- Josh Weinfuss, ESPN Staff Writer
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- The man we see today, with the blond streak down the center of his head, with the wide, toothy smile and an NFL jersey covering a tattooed torso rebuilt with muscle, isn't the same man who sat in a prison cell in East Baton Rouge Parish, La., for a night a little more than a year ago.
That night changed Tyrann Mathieu's life.
He thought he had lost football and decided he didn't want to be a garbage man for the rest of his life. While looking at the others in the cell with him, he saw how far he'd fallen. Just 11 months earlier, Mathieu had been at the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
But to go from that jail cell to making a hard case to be the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year as a safety for the Arizona Cardinals, you must look at that night -- Oct. 25, 2012 -- as the turning point.
Growing up in East New Orleans, two miles from Lake Pontchartrain, in a neighborhood that loves its parks and its football, Mathieu was a quiet, well-mannered kid. He went through private school without any discipline problems, said his mother, Sheila.
Sheila saw her son's talent at age 5, when she and her husband, Tyrone, adopted little Tyrann from his birth mother, Tyra, who is Tyrone's sister. In the parks, he was a magnet for friends, and not just because he was always the best athlete.
"He's just a people person, especially when he goes on a team," Sheila said. "If they need a king, the kids gonna tell you it's gonna be Tyrann.
"They're going to gravitate to him."
Kings rule New Orleans, especially in Mardi Gras season, as they lead krewes on parades throughout the streets of the Crescent City, tossing beads. In 2009, Tyrone was voted King Zulu of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, and Sheila was his queen. The two are friendly, hardworking people who raised five kids -- three of their own and two adopted. Sheila is a nurse at a hospice facility and Tyrone a UPS driver in the French Quarter.
But, five years before Tyrone's honor, Tyrann was king.
At 12, Tyrann was named king of Willie Hall Playground and led a parade of his football teammates and a jazz band around the neighborhood while wearing a stark white duck-tail tuxedo.
"He knew how to act royally," Tyrone said.
Tyrann was 13 when Hurricane Katrina hit. His family left New Orleans for Baton Rouge, normally a 90-minute drive, but it took eight hours. They spent two weeks in Alexandria, La., before relocating to Texas for a few months.
He watched as his family decided to stay in New Orleans and rebuild after 4½ feet of water took over their living room and kitchen. Tyrann learned what it took to be resilient, to come back and rebuild a life. As a kid and then in high school, no one saw any signs of Tyrann's future troubles. He loved attention, said Del Lee, Tyrann's defensive backs coach at St. Augustine High School, but most teenagers do. Tyrann wasn't highly recruited, but Lee knew his star defensive back would be good.
He couldn't have guessed what else would happen.
On to LSU, stardom
During Tyrann's freshman year at LSU, he didn't have to deal with the pressures of playing in the Southeastern Conference. He learned behind his mentors, Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne, while growing on the field.
When Peterson left for the NFL, Tyrann assumed a bigger role in the Tigers' secondary as a sophomore. His ball-hawking skills and quickness made him a star.
But with every interception, fumble recovery and tweet came another microphone, another camera. It didn't help that fans labeled Tyrann the Honey Badger, after a small animal that looks like a weasel but fiercely defends its turf in the wild.
Before he knew it, Tyrann was a bona fide SEC superstar on a national championship-caliber team, the LSU world his Louisiana oyster. He had everything he could want: women, parties, fame.
But he couldn't handle it.
"It's something you always dream about," Tyrann said of the lifestyle. "Of course, I expected to be a star -- a superstar -- at an elite college. But I never really took the time to think about the distractions, all of the things outside of playing football. I didn't really have a plan going into it. It definitely distracted me and the temptation, obviously the smoking marijuana, other things, too, of course you desire to do those things.
"I just wasn't mature at the time."
Marijuana was his escape from the pressures, which became insurmountable, he said, as the Tigers got better.
Fallout of failed tests
The sun was still an hour from rising over Baton Rouge when Tyrann's career as an All-American cornerback ended during a meeting with LSU coach Les Miles at 5:30 a.m. on Aug. 10, 2012. Two hours later, Mathieu called his father, who hadn't yet started his UPS route.
As the speculation mounted, the truth emerged: Tyrann had failed multiple drug tests at LSU.
After the initial waves of disappointment, sadness and devastation settled, Tyrone woke up his oldest son, Tyrone Jr., and the two went to pick up Tyrann. The drive was quiet and somber, almost like someone had died, Tyrone said.
Tyrann already had started taking pictures off the walls and packing boxes when his father and brother arrived to take him home. His teammates were there, supporting their best player, mourning a season that was over before it started.
"It wasn't like the drives I'm used to," Tyrann said. "I mean, it was embarrassing.
