This story appears in the October 22, 2012 issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.
The smell of deep-fried tailgates and Cajun spices fills the air. Beer funnels swish and gurgle. Footballs fly, and an electricity pulses through the revelers in rhythm with the beat of the LSU marching band. It's game night in Baton Rouge and anything feels possible.
Wading through the sea of purple and gold inside Tiger Stadium is an unlikely spectator in a jungle-themed snap-back hat and a red NOTORIOUS B.I.G. shirt. He's small but draws a big crowd; fans come over to wish him well and pose for pictures. One female student leans in and says, "Hey, you going out tonight?"
In a soft voice he replies, "I don't go out anymore."
"Why not?" the girl asks.
He doesn't answer, letting the question hang in the thick bayou night, and by halftime he is gone. Amid the party he leaves behind, his former teammates cruise to a 41-3 win over Washington.
A year ago 5' 9", 175-pound cornerback Tyrann Mathieu emerged as one of the best players in college football. With a nickname that summed up his playing style, the Honey Badger took what he wanted all season, forcing six fumbles, grabbing two interceptions, racking up 15.6 yards per punt return and scoring four touchdowns. During a 13-1, SEC-championship-winning season that ended with a 21-0 loss to Alabama in the BCS title game, Mathieu's playmaking swung or sealed victories, and he became only the third defensive player since 1994 to be named a Heisman Trophy finalist.
But everything changed for Mathieu on Aug. 10, when LSU dismissed him from the team for failing multiple drug tests; two sources close to Mathieu say the drug was marijuana. At that point Mathieu could have transferred to a lower-division school, played out his junior season -- thought to be his last in college anyway -- and awaited his certain selection in the NFL draft. Instead he underwent four weeks of drug rehabilitation with John Lucas in Houston before returning to school. The unconfirmed aim for the 20-year-old Mathieu, who declined to speak to SI, is to play for the Tigers next year. But that possibility may be more tenuous than he knows: Since last January, Mathieu has allowed his image to be used on a flyer promoting an event at a local night club, appeared in several promotional videos online and, multiple sources told SI, received benefits at the club that could affect his eligibility.
For now he lives by himself off campus and takes classes. Banned from the football facility, he works out in the LSU rec center. If the crossroads he has arrived at -- between redeeming his football career or squandering it, between old loyalties and new priorities -- feels familiar to him, it should: Three decades ago his father came to the same point and washed out in a spiral of drugs and violence.
The path forward seems simple enough: Stop smoking, get to the NFL, enjoy the fruits of success. But for Mathieu that's not so easy. It means negotiating complex family dynamics, distancing himself from lifelong friends and supporting a baby boy due in January. "I'm not making excuses for my brother," says 21-year-old Darrineka Mathieu, "but I would smoke too, dealing with everything."
Before Tyrann Mathieu became the Honey Badger, he called himself Lil Bread, after his father, Darrin Hayes, who was known as Cornbread. Hayes grew up near the downtrodden and violent St. Bernard housing projects in New Orleans. Only 5' 8" and 175 pounds, Hayes starred at John H. McDonogh High in the early 1980s. "He wasn't afraid of anything," says his high school coach, Percy Duhe. "He could flat-out play. He was the best running back in the city."
Hayes says he received scholarship offers from Georgia Tech, Louisiana Tech, Mississippi, Tulane and UCLA but couldn't meet the academic requirements so instead chose Alcorn State, where he could practice with the team while attempting to qualify. He wasted no time making an impression. In practice he had to mimic the opposition's best player, and Alcorn's Hall of Fame coach, Marino (the Godfather) Casem, recalls Hayes playing the role of Jerry Rice, then at Mississippi Valley State, almost as well as Rice himself. Cornbread, says Casem, was an NFL-caliber talent with the same qualities that would define his son. "He didn't have a lot of size, but he had all the rest," Casem says. "He was tough. Extra tough."
But Hayes never played a snap at Alcorn -- he was caught with a gun on campus and kicked out of school. He says he then walked on at a community college in Mississippi but didn't last there either. He wound up playing semipro football around New Orleans for a few years, but he says he was soon smoking marijuana and selling drugs, eventually developing a cocaine habit. He fathered four children with three women and served a two-year prison sentence, from 1991 to '93, for robbing a store. While in prison, Hayes got word that one of his daughters, born to ex-girlfriend Sonya Smith, was calling Smith's new boyfriend Daddy. Hayes wrote to her saying that the guy, Donald (Pork and Beans) Noten, would die. "Keep this letter," Cornbread wrote, "to use it as evidence in my murder case."
