TEMPE, Ariz. — Five years ago, Tyrann Mathieu went to the NFL scouting combine on a mission.
He spent his few days in Indianapolis in February 2013 trying to rehabilitate his image with NFL teams. He had to explain himself. Explain why he was kicked off LSU’s football team. Explain why he smoked so much marijuana. Explain why he was arrested. Explain why he was worth drafting after spending a year out of football.
The questions were abundant.
One by one, Mathieu answered them.
After the Arizona Cardinals drafted him in the third round (No. 69 overall) that year — after five teams passed over him once, 16 teams passed over him twice — and 10 teams skipped by him three times, Mathieu kept answering them, both on and off the field.
Five years later, Mathieu has become an example of why people give second chances. He’s stayed out of trouble. He’s signed a mega contract extension worth up to $62.5 million over five years. He’s become a household name in the NFL — by some accounts a bona fide superstar.
But if there was one example of how far Mathieu has come, it happened in September of last year. That’s when the LSU Board of Supervisors approved a name change for the Tigers’ football players lounge to the “Mathieu Players’ Lounge at Football Operations” after a $1 million donation by Mathieu.
Seeing his name on the lounge will be “humbling,” Mathieu said, and will make him feel like “one of those old, rich dudes.”
“I’m still in awe about that,” said Del Lee-Collins, Mathieu’s defensive backs coach at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans and a close confidant. “Nothing ceases to amaze me with him. I never would’ve imagined it. I said things to coaches like, ‘He’s going to be a Heisman candidate.’ But I would never had imagined that he would have his own legacy on that campus.
“When you think about it, how great is that, that you can play for a university — and only play two years — and have trouble and get kicked off of the team, and you can still go back and donate for the betterment of the university and football program? I applauded him for a long time for that.”
On a chilly December 2017 winter night in Phoenix, five years ago seemed like a different lifetime.
‘I’m just taking it in stride, all of it.’
Mathieu was behind the wheel of his military-like Mercedes SUV, one hand on the steering wheel, the other elbow resting on the door. Chaka Khan’s voice filled the car, followed by Stevie Wonder’s, Drake’s and J. Cole’s. Mathieu’s diverse taste in music doesn’t come as a surprise. This is a man who’s as comfortable talking about the intricacies of an NFL defense as he is explaining the latest conspiracy theory he’s researched — and there are plenty of those.
Mathieu was navigating the streets of Phoenix, stopping at homes of families in need, surprising kids with $1,000 worth of food, toys, clothes and cash, just in time to finish their Christmas shopping. The $10,000 Mathieu spent was all his. He didn’t take donations from corporations and then put his name on it. He wanted to give back, just like so many gave to him throughout his life, throughout the past five years.
“The inside of Ty has always been a humanitarian side because he gives more than he receives,” said Nick Rapone, Mathieu’s former position coach with the Cardinals. “The part that’s remarkable is Ty is no longer a follower. When you deal with marijuana and all that stuff, you’re a follower. Ty now has matured to where he’s making decisions for himself, his family and his livelihood. That’s the maturity that I saw.”
Part of Mathieu’s evolution has been the five-year contract extension he received in August 2016.
It was evidence of not just Mathieu’s development as a football player, it fulfilled the belief the Cardinals put in him. They gave him a back-loaded contract as a rookie, deferring most of his signing bonus to the last three years of his four-year rookie deal to protect them in case Mathieu wasn’t the rehabilitated person he told them he was and who they believed he was. In August 2016 — four years after he was suspended by LSU — he was given a five-year extension worth as much as $62.5 million. Of that, $21.25 million was guaranteed at signing.
In November 2016, Mathieu donated $1 million to LSU’s football program.
“I don’t have any bad vibes with LSU,” Mathieu said. “I learned so much there. I experienced so much there. I had so much fun. I met great people. I still have relationships with people there, but they just gave me the platform to really just be who I am and to show the world who I was, and I was cool with that.
“It’ll always hold a sweet place in my heart just because of the opportunity it gave me to just be who I am.”
To get from 2013 to today hasn’t been easy for Mathieu. It’s been, to some degree, a daily struggle.
He’s not ashamed of his past. He doesn’t hide it. He uses it as a reminder of what could’ve been and what could still happen. Mathieu carries it with him every day, learning from it, using it as his moral compass.
The key to getting through the past five years, Mathieu believes, was staying “levelheaded.”
“I think just me being patient, too, with myself,” he told ESPN. “All of it is learning experiences and all of it is just taking things as they come, so I don’t think you can really prepare yourself for situations or experiences unless you actually live it or do it.
“I’m always thankful for the stuff I went through and thankful for the people I’ve met, and I’m thankful even for some of the bad times because all of it helps get you to wherever you are in your life.”
So, where is Mathieu?
He’s 25. He just finished his fifth NFL season. He has two sons, a big house, fancy cars, a lot of money in the bank. He’s been an All-Pro and a Pro Bowler. He’s had two major knee injuries and has finished just two of his five seasons healthy. He’s also been a team captain, and he’s one of the Cardinals’ NFLPA player reps.