"Usually, I'm getting praised or telling me how good of a game I had or stuff like that. That drive was quiet. You could feel the tension. You could feel the disappointment in the car. At that time, I was disappointed in myself because I always wanted to be a star. I always wanted to be a leader, but I never had a plan."
Tyrann decided to return to school after he was dismissed from the team. First, he spent four weeks in Houston with former NBA star John Lucas at a drug-rehabilitation facility. Lucas, Tyrone said, supported Tyrann's decision to return to campus and re-enroll.
Football wasn't a priority at the start of the 2012-13 school year. In fact, it was among the least of Tyrann's worries.
"It was about saving his life," Tyrone said.
His mother added: "It was about getting a problem under control, and it was about getting Tyrann back on track academically, morally, just pretty much going back to the drawing board."
The family even held out hope Tyrann could become a Tiger again.
Two months later, Tyrann was hanging out with three former LSU players when he heard a knock at his apartment door. When he opened it, he was staring at the Baton Rouge police. They smelled marijuana and asked whether they could search the apartment, and Tyrann granted them permission.
Soon after, he was escorted from his apartment in handcuffs.
"You could've rolled out the coffin and put me in it, and just closed it up," Tyrone said.
'I can't really be a garbage man'
Tyrann remembers watching garbage trucks stop in front of his house in East New Orleans with a child's curiosity. He watched garbage men hop on and off, making sure the trash receptacles were empty for another week. "I thought that was a pretty cool job, jumping on and off a garbage truck," Tyrann said.
Other than playing football, it was the only job Tyrann wanted as a child. Sitting in jail that night, Tyrann was as close to becoming a garbage man as he'd ever been.
"I'm like, 'I can't really be a garbage man at this point in my life,' so I had a long time to think about it," he said. "It was something I wanted to prove. I wanted to prove everybody wrong."
One night in jail changed Tyrann, who walked out of East Baton Rouge Parish Prison with a new mindset. He knew his days playing for LSU were over and the odds of playing football again were stacked against him. But he knew playing in the NFL was his next step.
"Once I turned that corner, I stopped worrying about how others perceived me," he said. "It's more about what do I think about myself.
"That's when I finally turned that corner."
Tyrann's path to the NFL began in the South Florida home of Patrick and Shandra Peterson, the parents of Tyrann's former LSU and current Cardinals teammate, Patrick.
The decision for Tyrann to leave Louisiana was easy. A new setting was what he needed. With his parents on board with the idea, he moved to Florida. For the first time in his life, football had his undivided attention.
"My goals and my dreams were bigger than anybody who lives in Louisiana, anybody who I've ever been a friend to, anybody who's in my family," Tyrann said.
"They didn't understand the life of a professional football player or an elite college football player. I just had to remove myself and really surround myself with people who were in the NFL, who are leaders, who have responsibilities. That was probably one of the best decisions I've made in my life."
He trained for the next six months, first preparing for the NFL combine, then LSU's pro day and team workouts, a stretch that ended with the 2013 NFL draft in April.
Patrick Peterson Sr. welcomed a shy, quiet, humble Tyrann into his home and watched a young man leave who understood how to avoid a repeat of LSU. Peterson Sr. and Tyrann spent hours talking about how to make smarter decisions, be responsible and fend off temptations.
"[He understands] what exactly he needs to do to keep his life going in the right direction," Peterson Sr. said. "He listens very well. Not going to be no more hiccups in his life.
"He's not a bad kid. Just got caught up in moments and let stuff get the best of him. I love him like a son."
Despite all of Tyrann's work and training, the NFL was never a sure bet. Lee, his high school position coach, said Tyrann believed he had an 80 percent chance of never playing again. And, as Tyrann went through the months leading up to the draft, there were questions about his drug use. He took it in stride. At LSU's pro day in late March, Lee could sense a difference in Tyrann. He was ready to play football again.
Lee, who played a season for the New York Jets, knew a team would take a chance on Tyrann, who had been hearing he would be a seventh-round pick or, worse, an undrafted free agent.
"He has some of the most unbelievable talent that you'll ever see on a football field, and just to think that would go to waste and not be given a second chance is extremely frightening," Lee said.
"I knew that's all he needed, was an opportunity to go out and do it."
Preparing for next chapter
The change in Tyrann was slow, his mother said, but, by the time he began meeting with NFL teams before the draft, he had evolved enough to convince them he was worth the risk.
Cardinals general manager Steve Keim met with Tyrann for 15 minutes at the combine. He then brought the defensive back to the team's Tempe practice facility more than once. Keim and coach Bruce Arians wanted to get to know Tyrann. Even with Patrick Peterson, an established NFL star, vouching for him, they grilled Tyrann.