Hours after being released from prison, Hayes and at least one other armed man sought out Noten. According to Smith, Hayes stood over Noten with a gun drawn as he pleaded for his life and pulled hundreds of dollars from his pockets. Noten was shot seven times by two guns. Cornbread denies he murdered Noten, saying he regrets his "casual involvement." But along with the letter to Smith showing he'd contemplated Noten's death, he sent one to a fellow inmate afterward that seemed to confess: "The n----- cross me wrong. And that cost him his life." The passage included a smiley face.
In 1994, Hayes was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Tyrann was two. His mother, Tyra Mathieu, was a struggling single mom, so Tyrann spent his first five years living with his maternal grandparents. After his grandfather died, an uncle, Tyrone Mathieu, and his wife, Sheila, took Tyrann in and raised him with their kids. Throughout, Tyrann maintained a relationship with Tyra and Darrineka, who was also the child of Tyra and Cornbread.
Tyrann stayed in touch with his father, too, occasionally visiting him in prison and writing to him. Hayes provided SI with some of the letters that father and son exchanged. In one, written when Tyrann was 12, he referred to himself as Lil Bread and drew hearts around his and his father's nicknames. "First of all I love [you] and miss you very much," it begins. "I've been thinking about you."
Hayes hasn't seen Tyrann since he enrolled at LSU or spoken to him since October 2010, but he still writes his son letters and watches LSU games on a 48-inch flat screen at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, 14 miles southeast of Tiger Stadium. Every day Hayes prays that his son doesn't follow his path. "Tyrann has a drug problem," Hayes writes to SI. "I expected more out of him because he know how I lost everything behind drugs."
The move to his uncle Tyrone's house took Tyrann from one of the poorest parts of New Orleans to a middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of the city with houses and yards. Tyrone, a UPS driver who's best known around the city as the King of Zulu in the 2009 Mardi Gras parade, says he raised the kids on church, discipline and private education. For Tyrann that meant St. Augustine, an all-boys' Catholic school in the Seventh Ward.
That's where Tyrann's talents first emerged and where he made many of the friends who would become an ongoing influence. In 2006, Tyrann's freshman year, the school had recently reopened after Hurricane Katrina, which left it with a depleted roster. Coach Wayne Cordova needed bodies for a game against perennial power Archbishop Rummel High, so he threw a few of the more promising freshmen on the field with the varsity. Although he was only 5' 7" and 125 pounds, Mathieu showed he had the ability to be a defensive star. By his final season, he put such fear into opposing quarterbacks that he had to pretend to slip in order to get the ball thrown to his side of the field. Still, Cordova would hear the old-timers bark from the stands, "Tyrann don't have nothing on his daddy."
Late in high school Tyrann and his friends formed a crew called Era Nation, made up of a dozen self-described athletes, rappers and songwriters. Era Nation remained part of Mathieu's life after he moved to LSU, and he stayed tight with the group even as he became nationally famous. Mathieu felt so strongly about Era Nation that Era was part of the handle on his Twitter account (@TM7_Era), which he recently shut down.
Over the last year Mathieu has appeared with his Era Nation buddies in multiple videos online that show them at clubs partying. In another video Mathieu wears a shirt that says, HERE'S TO FEELIN' GOOD ALL THE TIME. One Era Nation member who appears in many of the videos with Mathieu, Samuel Brooks, a rapper who goes by the name of Yung Soop, told SI about Mathieu's marijuana use: "It was a recreational thing. I don't believe he's addicted." Brooks, who was arrested in December 2010 for battery against his mother and later pleaded guilty to a charge of criminal damage, has also tweeted about producing Honey Badger T-shirts. Cordova says that Era Nation has been using Mathieu's celebrity to advance its own agenda. "When Tyrann started doing well, Brooks went around telling people, 'I don't have to do nothing now,' " Cordova says. " 'Tyrann's going to put me on when he goes to the league.' "
But what's good for Era Nation may not be helping Mathieu. Several of the Era Nation videos promote events at a Baton Rouge club called The Palace. One in particular encourages viewers to attend an Era Nation party at the club on March 10, 2012. Mathieu appears in the video, and an event promoter says "the whole LSU football team" will be there. A flyer for the party has two photographs of Mathieu in his LSU jersey and describes the event as an "Era Nation Album Release Party For Tyrann Mathieu." It also features photographs of former LSU standout Mo Claiborne and current LSU sophomore defensive tackle Anthony Johnson, who are listed as the party's hosts. Johnson denied any involvement; Clairborne says he was aware of the party but did not attend.
