on a Big Ten defense, no one is talking about him for Heisman. He wouldn't even be one of the top four corners in the Big 12."

If what Joyner is peddling seems like heresy -- he is, after all, slagging the winner of the 2011 Chuck Bednarik Award for outstanding defensive player of the year -- consider that Joyner studied film of LSU this offseason, focusing on the seven best offensive teams the Tigers faced in 2011. In those games, Joyner found that Mathieu was targeted 25 times and allowed 14 completions for 221 yards, an average of 8.8 yards per attempt. By comparison, Mathieu's teammate, Tharold Simon, was targeted 30 times and surrendered just 12 completions for 108 yards, an average of 3.6 yards per attempt.

Joyner's skepticism is shared by many NFL scouts. Says one: "He's made his name off instincts and amazing return skills. He's excellent at diagnosing plays and at covering stuff thrown in front of him. But the jury's out on him being able to run with and cover high-level receivers. He has a long, leggy body and a short torso, which makes him a wait-and-see prospect. And NFL teams don't spend first-round picks on corners who might not be able to cover."

THIS IS WHY Tyrann Mathieu will succeed: He's a freak. Or, more specifically, a tiny, fearless, chaos-creating, visionary monster.

The smallest football players, like Mathieu -- just 5'9" and 183 pounds -- are typically technicians, not bullies. They rarely get to deliver punishment. They are often forced to endure it. Not Mathieu. He's not the fastest player on the field -- he's never been the fastest player, even dating from high school. But he has a singular skill: As the play unfolds, he finds the football and launches himself at the target like an atom-splitter. "When Tyrann makes a play, everybody gets riled up. It's like a domino effect," LSU safety Eric Reid says. "We feed off of Tyrann and his emotions. The passion just explodes out of him."

There's a reason he's forced 11 fumbles in his career -- tied for the most in SEC history, three shy of the NCAA career record. There's a reason he led the Tigers in tackles last season with 76 -- including 7.5 tackles for loss, a rarity for a corner. Mathieu sees plays unfolding in his mind before they happen, and when he reaches the point of attack, he gives no quarter. He slams shoulders into stomachs and rips footballs from arms.

"It's something all great players have," Miles says. "You recognize the formation, the ballhandling, what your responsibility is, and within that, there is magic. Within that, there is ability. If we put Tyrann in a position where he can ad-lib, it's almost like he can see himself playing. He can see how he can make a difference."

Consider the play he made against Kentucky in a 35-7 victory in Tiger Stadium last October, a play that likely helped accelerate his Heisman campaign. Late in the third quarter, as Kentucky broke the huddle, Mathieu lined up in the slot, giving the impression he was going to jam a Wildcats receiver, but when the ball was snapped he charged, timing his blitz to perfection. As he leaped to avoid being blocked by Kentucky running back Josh Clemons, it appeared, for a moment, that Clemons had shoved Mathieu just enough to take him out
of the play. Instead, Mathieu, a vision of fast-twitch muscles, managed to karate chop the arm of Wildcats quarterback Maxwell Smith as he flew past him -- the ball coming loose, Mathieu scooping it up and, seconds later, strutting across the goal line for a 23-yard touchdown.

"He's so hard to account for because he's all over the place," Kentucky coach Joker Phillips says. "He plays corner. He plays the nickel. They blitz him from the outside, they blitz him from the inside. And the guy is just a ball hawk. He probably doesn't run as well as some of the other guys, but there is nothing he can't do. And he's got the swagger that you need."

@TM7_Era: Hype up somebody who don't grind like me, I'm 5'9" but ball as if I'm 6'3"! Mad as hell cause they doubted me…

THIS IS WHY you cannot write off Tyrann Mathieu: He's already won.

Mathieu was born to Tyra Mathieu in New Orleans in 1992. She lived in the Fifth Ward and had four children before she gave birth to Tyrann. Soon after he was born, she decided that she would not raise him. As the years have gone by, Mathieu has grown accustomed to referring to the resulting time in his life as hell.

@TM7_Era: been to hell and back I can show you the vouchers!

