Cover sports long enough and whether you like it or not, you start to feel a bit parental when it comes to the athletes you’re watching.
For 3 or 4 years, you watch a kid grow and develop physically and blossom emotionally – not just on the field but as you watch them day in and day out for several months of a particular season.
In that vein, it’s been a joy to watch LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu evolve the last two years from a shy kid who was in his biggest comfort zone home tossing the ball around after practice with the younger kids who hang around the football facility.
I remember seeking him out for a one-and-one interview near the end of that freshman season right before the Christmas break because I’d heard a little about his background and wanted to tell a story about a kid who had overcome so much.
That one-on-one request was fine with him because Mathieu hadn’t been exposed to a lot of media attention at that point and he was a little unsure of himself with a horde of TV microphones and digital recorders in his face.
We talked for half an hour – me trying to break the ice and him feeling me out like a boxer early in a fight to see if I was an OK guy.
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As a rapport developed, I went to questions that were personal and tougher to lob cliché answers at, specifically about his less than ideal relationship with his mother and how his upbringing in his uncle-turned-adoptive-father’s home helped shape who he is now.
Those were most challenging part of the initial exchange but he handled the questions with pose and maturity. Later that night I got a call from LSU media relations director Michael Bonnette because Mathieu was in tears, worried he hadn’t portrayed his story as well as he could’ve and he seemed to know then how important it was for it to be the kind of story that could inspire people, especially any kids who might be going through similar trials and tribulations.
That wasn’t true at all because this shy 18-year-old was raw and real and didn’t hold back. That’s where the best stories come from – not in print or on the Internet, but in life.
Ever since then, Mathieu and I have gotten along very well and it intrigued me last season when that quiet and polite kid exploded onto the national scene, complete with a new swagger and the ‘Honey Badger’ nickname.
My first hunch was that Mathieu was stepping out of character and that he wouldn’t like the Honey Badger tag, and that was true. It seemed to grow on him, as did all the attention that followed him as his season unfolded and wound up earning him a trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation.
All of a sudden, Mathieu was everywhere – scoring touchdowns three different ways and in the brightest of spotlights – and he became as big a story as LSU’s magnificent season itself. That’s a little contrary to the personality the Tigers have built since Les Miles arrived, and especially on the defensive side of the ball where John Chavis is as blue-collar as they come and wants guys to embrace their roles within a system.
Now, I don’t think Mathieu consciously sought the attention he generated because that’s not like him. Like any kid in that position, I do think Mathieu lapped the postseason notoriety up, although he did so with humility.
I’m not sure, though, that his personality fits with being the center of attention while the season is ongoing. And because of that, I hope Mathieu gets more of a chance to just be himself this season as he steps into more of a leadership role for a defense that again has a chance to be at the tip of the spear among the best units in the country.
No hair dyed blonde. No Honey Badger chatter – yeah, I know, it’s not going away – no hanging on every tweet junk.
It would be nice if Mathieu can be left alone to just go out on the field, make plays and enjoy himself like every college football player wants to and should be able to.
How likely is that to happen? Not very.
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Mathieu will be on every interview request that the LSU media relations staff handles just because of who he is. There will be times when that staff will have to manufacture reasons for him not to be available – class schedule, he’s under the weather, etc. – and I have no issue with that. I’m actually glad for him that he won’t be at SEC Media Days because of the litany of questions he’d be asked to answer over and over and over…
For his case, and more importantly for the Tigers’ best chance to again be a national championship caliber defense, the spotlight needs to slide off of Mathieu to a degree. A big reason why: As good as he has been for two seasons, there’s still a lot of room for Mathieu to get better.
As much attention as Mathieu
got a year ago, Morris Claiborne was the MVP of the defense in my mind.
A strong argument can be made that Brandon Taylor and Eric Reid were bigger keys than Mathieu to the secondary’s dominant stability.
While Mathieu possesses an amazing nose for the ball blended with a great flair for the dramatic, he was prone to getting beat in one-on-one coverage and often his gambles took him away from the play and limited his contributions to a handful of assisted tackles in several games. That won’t work this season with Claiborne and Taylor gone to the NFL.
Where Mathieu has the best chance to impact a game is as a rover or even at safety like he did when filled in for Reid late in the regular season. The availability to freelance, sniff out a play and blow it up fits better in that role than as a cornerback when he’s limited to focusing on one receiver or one side of the field.
Could Mathieu adapt to being a cover corner on the level of Claiborne and Patrick Peterson? I have no reason to doubt he would do exactly that if he set his mind on it.
Which goes back to stripping away all the distractions and allowing Mathieu to just be Mathieu. Not the Honey Badger, not the anointed savior to replace Claiborne, not the Heisman Trophy hopeful.
Whatever accolades Mathieu winds up when the 2012 season will be well-deserved for sure, but it sure seems like being more of a cog in a well-oiled defensive machine could reap a piece of hardware that would be much more meaningful to him and his teammates.