But Mathieu’s still not who he ultimately wants to be.
“I’m working toward that person and I’m trying to be that person, and I’m trying to handle relationships and I’m trying to be better with being a father and being a better football player.
“I’m just taking it in stride, all of it.”
‘Life is funny and weird. It’s real.’
He had to grow up faster than most people.
Mathieu’s biological father is in prison for murder. He was adopted by his aunt and uncle, Sheila and Tyrone, at 5 years old from his birth mother — Tyrone’s sister. In 2005, when Mathieu was 13, he had to evacuate New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina was approaching. He lived in Alexandria, Louisiana for two weeks before relocating to Houston for a few months. When his family decided to return to New Orleans, they found four and a half feet of water in their living room. Mathieu then watched them rebuild. In college, Mathieu turned to pot to escape the mounting pressures of being not just an SEC star but a national phenomenon nicknamed the “Honey Badger.”
The rest, well, is history.
He was suspended from the LSU football team on Aug. 10, 2012. To this day, former LSU coach Les Miles said it was one of the “hardest things” he’s ever done in coaching.
“It was terrible,” Miles told ESPN. “It was a standard policy and not one you changed on a whim. It was what you did.
“It was tremendously hard for me because I knew what kind of person Ty was. Ty was going to give you everything that he had and be a great teammate — a great leader and a quality teammate. He was never going to be a social problem.”
Mathieu was arrested in October that year. Any hope of returning to the Tigers was gone. Mathieu left school and began his full-time pursuit of the NFL. He was 20 years old at the time.
Mathieu doesn’t know how close he is to being the person he wants to be.
“Life is funny and weird,” he said. “It’s real. It’s challenging. It’s all those things. At the end of the day, I just try to balance it all out and not focus on the good, not focus on the negative, but just focus on moving forward, whether things are going good or bad.”
When Mathieu was drafted, he made a conscious decision to “walk a fine line.”
He knew the stakes. He understood his reputation. He saw the temptations. He just didn’t put himself in situations where the ability to make career- or life-defining decisions were easy.
“I just didn’t do a lot of stuff,” Mathieu said. “I didn’t go a lot of places. I didn’t put myself in situations because I didn’t think I could really handle it.
“Now, I’m cool. It’s cool. Temptation is what it is. I think my mind’s a little bit stronger.”
Mathieu feels like he missed out on the fun of his early 20s as a young adult in the real world with money in his pocket. There were times he stayed home from Las Vegas when his teammates took the short flight for a few days in Sin City. But, while he feels like he missed out, he doesn’t see it as a negative.
It was just Mathieu doing what he felt he had to do.
“I was just being me,” he said. “Other people were being them, and I was just being me. I try to hold on to that the most because, to me, that’s what’s so easy to lose, is yourself. That’s the first thing you lose before we lose anything else. I just try to be me, hold on to me, and that’s it.”
The closest Mathieu has come to giving into those temptations was after his first knee injury. Even today Mathieu said he has “about three or four reasons that I could probably use as an excuse to do whatever I want to do,” he said. “That was the way I used to think. Now, I’m 25. I feel like I’ve been in the NFL 12 years.
“I just got a different way of looking at stuff.”
‘He is a mature man at this point.’
The challenge of not giving in, of not regressing, surrounds him daily. As he keeps fending off temptation, Mathieu said he won’t look at life’s “scoreboard” to see how well he’s doing. He’s not even tempted to sneak a glimpse.
“Because, at the end of the day, I’m not perfect, so I don’t try to be perfect,” Mathieu said. “I don’t even worry about the score. I just try to live my life.”
Among all his guiding lights, Mathieu believes the biggest are his two sons, Noah and Tyrann Jr. Everything Mathieu does — good, bad or ugly — will affect them to some degree, he said. He wants them to learn from him, but he also hopes he’s the type of father and man who doesn’t have to teach his sons how to do things differently than how he did them.
Unlike Mathieu’s biological father, Darrin Hayes, who has been incarcerated for most of Mathieu’s life.
“I want to be present for my kids, and my biological father wasn’t present for me,” he said. “I have an adopted father [and] there’s certain things, good and bad, that I try to take from that relationship and try to make myself better at being a father.”
Fatherhood put a lot into perspective for Mathieu.
Lee-Collins talks to Mathieu often about providing for and protecting his kids, and when Mathieu sees his sons, he understands what that message means, Lee-Collins said.
“He grew up real quick and real fast when he was able to see it for himself in front of him,” Lee-Collins said.
Those who have known Mathieu the best during the past five years have seen the changes in him.
He’s more mature. He’s more responsible. He’s smarter. He’s more reserved. He tends to sit back and listen, then analyze what’s happening in front of him more now than he used to.
Lee-Collins used to have conversations with Mathieu where Mathieu would pepper questions about any variety of topics at Lee-Collins. Now Mathieu is the one informing Lee-Collins about different things.