"I've said this many times, that every player is a risk, whether it's character or medical or just the fact that he doesn't have enough skill to play at the NFL level," Keim said. "There were none of those questions with Tyrann. Obviously, medically, he was fine and from a skill-set standpoint was off the charts in our minds.
"So, really, it was once we got him into our program, how would he handle things and how would he prepare? How would he handle off-field distractions?"
Arizona drafted Tyrann early in the third round. The scene was replayed over and over on TV: Tyrann, sitting on a couch at a draft party, was mobbed by his family and friends.
"I thought he was a wonderful young man," Arians said. "He knew his mistakes, owned up to his mistakes and was just looking for an opportunity. The football part spoke for itself, but he's been nothing but a dream to coach."
Low risk, high reward
The Cardinals structured Tyrann's contract so he gets most of his money at the back end, but only if he's on the roster for all 16 games every season. And if Tyrann has a setback, the Cardinals won't hesitate to pull the plug.
"No. 1, it protects us and it protects him," Keim said. "It's a huge deterrent for him to help stay out of trouble and it protects us from a financial-liability standpoint that, if he did make a poor decision, that he'll have to pay for."
Tyrann entered the NFL's drug-testing program upon being drafted and can be tested up to 10 times a month. He said he was disappointed to sign a contract that won't pay him until his third or fourth year, but it won't affect his performance.
"Before I was drafted, I didn't care if they gave me $100,000 or $50,000," he said. "I just wanted to be able to play football again. The Cardinals gave me that opportunity."
Midway through his rookie season, Tyrann hasn't disappointed. He was named the NFC Defensive Rookie of the Month in October after securing his first sack and second interception. He was a starter on the depth chart for the first time against the Texans this past Sunday. And the Cardinals, thanks in large part to their defense, are 5-4. Tyrann's talent and skill were never in question. It was everything else surrounding football that has changed.
Linebacker Kevin Minter, a fellow rookie, played with Tyrann at LSU and watched the Honey Badger persona develop from a front-row seat. With the Cardinals, Minter has seen Tyrann change.
"He's loving where he's at," Minter said. "He's always put in the work; it's just 10 times that right now. He knows this is his job now. He doesn't have to worry about going to class or nothing like that anymore. His number's straight football. You could see he loves it, that part of it."
Most of Tyrann's maturing has come off the field.
He's eating better, trading in hot dogs, fried wings and candy for chicken breasts. He rents a house at a base of a mountain.
"It is a big step, but I'm working on being mature," Tyrann said. "I think me paying bills and me having to do things around the house gives me a long list of responsibility. I'm able to think into the future, stuff like that."
But one major difference, Minter has noticed, is Tyrann's decision-making. Nights that turned into mornings are long gone. Distractions and temptations are controlled.
"For me, it's all about just accepting my responsibility," Tyrann said. "I'm a football player. I got practice, so I shouldn't be up all night. Or if I got a game, I shouldn't be doing this. I should be trying to take care of my body, stuff like that."
When his parents went to St. Louis for Tyrann's first NFL game in September, Sheila could sense there was something different about Tyrann, less than five months after being drafted, almost a year since his arrest.
"I could feel he was getting stronger in the maturity aspect of his life," she said. "I can't put my finger on it, but I can feel it. It was a mother's intuition."
The past few months have helped relax Tyrone and Sheila, but they're still on edge. They're waiting for another phone call, and every day that passes without one, they breathe a sigh of relief.
This isn't the time of year his general manager worried about. He's waiting to see how Tyrann will deal with the offseason.
"I don't know of a bigger challenge than when the season's over that he'll face because now he's got a little bit of money in his pocket, he doesn't have the same structure and he's gonna have to make the decisions on his own," Keim said. "Everything I've seen makes me believe that I think he's gonna make the right decisions, but it's something that he's always going to have to be challenged with."
When asked what's at stake, nobody said his NFL future. The belief that Tyrann will stay on the straight and narrow is so great that those closest to him are thinking past it.
Tyrann said Super Bowl MVP and "all those great awards" are at stake. Lee went one step further and said the Hall of Fame.
But in a league where teams don't mind leaving skill on the sideline if off-the-field issues arise, the consensus is Tyrann needs to act as if it's his last chance. One more slip might end his time with the Cardinals -- and, if that happens, Sheila will be on high alert.
"The love of his life is football," she said. "If that's taken away from him, I don't even want to think about it; that's how scary it is to me. I'd probably be so neurotic around here and just follow him and hold him."
Tyrann has gone from a jail cell to the NFL in a year's time. And now he continues to rebuild, just like his old neighborhood did in East New Orleans.
"I'm more about trying to repair my image," Tyrann said. "I think my image is at stake. I think all the things I accomplished in the past are at stake right now. That's probably what I'm working on hardest to protect."