BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Former LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu says an October arrest for possession of marijuana is what enabled him to finally become honest with himself and turn a corner in his life.
Mathieu, who has been training for the NFL draft at a facility not far from where Monday's Discover BCS National Championship will be played, spoke with ESPN about his drug problem, self discovery and hitting rock bottom.
"Sitting in that jail cell, it clicked," an emotional Mathieu said. "Looking at those people, just staring at me. 'You don't belong in here.' They wanted to come through the jail cell and get me. I'm scared now. Because it's reality now. I don't ever want to feel like this again. I'm not going to feel like this again."
One year ago, Mathieu was a Heisman Trophy finalist, preparing for a national championship game. Since then everything has changed. In August he was dismissed from the LSU team for a failed drug test, and an arrest and a missed football season have followed.
Mathieu has many regrets. And he believes his poor performance in last year's BCS Championship Game was a factor in his marijuana issue.
Because last year's title game loss to Alabama was played in New Orleans -- near where he was raised -- Mathieu said he was distracted.
"I remember worrying about me playing in my hometown and showing up and damn, I don't think I'm going to show up," he said. "I hope I show up. I hope I have a game like I did against Georgia or Auburn. And it really took me out of my preparation for the game. I didn't give up a touchdown but I gave up four or five passes. Passes when I knew they were going to run that route. I mean, I knew they were going to run that route. But I didn't prepare myself. I was worried about everything outside the game."
If he had to do it over, Mathieu said, "I would have shut my phone off. I would have stayed in my hotel room."
Not staying at home is a mistake Mathieu, 20, says he's made too often.
It was in August when the immensely popular Mathieu -- nicknamed "The Honey Badger" because of an ultra-aggressive on-field demeanor overshadowing his 5-foot-9 stature -- was dismissed from the Tigers team because of failed drug tests.
"Devastating," Mathieu said, tears flowing. "It's all I had. Football. And to think back on it, as I told you, for the BCS game, I abused myself. I took it out on myself. So many people were trying to help me. Coach Miles, he was basically like my LSU father. And our head trainer, Shelly (Mullenix), was like my mother at LSU. Those people did everything for me. All they wanted was for Tyrann to make a play. They just wanted me to show up. I prepared myself so hard in the spring and summer just to let everyone down."
Mathieu said he used marijuana as a way to deal with problems on and off the field.
"I'd tell the world I abused myself though marijuana," Mathieu said. "I abused myself through marijuana. Was I addicted to it? Maybe. Did I form a habit of it? Yes. When people didn't think I had a good game or I didn't have the greatest practice ever, I didn't go into the office and try to figure out what was going on. I just automatically abused myself."
When Miles informed him in a 5:30 a.m. meeting that "you can't be a part of our family anymore" Mathieu said he began sobbing. He asked a school official to notify his parents because he couldn't bring himself to do it.
"There was nothing anybody could do at that point," Mathieu said, crying. "I had to accept the responsibility that I was never going to play for LSU again. The only school that believed in me. And I didn't even believe in them. I felt I was a loyalty person. Looking back, I didn't know anything about loyalty. I could talk it, but you know, walking it, was a whole different thing. And when you realize you're not loyal, that's what hurts the most. When you realize you lied to people, that's what hurts the most."
Some advised Mathieu to play lower-division football for a season before entering the draft. Mathieu considered it, but couldn't. Instead, he re-enrolled at LSU and paid his own way as a student. Mathieu said Miles told him he might be able to return to the Tigers in 2013.
"I had to regain everything that I lost at LSU," Mathieu said. "I didn't want to go to another school and they call me the Honey Badger. They didn't know how hard I worked to become the Honey Badger. They don't know Tyrann. LSU is the only fan base that truly knows Tyrann. I couldn't play for another school. I just couldn't do it. I wouldn't have given my all playing for another school. I was only going to give my all for LSU."
But then in October, Mathieu was arrested, along with several former teammates, for marijuana possession, effectively ending any chance he had to play for LSU again. And sending him to the NFL draft.
He had been through counseling. How could this happen again?
"I fell back into the same trap that got me suspended," Mathieu said. "The entire September even into October, I'd go up the football dorms, to encourage those guys, and I'd go back to my room. Didn't go out. Didn't do anything. But then you just get comfortable. People just talking good about you. 'Oh, Tyrann, he's doing good. He's not missing classes.' And then you start to confuse yourself again. Everything is not good. I'm paying for school. They're not checking my classes, even though I take classes with football players. They're not looking at Tyrann anymore. When you surround yourself with the wrong people it's going to backfire every time."
Mathieu has been training in South Florida with Patrick Peterson, Sr. And on Sunday, he heads to Arizona to train with Patrick Peterson of the Arizona Cardinals. Mathieu knows he will face difficult questions at the Senior Bowl and/or NFL Scouting Combine.
Notably, can he stop smoking marijuana?
"Yes," he said. "I've stopped."
"It's a mind thing," Mathieu said. "It's a mind thing. The rehab I've been to, the counseling I've been to, my mama and daddy jumping down my throat, Coach Miles popping by my apartment, none of that could stop me if I didn't want to stop. If I didn't want happiness for myself, nobody else can want it for me."
Mathieu said he's distanced himself from bad influences.
"When they call my phone, 'Nah, I'm with my girlfriend,' " Mathieu said. " 'I'm about to go work out. I've got something to do.' I'm growing up now. It ain't that I'm lying to them. I'm saving myself. Because I've got an outlook on life I know what's behind that door. I know why you're calling my phone. We've only got a few things in common. And it's not football."
Mathieu has had plenty of time to reflect. And he's come to the conclusion he did not like who he was and he was trying to live up to a persona he didn't create.
"People see the Honey Badger and they see this fearless guy," Mathieu said. "This guy who's going to go balls to the wall and just give it his all. But off the field I was really quiet. I was really laid back, really humble. Once the Honey Badger took off, it's like, you have to be a different person. You have to be fearless walking around school. You have to have this mean look on your face, like every day is a football game."
In private moments, Mathieu said he was pained.
"When you go to rehab and counseling, it's not about the physical person," he said. "It's about the person inside of you, the soul of you, the spirit of you. Many times I looked in the mirror and didn't see anything. Couldn't see anything. I didn't see anything in the mirror. It was me, but I didn't truly know my soul, my spirit.
"Some nights you have to think yourself to sleep rather than cry yourself to sleep. But it's truly a blessing to find that person in the mirror. I know who Tyrann is. Stop walking around like that. Put a smile on. You're a good person. You're a good kid. That's Tyrann. Not the Honey Badger. I'll turn it up on Saturday or Sundays. Hopefully Sundays. But that's not me off the field."
Mathieu knows some NFL teams will view him as high risk.
"I know what it feels like to be on the dark side," Mathieu said. "I know what it feels like every day not being able to sleep. Just thinking about football. I know what it feels like to hurt. I know what it feels like to lie to people. I know what it feels like for people not to trust you. I know my mistakes throw red flags up. But I want people to trust me. When I get back on that field, I don't want to get off. I don't ever want to leave this game again."