Tyrann Mathieu, the Arizona Cardinals defensive back, has done lots of running lately. Running away from a sordid reputation that nearly tanked his pro career before it began. Running toward NFL receivers to break up passes. And running off pesky critters.
All of that running has put Mathieu in the running for Rookie of the Year, an unlikely position for a third-round draft choice who might have been passed over by some teams had he been the last available man standing.
That Mathieu became a Cardinal is the result of lobbying by teammate Patrick Peterson. He had attended the same university as Mathieu and befriended him big-brother style.
Before the draft, Peterson entered the office of Bruce Arians, the Cardinals coach.
“He said, ‘I’ll stand on the table for this guy. He’s a good kid and he deserves a chance,’” Arians recalled recently.
Mathieu had been booted off his university squad for substance-abuse violations after repeated failed drug tests. A stint in rehab provided no immediate affect; he was subsequently arrested for possession.
As a result of Peterson’s endorsement, Arians met with Mathieu during the Cardinals’ pre-draft preparations.
“I thought he was a wonderful young man,” the coach said. “He owned up to his mistakes and was just looking for an opportunity.”
The Cardinals took a chance that Mathieu could shape up after a rocky phase in college and a disadvantaged childhood.
His father had been jailed for murder, his mother was frequently absent and the family of relatives that reared him was uprooted by the devastating Hurricane Katrina.
Yet their trust only goes so far. Mathieu reportedly has submitted to as many as 10 drug screenings per month by the league to assure that he remains clean.
The colourfully nicknamed “Honey Badger” with the hair dyed gold has been sweet as honey to Arizona.
Unusually short for a contemporary cornerback, the 5ft 9ins Mathieu is thriving because of astonishing quickness, supreme self-confidence, a high football IQ and a hyper-competitive nature.
“What has surprised me is how good of a tackler he is,” Arians said. “I was a little concerned with his size, but he plays bigger and faster because his instincts are so good.”
“He’s been nothing but a dream to coach,” Arians added.
Defensive teammate Darnell Dockett put it more vividly, telling Sports Illustrated, “That boy is a baller. You cannot tell him he’s not the best at what he does.”
In his Phoenix neighbourhood, Mathieu has encountered a nuisance of the four-legged variety. It seems that wild boars trek down nearby mountains and prowl.
“Run ‘em off,” Mathieu said when asked how he copes with the invaders. “I’ve got the baseball bat. I used to play baseball, man.”
Now he is a one-sport guy, a gifted athlete who was born to run — while wearing a helmet.