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How Tyrann Mathieu left his troubles behind to become the Chiefs' unquestioned leader and a big reason they're headed to their first Super Bowl in 50 years

By Jeffri Chadiha | Published Jan. 28, 2020

Tyrann Mathieu couldn't stop staring at the Lamar Hunt Trophy. As his teammates beamed and bounced around the crowded stage erected after the Chiefs' AFC Championship Game win over the Tennessee Titans, the All-Pro safety kept his eyes focused on the treasure team owner Clark Hunt cradled in his hands. None of the surrounding mayhem -- the red and gold confetti falling from the sky, the countless loved ones who swarmed the platform, the thousands of fans who cheered the team's first Super Bowl appearance in 50 years -- distracted Mathieu. He was so mesmerized by the trophy that a few teammates nudged him and asked if he was actually enjoying the chaotic celebration.

Mathieu quietly nodded each time he received the question. It's not that he wasn't happy about the chance to play in Super Bowl LIV. It's that it all felt enormously surreal, and he could finally sense how this accomplishment was about way more than just his personal satisfaction.

"The best part was just being on stage with Mr. Hunt and hearing what he had to say about the fans and how long it's been since they had that trophy," Mathieu said last week before the Chiefs took off for Miami. "That part meant the most to me because it was bigger than us. It was about the people of Kansas City, the fans and the Hunt family. I honestly don't think it really had hit me yet."

It shouldn't be surprising that Mathieu's first reaction was to think about how that moment felt to everybody else. He lives his life with an unquestioned generosity of spirit, a belief that it's more fun to bear witness to someone else's happiness than it is to marinate in his own. It's the kind of worldview that has evolved over seven NFL seasons and, more notably, a life filled with its share of well-publicized strife. It's also the reason the 27-year-old Mathieu was at peace with himself long before he ever realized this dream.

Mathieu came to Kansas City because he simply wanted to help the Chiefs get to where they are today. He did that with the same thoughtful approach that helped him steady a life that was once spiraling out of control -- developing a vision, building trust and staying committed to the cause. As Chiefs star quarterback Patrick Mahomes said, "He's a natural born leader. That's just who he is. He doesn't have to do anything other than be himself. He goes out there every single day and just by his attitude and mindset, he's leading other guys. I think that's huge when you have guys like that around the team. Obviously, his play speaks for itself, but the way he's able to every day just be great, it really does spread throughout the team."

The impact Mathieu has had on this defense is one of the most significant reasons for Kansas City's success. The Chiefs were abysmal on that side of the football in 2018, when they ranked 31st in the NFL in total defense and passing yards allowed. For every big play Mahomes created with the league's most exciting offense, the defense was more than willing to surrender similar highlights to opposing units. When it came to stopping other teams, the Chiefs were soft, inept and ultimately unreliable when it mattered most, as New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady carved them up on the game-winning drive in overtime of last year's AFC Championship Game.

In the offseason, the Chiefs targeted Mathieu in free agency -- signing him to a three-year, $42 million contract -- because they knew what he brought to the table. He's so versatile that he can line up at deep safety, hover around the line of scrimmage to provide extra run support or even shadow a receiver as a slot cornerback. He's impacted games by duping quarterbacks into easy interceptions, wreaking havoc with timely blitzes and willingly throwing his 5-foot-9, 190-pound body into the path of much larger running backs to produce a critical tackle. Oh, yeah, Mathieu also has mentored younger players like All-Rookie safety Juan Thornhill and second-year cornerback Charvarius Ward.

He has done so much that the Chiefs can't say enough about him.

TYRANN IS A GOOD GUY. HONEY BADGER - HE IS EMOTIONAL. HE'S EXCITED TO PLAY FOOTBALL. I THINK PEOPLE KNOW THE DIFFERENCE NOW, SO I CAN LIVE WITH IT. Tyrann Mathieu

"The game is emotional so we can all get a little bit [emotional]," said defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. "Sometimes he is calming me down. Sometimes I am calming him down. I think the other guys really feed off of him. When you have that in a player and a guy they respect, they know at some point he is going to make a play to help win the game."

Added head coach Andy Reid: "He has great instincts. Great speed. He was a real good returner coming out of college. There's an ability there to play in space and have vision. All of those things that you need to carry a ball, he can do that from the back end. He is really a unique person."

"Leadership is a lot of different things," said Mathieu, who amassed 75 tackles, four interceptions and two sacks during the regular season. "Initially, it was really about me showing up to work every day. A lot of workouts are voluntary in the offseason. You want to show up and let guys know that you're willing to work even though you don't have to be here. Once the season gets here, you want to be comfortable enough that you're able to teach a guy or motivate a guy to do certain things. I think leadership changes throughout the season. Right now, it's all about me constantly showing up to work, setting a tempo and a vibe and not allowing us to relax."