Tyra has never publicly explained her reasons for giving up Tyrann and didn't respond to The Mag's request for an interview. Mathieu told a reporter prior to last season's title game that he's not interested in an explanation, even if she offered one. Their relationship is complicated at best. They talk by phone occasionally. But Tyra's absence in his youth, the way it informed his distrust, is something he is not afraid to lay bare for the world to see.

@TM7_Era: if you want me to love you then teach me, cause my mother never taught me.

Mathieu's biological father, Darrin Hayes, has been in prison his son's entire life, serving a life sentence in Louisiana State Penitentiary for second-degree murder. He'll never be eligible for parole. Tyrann says they have virtually no relationship. According to a FoxSports.com story, Hayes shot a man multiple times in 1993, including three times in the head at point-blank range. He boasted about the murder after it happened. According to the story, when he committed the crime, he was holding in his arms Mathieu's half sister, who was 18 months old.

At this point, Mathieu's childhood could have become another New Orleans tale of poverty and despair. Instead, it became a story of the grace of an extended family. When his mother gave him up, Tyrann was taken in by his maternal grandparents, Lorenzo and Marie Mathieu, who smothered the boy with love. To this day, Mathieu refers to his grandfather as his best friend. When Lorenzo died at age 54 of complications from heart disease, Tyrann was 5 years old.

On his deathbed, Lorenzo asked his wife to promise she would see to it that Tyrann had two things in his life: a strong male influence and a Catholic education. Lorenzo and Marie's son, Tyrone -- a New Orleans UPS driver who had a wife, Sheila, and three kids -- volunteered to raise his nephew.

It was, for Tyrann, an understandably confusing time. But a middle-class existence in the East New Orleans neighborhood of Spring Lake brought stability, discipline … and football. In time, Tyrann took to calling his aunt and uncle Mom and Pops. "He didn't go through nothing tough," Tyrone says of Tyrann's time in the family fold. "He had two hardworking parents. He was never in any trouble with the law. He probably had a better life than me and you put together."

Katrina came, and it did a number on the Mathieus. They ended up with four feet of water in their home. The family evacuated to Humble, Texas. Mathieu's high school, St. Augustine, was also underwater. It wouldn't reopen for more than a year.

It took almost three years to put their lives back together in full -- a home, a school, a football team -- and there was a price to pay. In 2009, when Mathieu showed up at the top high school football camps in the South the summer before his senior year, no one knew who he was. Many major programs, including Alabama and Tennessee, declined to offer scholarships. But LSU took a chance because Miles loved how viciously competitive Mathieu was at the Tigers' summer football camp. And when he sat in Miles' office on his recruiting trip, something else stood out.
"He seemed like a real person," Miles says. "He seemed like a real guy who wanted in."

THIS IS WHY there is no winner in the Tyrann Mathieu debate: We're captivated either way.

Maybe he's too small to play in the NFL. Maybe he lacks discipline. Maybe he's immature -- a slow-motion car wreck waiting to happen. But go back and watch one of the plays he made in 2011. Watch his punt return against Georgia in the SEC championship game and ask yourself if the debate even matters.

Not the first one, the explosive 62-yard return for a touchdown in the second quarter. Impressive as it was, it was something that a handful of great athletes could have done. Instead, watch the second one, the 47-yard return Mathieu had later in the game -- perhaps the most exciting 13 seconds in all of college football last season.

Mathieu fields the ball at LSU's 36-yard line and immediately slips two defenders by cutting sharply to his right. He reverses direction,
jukes another tackler with a ridiculous-to-sublime power-button boost of speed and sprints toward the sideline. Cut off when he gets there, he skids to a stop, appearing for a second to consider cutting backward, but in truth only setting up a would-be tackler for a buzz saw cross-block. He cuts right, accelerating through a sliver of daylight, causing two more defenders to miss him. Then, with another two would-be tacklers diving toward him -- the members of the coverage team in a mad frenzy by now -- he suddenly hops backward, causing the two to slam into each other like cartoon goons being tricked into shooting each other in an alley. Every cut Mathieu makes, he leaves an amalgam of flailing arms and twisted knees in his wake.He seems to feel defenders before he can see them. And instead of running, he's dancing and darting, being yanked about by an invisible string.

And that's the last thing about Tyrann Mathieu: You just never know what's coming next.

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