- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- Before the "Honey Badger" learned to take what he wanted, his aunt and uncle had to give him what he needed.
As No. 1 LSU prepares to play No. 2 Alabama in Monday night's Allstate BCS National Championship Game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Tigers star cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, who has become affectionately known as the "Honey Badger," has returned to the city where he was raised.
Mathieu, who was named a Heisman Trophy finalist and won the Chuck Bednarik Award as the country's top defensive player as a sophomore, said his troubled childhood helped him become the player he is today.
"It teaches you to fight for everything," Mathieu said. "Nothing is going to be given to you. With that being said, you try to take that to the field. You don't want to take any play off and not take any opponent lightly."
Mathieu, 19, spent the first few years of his life living in his grandparents' home in the Central City section of New Orleans. His mother, Tyra Mathieu, was never around much, and his biological father, Darrin Hayes, has been incarcerated nearly every day of Tyrann's life.
After Tyrann's grandfather Lorenzo Mathieu died following a long illness in 1997, Shelia and Tyrone Mathieu decided they would adopt their nephew. Shelia and Tyrone already had three children -- sons Tyrone Jr. and Devon, and daughter Toya' -- when they chose to adopt Tyrann.
Tyrone works as a UPS driver in the renowned French Quarter section of the city. Shelia is a nurse at a home health care company.
"I would go to my mom's house to pick up my kids, and Tyrann would be there," Tyrone said. "Little Tyrann would run out on the porch as I was putting my children in the truck to go home."
One time, Tyrone looked at his nephew and asked, "Boy, you want to come?"
Tyrann ran down the steps and jumped into Tyrone's truck to spend the night with his cousins.
After a couple of overnight stays, Tyrann jumped into the truck with a bag on his back. Tyrann, then 5, had decided he was staying longer this time.
"I couldn't make a decision without talking to my wife, but I knew right then I wanted to adopt the responsibility of Tyrann being my son," Tyrone said. "I looked at those kids lined up in my truck and knew it was a family."
Shelia and Tyrone adopted Tyrann in 1997. Four years later, they adopted their oldest daughter, Keviah, whose mother, Trine Mathieu (Tyrone's sister), was killed by a drunk driver in 2001.
Only a few years earlier, Trine had asked her brother and sister-in-law whether they would care for her daughter if she ever died. Tyrone had 10 siblings; his brother Keith was murdered in 1996. Shelia has eight brothers and sisters.
Their decision to adopt Tyrann was an easy one, they said.
"We love parenting," Shelia said. "I'm from a big family, and we love kids. We wanted to provide the best possible life and education we could for each and every one of them."
Tyrann Mathieu said being adopted by his aunt and uncle was an event that changed his life forever.
"It obviously was a blessing to be able to see two different sides of the scale," Mathieu said. "They definitely helped me out a lot and definitely took me out of a rough situation. I commend them for doing that for me and truly thank them."
Mathieu still has limited contact with his biological mother. He has had little if any contact with his biological father.
According to an Oct. 23, 1994, article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Hayes was convicted of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Donald Noten. On Oct. 3, 1993, the day Hayes was released from prison for robbery, he shot Noten four times after Noten had a dispute with the mother of one of Hayes' children. According to the report, an accomplice shot Noten in the head an additional three times with a .38-caliber pistol. Noten died at the scene.
The next day, according to prosecutors, Hayes went to a convenience store with a woman, pointed to an article about the murder in the newspaper and boasted about doing it.
According to the report, it took jurors less than two hours to convict Hayes. A judge sentenced him to life in prison without parole.
"Tyrann wasn't alive," Tyrone Mathieu said. "He wasn't even born yet. He never had a relationship with his father. Even as a family, we didn't have a relationship with him."
From an early age, Tyrone and Shelia Mathieu tried to shield Tyrann from the details about his biological father's violent past.
"We knew people would talk," Tyrone said. "We knew as his parents, we would guard him. Every time we had our kids out, they were all our children. We never separated them. We wouldn't allow people to ask questions about them, even if they knew. It was about protecting the kids.
"I'm not afraid of it. I'm not backing down from it. I think a lot of things I experienced in my life helped me get to this point."
”-- Tyrann Mathieu on his past
"As Tyrann became older, we taught him, 'Tyrann, your name is Tyrann Mathieu. You are your own individual. You make your own decisions. You make your own choices. You are Tyrann Mathieu.' There was a reason for it, and the reason was this."
This week, since LSU arrived in New Orleans to prepare for Monday night's game, Tyrann Mathieu has tried to deflect questions about his biological father.
"It's not who he is," Tyrone Mathieu said.
Said Shelia Mathieu: "It's his biological dad, but we all have to have one of those."
More than anything else, Tyrann Mathieu needed a loving and nurturing family, and he found it in his former aunt and uncle's home.
Shelia and Tyrone Mathieu have raised their family in the Spring Lake neighborhood of East New Orleans. They were high school sweethearts and were married by a judge in 1994. The next year, at their parents' request, Shelia and Tyrone were married in a church. Their wedding party included 86 people.
In 2009, Tyrone was elected King Zulu, the most prestigious honor for a member of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club of New Orleans. Founded in 1909 by laborers as a benevolent and social club, the Zulus are best known for their Mardi Gras parade, which includes elaborate costumes, black-painted faces and coconuts they hand out to spectators. Tyrone served as King Zulu for the club's centennial celebration, and his wife served as his queen.
The Mathieus' Zulu costumes are now on display in their home, along with many of Tyrann's jerseys, trophies and awards. Their home was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. More than 4 feet of water flooded the house, causing the family to relocate to Humble, Texas, for five months while their home was being repaired.
