Arizona’s Mathieu goes home in redemption, triumph

The Honey Badger is going home in a mixture of triumph and

redemption.

Two games into his pro career, Tyrann Mathieu already has proven

he can play in the NFL. Now he heads to New Orleans, where his

Arizona Cardinals face the Saints on Sunday.

The diminutive, dynamic defensive back says he wants to change

the minds of those in his hometown who wrote him off as a failure

after he was kicked out of LSU and spent a year out of

football.

”Obviously, I have a chance in front of my hometown but I also

have a chance to get everybody back on my side,” he said, ”those

same people when those negative things happened said all those

negative things about me.”

Mathieu grew up in New Orleans and was a star football player at

St. Augustine High School before taking his energy and skill to

LSU.

At 5-foot-9, Mathieu was no sure thing coming out of high

school.

”Early on, he was kind of laughed at, being too small,” said

Tulane assistant David Johnson, Mathieu’s coach in high school. ”I

told people he was the best player I’ve ever seen and he’s going to

make plays if you just put him in position to do those things. So

now you see him make plays in the NFL and you kind of sit back and

smile and think, `I told you so.”’

After a standout 2011 season at LSU, he was a Heisman Trophy

finalist.

But trouble loomed.

He was booted from the LSU team for failed drug tests, then his

image and presumably his NFL future took another hit a few weeks

later when he and three former teammates were arrested on marijuana

charges after police officers found 10 bags of pot and drug

paraphernalia in his Baton Rouge apartment.

He spent all of 2012 out of football.

The Cardinals, though, took a chance on him, selecting him in

the third round.

It helped that Arizona had Mathieu’s longtime friend and former

LSU teammate in budding superstar cornerback Patrick Peterson. The

Cardinals counted on Peterson to guide Mathieu in the right

direction.

”We’re practically brothers,” Peterson said. ”I feel that I’m

the big brother role model type for him. I’m definitely not taking

that duty lightly. Tyrann looks up to me, and I want to make sure

that I’m doing everything right on my part to make sure that he is

following the right footsteps and make sure that he does everything

the right way.”

Coach Bruce Arians said there won’t be much chance for Mathieu

to get in trouble this weekend.

”With all the LSU guys and Louisiana guys, it’s always exciting

going home,” Arians said. ”For him, it’s extremely, I think,

exciting, because he gets to play a football game. I know we’ve

talked to him about distractions, and he’s basically going to play

the football game and wave to everybody after the game.”

Then it’s on the team bus for the airport, where the team will

fly to Florida. Rather than come back to Arizona, the Cardinals

will practice next week in Bradenton in preparation for that

weekend’s game against Tampa Bay.

When he came to the Cardinals, Mathieu said he wanted to leave

Honey Badger behind because it recalled those bad days. But it’s

just too good and too fitting a nickname, and now he just accepts

it. He even tweeted this week that the people at his bank call him

Honey Badger.

They certainly know him in New Orleans.

”The Honey Badger, are you kidding me?” Saints quarterback

Drew Brees said. ”That was all anybody wanted to talk about around

here. He was as exciting a college player as there was, so I’m very

familiar with him and his abilities.”

Those abilities were on display in the Cardinals’ opener, when

he raced from nowhere to knock the ball out of the grasp of St.

Louis’ Jared Cook just before the Rams tight end crossed the goal

line. In last week’s 25-21 victory over Detroit, Mathieu tackled

Nate Burleson on fourth down a yard shy of the first down on the

Lions’ final play.

”He’s someone obviously that has great instincts, just the

hustle play he makes on the strip-fumble earlier in the year,”

Saints coach Sean Payton said. ”He’s someone who has a good feel

for the game. He’s got good football IQ, you can see that on tape.

He also has good ball skills, so that’s something that’s stood out

in two games.”

Mathieu said he takes inspiration for his comeback from the

comeback of his hometown in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

”Being from New Orleans, you have a certain type of spirit

about you,” he said. ”You’re happy-go-lucky, a certain type of

culture it provided me with. It just taught me to never give

up.”

Mathieu is relishing his return to football as he goes back

home.

”For me it’s a huge accomplishment, a huge achievement,” he

said. ”I’ve grown up watching the Saints play on the local

channels my entire life. To finally go out there and have an

opportunity to play against those guys, I’m extremely

blessed.”

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

Follow Bob Baum at www.twitter.com/Thebaumerphx

AP sports writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this

report.