There's an undeniable authenticity to Mathieu that touches people instantly. It comes through in his thoughtful responses to questions, his easy smile and the commitment he has to serving others. Long before the Chiefs ever won the AFC title, Mathieu had made his mark on the city by adopting impoverished families for Christmas, taking underprivileged kids on shopping sprees and graciously interacting with locals at soccer games for his son, Tyrann Jr. He clearly came to Kansas City with the idea of being more than just a star athlete.

Mathieu's body is covered in tattoos that represent critical moments and significant people in his life. He talks to younger people about his own mistakes so they can learn from everything he's encountered. After all, it wasn't too long ago that Mathieu didn't want to publicly relive his worst days, so much so that he didn't want anybody referring to him by his college nickname, Honey Badger. Instead of trying to bury those experiences from his younger days, he's found the maturity to use them as educational tools.

"A lot of people are familiar with Honey Badger and not Tyrann Mathieu," he said. "When I went through what I went through about seven years ago, I was just trying to get people to detach that from Tyrann Mathieu. I think I did a good job of that. Most people recognize the difference. Tyrann is a good guy. Honey Badger -- he is emotional. He's excited to play football. I think people know the difference now, so I can live with it."

It's easy for Mathieu to find grace in his journey today. It wasn't so simple back in 2012, when his football career completely imploded. Mathieu was a star defensive back at LSU back in those days, an All-American athlete who won the Chuck Bednarik Award for being college football's best defensive player and finished as a Heisman Trophy finalist a year earlier. Before he ever had a chance to play a game in his junior season, Tigers coach Les Miles dismissed him for violating team rules (several news outlets reported that Mathieu's punishment resulted from him failing multiple drug tests).

It was a devastating twist for a young man who already had overcome so much in his life. A New Orleans native, Mathieu barely saw his mother as a child, and his father was incarcerated for murder. His grandparents raised him until his grandfather died in 1997. After that point, his uncle and aunt, Tyrone and Sheila Mathieu, adopted and raised him as their own.

Despite that troubled upbringing, Mathieu became a charismatic, inspirational megastar in college. When Miles kicked him off the team, the pain reverberated throughout the LSU community. As Mathieu said, "When something bad happened in college, I didn't know how to deal with it. I would handle things the wrong way."

"It was terrible because both the team and he wanted to be together," said Miles, who now coaches at Kansas. "It was the toughest thing I had to do during my time at LSU. He meant so much to so many people that removing him from the team was miserable. I'm talking about everybody from my family, to the people in the neighborhood to people all over the state. We all loved him."

IF YOU'RE GOING TO TAKE A CHANCE ON A GUY, THEN TAKE IT ON SOMEONE WHO REALLY LOVES FOOTBALL. THAT WAS TYRANN MATHIEU Steve Kiem

Mathieu spent that entire year out of football. When he decided to declare for the 2013 NFL Draft, teams around the league saw him as damaged goods. Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim was in his first year in that role, and he certainly didn't want to stake his reputation on a high-profile kid who had crashed and burned so dramatically in college. That was before Keim turned on film of Mathieu in his office one day and became mesmerized by his natural instincts, ball skills and game-changing impact.

Keim ultimately became intrigued enough about Mathieu -- whose close friend and former LSU teammate, cornerback Patrick Peterson, was already playing for the Cardinals -- that he invited Mathieu in for a pre-draft visit. That night, the two men went to dinner, with Keim's 8-year-old son tagging along, because Keim couldn't find somebody to watch him. The more those three chatted at that restaurant, the more Keim liked Mathieu. It helped even more when they finished the meal, and Keim's son pulled his father aside and said, "Dad, this dude is really cool!"

A few weeks later, Keim used a third-round pick to select Mathieu.

"The one thing you couldn't discount was that he absolutely loved football," Keim said. "And if you're going to take a chance on a guy, then take it on someone who really loves football. That was Tyrann Mathieu."

Keim's gamble turned out to be a savvy move. Mathieu was a standout slot cornerback as a rookie, until he tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and lateral collateral ligaments in his left knee while returning a punt in Week 14 of that season. His relationship with Keim blossomed to the point that Mathieu often popped into the executive's office to talk football or texted to offer tips on college players coming out in the draft. By Mathieu's third season, he was starting at free safety and causing so much havoc that he received his first Pro Bowl nomination and first-team All-Pro honors on a team that finished 13-3. But once again, tragedy undercut Mathieu's magic.

The Cardinals were on their way to clinching the NFC West title that season when Mathieu intercepted a Sam Bradford pass near the sideline. Mathieu took a few steps before falling to the ground with what would later be diagnosed as a torn ACL in his right knee. As much as the Cardinals wanted to celebrate, Keim and others kept peeking over at their fallen star.

"It wasn't the same," Keim said. "You wanted to be excited but then everybody is looking over at a guy who is so beloved and feeling bad. We couldn't fully celebrate because of how we felt about him."

