There is power in a nickname, especially when a packed football stadium of 80,000 people is chanting that name. Few know this quite as well as Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu. In many ways Mathieu’s life is the story of two nicknames, each representing a different side of the man’s personality. King is the man that Mathieu has always strived to be— successful, talented and in control. The Honey Badger is the animalistic side of Mathieu that makes him a beast on the football field and is less welcome in the other aspects of his life. Mathieu’s struggle is making sure the name echoing from the stands is the one he wants to hear.
Hooooney Badger! Clapclap clapclapclap. Hoooooney Badger!
Mathieu’s ability to deliver crushing hits on defense combined with his explosiveness returning kicks made him an overnight sensation. While playing for the Tigers of LSU he was given the nickname the Honey Badger. Like the animal in the viral video at the time, Mathieu played like he didn’t care if the man he was trying to tackle was three times his size, he was still going to attack as hard as he could. Everywhere Mathieu went—on campus, on SportsCenter, in visiting stadiums—he was bound to see his face and hear the nickname. By the time Mathieu was about to enter his junior season it was all a bit too much for him, in a way his identity was being taken over by his nickname.
“Tyrann and the Honey Badger are two different people,” Mathieu says. “The biggest reason [for distancing myself from the nickname] is that when I was going through that rough time it was when I was being called the Honey Badger. I didn’t want people to see me as the Honey Badger and think There’s a guy who doesn’t have his life together. I want people to know that there’s a difference between me and the comic figure.”
Mathieu’s struggle to find a balance between Tyrann and the Honey Badger would eventually lead to off the field troubles. Mathieu ended up leaving LSU in a move that may have been best for his well-being but was seen by some as a decision that put his NFL aspirations in serious jeopardy.
In the months leading up to the 2013 NFL draft Mathieu worked extra hard to show teams that he had left the Honey Badger behind and that he was mature enough to be worthy of a draft pick. Reprioritizing his life is one of the key changes that Mathieu made. Mathieu wrote a verse about his new outlook and inked it into his leg to make sure that the knowledge would always be with him. “When you’re a star you put God first, let your past guide you, and let the future determine…” the tattoo reads.
As he moved on with his life and career Mathieu took time to reflect on the duality of his personality. Looking back at the parts of his life that he isn’t proud of Mathieu feels a disconnection; it’s as if those actions were carried out by a different person. Mathieu’s very first tattoo, a demonic face on his forearm, is a reminder of the dark side that lurks within him.
“I don’t regret it, I don’t regret anything I do,” Mathieu says. “[The tattoo] reminds me of that place that I once was and lets me know that I’m not there anymore.”
Every tattoo that Mathieu has—the demonic face, the script saying “King” on one arm, the script saying “Forever Young” on the other, etc.—serves as a chapter in the book that is his life. By the time he is an old man Mathieu hopes to have covered his entire body with tattoos that tell his story.
King! King! King!
“My whole life, growing up, people would refer to me as ‘King,’” Mathieu says. “People would refer to me as the golden boy, the golden child. Once I started playing football [on a larger stage] it all made sense.”
In the NFL Mathieu has the ability to ditch the Honey Badger moniker and reinvent himself. More accurately, he would like to go back to being the King that he pictured himself becoming shortly before the Honey Badger name was bestowed upon him. The transition has not been an easy one as his NFL career hit an early snag when he tore his ACL and LCL near the end of his rookie year. The supreme confidence that Mathieu has in his abilities, the belief that he will live up to the nickname of King, helps him weather challenges like his knee injury.
There are two significant steps to rehabbing an injury like the one suffered by Mathieu. The first step is physical. Mathieu had surgery shortly after the injury and has been working on getting his knee back in shape for the last eight months.
“I had never been injured before so it was definitely tough to have such a serious injury,” Mathieu says. “I have great people surrounding me, a great training staff and a great doctor. I was encouraged as I tried to put my work in so that I could get some positive results.”
The second, and arguably most important, step toward recovery is mental. Playing safety in the NFL requires a player to change directions at full speed multiple times in a single play, a physical feat that requires a player to have absolute confidence in the stability of his knees. Countless hours in the gym can help develop some of that confidence but a player can’t know if they are 100% until they step back onto the playing field.
“I was definitely a little nervous and cautious at first,” Mathieu says. “Obviously, I didn’t want to get hurt again. As the game progressed the nerves went away and I was back to my old self.”
As of press time the Cardinals are one of the top teams in the NFL, a pleasant surprise after missing the playoffs last season. The secret to their success has been a stifling defense that has been helped in no small part by Mathieu’s return to the field. If Mathieu’s punishing hits in the middle of the field help propel one of the NFL’s most snakebitten franchises to a Super Bowl victory he will get his coronation.
There is power in a nickname, especially when a packed football stadium of 80,000 people is chanting that name. Few know this quite as well as Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu. In many ways Mathieu’s […]