When Lee-Collins visits Mathieu in Arizona, he sees an adult. Mathieu’s always been an emotional person, Lee-Collins said, but now he doesn’t let things bother him like he used to.
“He’s really at peace with himself and his surroundings,” Lee-Collins said. “You can only see that when you’re with him in his own home or with him out to eat. He’s really comfortable with himself.”
Miles believes Mathieu was trying to please everyone in college, and that’s one reason why his story at LSU ended how it did.
“I think he’s realized he can’t live his life for other people,” Miles said. “As long as he controls those things, and it appears he has, he’s going to do all the things he’s going to do.”
Rapone, who saw Mathieu as much as anyone during the season, watched Mathieu mature each year. It started when Mathieu met with the Cardinals in 2013 during a pre-draft visit in a full suit and tie, while others wore buttoned-down shirts and slacks. From there, Rapone said Mathieu has continued to grow.
“Just the accomplishments of him being able to depart from who he was and the world he was living in to what he is now is just remarkable,” Rapone said. “He is an example to every person who needs a second chance or third chance.
“Each year, he would get more and more mature. He fully understands the situation he is in at this moment, and that is because he is a mature man at this point.”
Lions releasing running back Kerryon Johnson, per reports
Detroit drafted the former Auburn standout in the second round in 2018. Johnson became expendable after the team drafted D’Andre Swift No. 35 overall in 2020, signed free agent running back Jamaal Williams in March and drafted Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson last week.
Johnson ran for 1,225 yards and eight touchdowns over three seasons. He also has 61 career receptions for 527 yards and three scores.
Last year, he had 181 yards rushing and two scores on 52 carries. and had 19 receptions for 187 yards receiving and a touchdown.
NFL Network first reported that Johnson would be waived.
The Lions also added a player in free agency, signing tight end Darren Fells on Wednesday. The move gives the team a veteran at the position it can put on the field with Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson.
The 35-year-old Fells has 123 career catches with 1,483 yards receiving and 21 touchdowns. The previous two years in Houston, he had a combined 55 catches for 653 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Fells has started 76 games — including 13 with the Lions in 2017 — and played in 102 games with Arizona, Detroit, Cleveland and the Texans. He was a rebounding standout at UC Irvine and played basketball in Argentina, Mexico, Belgium, Finland and France before playing in the NFL.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
QB Blaine Gabbert re-signing with Tampa Bay Buccaneers on 1-year, $2.5 million deal, source says
TAMPA, Fla. — Once again, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians has kept his word.
Days after saying the Bucs would work to re-sign Tom Brady’s top backup, quarterback Blaine Gabbert, the team is indeed re-signing Gabbert to a one-year deal worth $2.5 million, a source told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.
Gabbert, who has played in 60 career games with 48 starts, previously earned $1.187 million in 2020 and $1.6 million in 2019.
Last season, Gabbert, 31, completed 9 of 16 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, with all but one of those pass attempts coming in the second half against the Detroit Lions in Week 16, when Arians opted to rest Brady.
The Bucs selected quarterback Kyle Trask in the second round of the NFL draft last week, but Arians said that would not preclude them from re-signing Gabbert. The team also re-signed Ryan Griffin, who was last year’s third-string backup, earlier this offseason.
Gabbert enters his third season with the Bucs, after spending 2018 with the Tennessee Titans, 2017 with Arians and the Arizona Cardinals, 2014-16 with the San Francisco 49ers and 2011-13 with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Gabbert has had an eventful offseason. In addition to attending the Kentucky Derby with Brady and Griffin on Saturday, he married longtime sweetheart Bekah Mills in Paradise Valley, Arizona, in March.
NFL sends memo reminding clubs the league will not pay players who suffer injuries away from facilities
The NFL reminded teams Wednesday that they are not obligated to pay players who suffer an injury away from the team facility, an issue that moved this week to the center of an ongoing dispute between the NFL and NFL Players Association over in-person participation in offseason workouts.
The memo, obtained by ESPN, was prompted by several prominent players who were surprised by media reports about Denver Broncos offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James, who tore an Achilles tendon this week while working out on his own and could miss the 2021 season. NFL contracts have long classified such injuries as “non-football,” because they happen away from the team environment, and they are not covered by typical injury guarantees. As a result, the Broncos could withhold James’ salary for as long as he is sidelined. More than $10 million would have been guaranteed if the injury had occurred at the Broncos’ facility.
The NFL has noted this contractual leverage multiple times during negotiations with the NFLPA, which has advised players to skip the voluntary portion of in-person offseason training unless they stand to lose workout bonuses.
“According to the media coverage,” the NFL wrote in its memo, “several players have expressed surprise that Mr. James’ injury was not covered by his Injury Guarantee, although this point has been made frequently in our discussions with the NFLPA about the offseason program. Clubs are encouraged to remind players of the significant injury-related protection provided if they choose to work out at the club facility and the risks they undertake in choosing to train in non-NFL locations.”
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