That injury didn't just affect Mathieu that season, as he watched the Cardinals lose to Carolina in that year's NFC Championship Game; it also became a turning point in his pro career. Mathieu eventually reaped a huge reward for his efforts -- the team gave him a five-year, $62.5 million extension following the 2015 season -- but his on-field success wasn't the same after that second knee surgery. He only played in 10 games in 2016 (a shoulder injury landed him on injured reserve at the end of that year), and then the team asked him to take a pay cut after the 2017 season concluded.

The Cardinals eventually released Mathieu. He signed a one-year deal with Houston in 2018 but remembers the end of his Arizona tenure as his darkest time in the NFL.

"My last two or three years in Arizona (were difficult)," Mathieu said. "I had the two knee injuries that a lot of people can't come back from. I wasn't really playing at the level I expect. All of that was different for me. I've never been hurt. I've always been available. I've always been the best guy on my team. And none of those things were the case anymore. So life was hard to live. And then when they cut me, I went in the bathroom and looked at myself and said that would never happen again."

Mathieu's time in Houston was brief, but he did have an impact. He tied for the team lead in interceptions (three), finished third on the team in tackles (89) and helped bolster a defense that had been the league's worst before his arrival (the Texans finished fourth in points allowed that season after ranking last in 2017). When the Chiefs courted him in the 2019 offseason, it wasn't a tough decision. Mathieu saw a championship contender on the rise, in much the same vein of Arizona when he first entered the NFL, and a chance to be even more of a game-changer.

HE JUST HAS A WANT-TO TO SUCCEED. HE WANTS TO DO IT FOR ALL THE PEOPLE WHO MADE A DIFFERENCE IN HIS LIFE, WHO HELPED RAISE HIM AND CARE FOR HIM Les Miles

It didn't come easy at first in Kansas City. The Chiefs allowed 26.2 points per game through the first 10 weeks of the season. They surrendered an average of 11.5 points over the final six games, with only one opposing passer topping the 300-yard mark. "Early in the year, we would play good defense, and then have a bad week," Mathieu said. "Around that time, we started to stack them back to back. That was a point of emphasis. We knew we wouldn't be a good defense until we were able to stack games back to back."

"I am sure glad he is here," Spagnuolo said. "It makes my job a lot easier when you can rely on somebody like that. There have been a number of times during the year where I have sat in my office and said, 'I need to convey some message to these guys somehow, some way.' Ultimately, what I normally do is I go to him and say, 'Look, can you steer them a little bit this way?' Usually it is, 'I got it, coach,' and we roll. It is good to have that."

Spagnuolo will be asking a lot more of Mathieu in Super Bowl LIV. The San Francisco 49ers possess the league's most diversified offense, a unit that can thrive on big plays in the passing game or simply by mauling teams with the run, as they have in each of their two playoff wins thus far. Mathieu will be tasked with sniffing out trick plays, identifying formations and displaying the versatility he's always shown. That might entail everything from corralling shifty running backs like Raheem Mostert in space to shadowing Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle.

"When I watch them, I see a team that can obviously run the ball really well, but I think (Kittle) adds a different element to their offense. Physicality. More so, the attitude that he plays with," Mathieu said. "He seems like he is having a ball every ball game. It will be important for me, and guys like (safety) Dan (Sorensen) to match that energy and just compete. Treat this like any other ball game. Whoever lines up in front of you, it's about beating them man on man."

So this basically is the type of opportunity Mathieu craves. The people who know him best say the major reason he's reached the Super Bowl after so much adversity is that he's simply a fighter by nature.

"He just has a want-to to succeed," Miles said. "He wants to do it for all the people who made a difference in his life, who helped raise him and care for him. There really isn't a situation that Ty couldn't handle. He's one of those guys who just knows he's going to have success. What are distractions and hurdles for other people are things he faces and overcomes."

Even though Miles now lives about 45 minutes from Kansas City, he hasn't had a chance to catch up with his former star player this season. He knows how Mathieu operates and doesn't want to detract from his focus. They'll probably grab a bite sometime in the offseason. If the Chiefs are Super Bowl champions by then, the meal will be all the more enjoyable.

In fact, Mathieu already has had quite a start to the new year. Along with helping the Chiefs win the AFC title, he was in New Orleans to watch LSU beat Clemson on Jan. 13 for the national championship. It was a night when several alums partied as they proudly watched their school dominate. As Mathieu stood on the Tigers sideline, surrounded by numerous former teammates, he savored an evening that was yet another example of how his life is moving in such a rewarding direction.

As Keim said, "I can tell over time that he's gotten more comfortable in his own skin. He's embracing the past and the injuries and even from afar, I can tell that he's using that stuff to help him as a leader. I'm just really proud of the guy."

"The last two or three years I've been telling myself to just fall forward," Mathieu said. "I can't control everything. I can only continue to live life and be a good person. That's what I've been trying to do. I think a lot of good things happen for people who are about other people. You want other people to be successful. You want other people to be happy. So, I think a lot of good things come to people like that."

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Editors: Andy Fenelon, Tom Blair | Illustration: Albert Lee
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