Many of the photos from Tyrann's childhood were destroyed by the worst hurricane to ever hit the U.S. mainland, but his athletic exploits had become legendary on the ball fields and playgrounds of New Orleans. When Tyrann was 10, he was named King of Willie Hall Park in the city's Seventh Ward, an honor bestowed on the best player in the 103-pound pee wee football league. Tyrann was dressed in a white tuxedo and crown, and was paraded through the neighborhood.
"We weren't even the first royalty in the house," Shelia said. "Tyrann was a king first."
Tyrone said he learned his youngest son was athletically gifted when he was only 5.
"I had a friend ask me, 'Is that your boy?'" Tyrone said. "She said, 'You need to watch him. He's the man!'"
Tyrann's older brother Devon Mathieu remembers watching him chase down a runner from the outfield during a little league baseball game.
"The guy was trying to tag up from third to home, and Tyrann ran him down from center field before he reached home plate," Devon said. "I was just shaking my head. He can run down anybody."
When Tyrann was 15, he played flag football with his older brothers. They told him to cover a much taller player who probably was in his mid-20s.
"Tyrann stuck on him," Devon said. "The guy couldn't catch a pass and was so mad. Tyrann kept knocking it down."
But even with a standout career at St. Augustine High School, Tyrann Mathieu was more of a recruiting afterthought before his senior season in 2009. Smaller Football Bowl Subdivision schools such as Florida International, Miami (Ohio), Tulane and Louisiana-Monroe recruited him, but high-profile programs such as Alabama and LSU weren't especially interested in signing a 5-foot-9, 160-pound cornerback.
Finally, LSU offered Mathieu a scholarship -- but only after missing out on a few bigger cornerbacks.
"Those other schools didn't want me," Mathieu said. "That's why I've always played with a chip on my shoulder."
It didn't take the Tigers long to figure out there was something special about him. As a freshman in 2010, Mathieu played in all 13 games and was fourth on the team with 57 tackles. He led the SEC and was fifth nationally with five forced fumbles. He was named defensive MVP in the Tigers' 41-24 victory over Texas A&M in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.
This season, Mathieu's play has helped him become a household name from coast to coast. Nicknamed the "Honey Badger" for his ferocious play -- the moniker came from a YouTube video about the feisty carnivore -- Mathieu was named SEC defensive player of the year and was nearly a unanimous All-American. Shops in the French Quarter are selling "Honey Badger" T-shirts, and bars throughout the city are pouring the "Honey Badger" drink, a concoction of honey whiskey and a locally brewed beer.
"I think the Honey Badger nickname came from the fans back in Tiger Nation," Mathieu said. "The honey badger is such a relentless animal. He's fierce, and he definitely doesn't fear anything. So I just try to take that same approach to the field, and just try to play smart and violent football for my team."
Even Mathieu's mother believes the moniker might fit.
"I thought it was something a fan or someone apparently made up," Shelia Mathieu said. "Then someone told me to go on YouTube and watch the video. When I did, I was like, 'Wow! This is really an animal.' When I looked at the animal and saw the things it was doing, I think it definitely fits Tyrann to a certain degree. He's not afraid. He does have a big heart, and he doesn't scare easily."
And, of course, Tyrann Mathieu takes what he wants.
"When he gets on that field, he does everything in his power to take what his team needs to win," Shelia Mathieu said.
But don't count LSU coach Les Miles among the moniker's fans.
"I don't use it," Miles said. "I think it's cool and funny, but there's so much more to Tyrann than the Honey Badger."
The Honey Badger has been the spark plug of LSU's stingy defense this season. Tyrann Mathieu led LSU with 70 tackles, and ranked first in the SEC with six forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. He ranked third among FBS players with a 16.2-yard average on punt returns and was named MVP of the SEC championship game after returning a punt 62 yards for a touchdown in the Tigers' 42-10 rout of Georgia on Dec. 3.
Mathieu's biggest blemish this season was a one-game suspension from playing in the Tigers' 45-10 victory over Auburn on Oct. 22. Mathieu and two other players were suspended after testing positive for synthetic marijuana during university-mandated drug testing, sources told ESPN.com at the time.
"It was a grieving process for sure," Shelia Mathieu said. "It was a hurting feeling. It was big, huge letdown. But we put our love together and consoled each other. We continued to love him and believe in him. It was a point where he might have stepped off the track for a second. But we taught our kids that as long as the morals and values we taught them get them back on track, they'll learn from their mistakes and proceed on with life. None of us are perfect. We've all done things we shouldn't have done."
Tyrone Mathieu said it was a wake-up call for his son, who had to realize he's in the public spotlight now.
"It wasn't an excuse," Tyrone said. "I told him he can't do those things anymore. I told him he was different now. He's just a kid and he's thinking like a kid. We told him he had to remember the feeling, that bad feeling and how embarrassing it was."
Tyrann Mathieu said the suspension was another lesson in a life that's been chock full of them so far.
"Where there's struggle, there's strength," Mathieu said. "I truly believe you have to go through things to strengthen your faith, and to definitely broaden your horizons and open your eyes to let you know what you're in it for. That's teammates and LSU as an institution. You never want to forget that. It just teaches you to keep a high spirit at all times."
For Mathieu, there probably wouldn't be a better feeling than helping lead his team to a BCS national championship in the city where he's already overcome so much.
Mathieu knows his life might be a lesson for other children here, who are growing up in a situation similar to his own.
"To never give up and never give in," Mathieu said. "There's a lot of negativity in the city and a lot of people trying to pull you down. Just strive for the best and pray every day and work hard at what you want to be in life. Those things can come true."
After a childhood that was far from perfect, Mathieu is beginning to realize his own dreams.
"I'm not afraid of it," he said of his past. "I'm not backing down from it. I think a lot of things I experienced in my life helped me get to this point."
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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