In another video Mathieu is on stage at The Palace in front of a large crowd, using a microphone to talk about the club's chicken wings and fries. Somebody closely affiliated with the club told SI that Mathieu received access to the club's VIP area. "Every time he came, we let all the football players, like his teammates, in for free," said the person. He added that Mathieu knew his photo would be used on the promotional flyer for the March 10 party. He identified Johnson and other LSU football players as visitors who received special treatment. Johnson declined to comment about receiving any benefits.
Brooks told SI that Era Nation received access to the club's VIP area. "We always were going to have an area for us," he says.
Mathieu is also featured on a flyer for a Jan. 14, 2012, party at Club H2O in New Orleans. The flyers and videos may be a violation of NCAA rule 22.214.171.124, which says that anyone who "accepts any remuneration or permits the use of his or her name or picture to advertise, recommend or promote directly the sale or use of a commercial product or service of any kind" is ineligible. A veteran compliance officer with no direct knowledge of Mathieu's case says that any penalties would depend on how commercial the videos were, whether Mathieu knew what they were being used for and if he received any illicit benefits, which would violate a separate NCAA rule. "If this guy is in the video in an attempt to draw people to the place," says the officer, "that's not permissible." LSU says the school, including coach Les Miles, is unaware of players using their images to promote events or receiving extra benefits.
Former NBA player John Lucas has counseled young athletes with drug problems, mental issues and even financial difficulties. Two days after Mathieu got thrown off the LSU team, he was with Lucas in Houston to start rehab. (Lucas had spent a few days with Mathieu earlier in the summer but declines to specify why.) Lucas's first request for the Honey Badger: Cut the trademark highlights out of his hair, or "that blond crap," as Lucas called it. Mathieu agreed and has followed all orders since.
Lucas would not call Mathieu a marijuana addict, but he says he treated Mathieu as if he were an addict, putting him in an inpatient recovery facility where the other 20-plus patients were addicted to Oxycontin and "mind-altering chemicals." At the sparsely furnished six-house facility, Mathieu slept in a cramped room on a twin bed for two weeks. Lucas laughs at the memory of how much Mathieu hated it, but he felt that Mathieu needed to see how bad it can get. "Just because you're at the Four Seasons doesn't mean you're a better drug addict than the guy at the Motel 6," Lucas says.
After inpatient rehab Mathieu stayed for two more weeks of counseling, and Tyrone and Sheila spent two weekends on-site to participate. Lucas declined to comment on the family dynamics, citing confidentiality, but he conceded there were "big issues."
When asked about those issues, Tyrone said, "It's more of a crisis for us to get our child back on track than sit and tell a story."
There may be more complications in store for Tyrann. According to several family members, he is expected to become the father of a boy in January. "I don't know what triggers life may bring," says Lucas, when discussing the complexities of Mathieu's future. "This isn't about smoking weed, this is about what life shoots you and how you handle it without medicating your failures or medicating your success."
Miles has seen players struggle to distance themselves from childhood friends. "It's a very difficult thing to prioritize success, education and football above your family and friends. The ability to say, 'No, I can't be with you now,' and what they want to say is, 'Now wait a minute, I grew up with you. This is who I am. This is who we are.' That evolution is a very tough one."
Those split alliances are clear to Mathieu's family as well. "You don't know if you're supposed to be Tyrann that we know or Tyrann that LSU knows," Darrineka says. "You're stuck in the middle, like you don't know who you are."
Regarding Era Nation, Cordova puts it more succinctly: "Unless you are willing to cut those people off, you're going to be back in the same situation."
For Mathieu, there's a lot riding on his ability to sort out his life. Multiple NFL executives say he could be drafted in the third round if he comes out after this season. His stock could rise if he returns to LSU, but it could drop if he fails to live up to his sophomore year. As of September, Miles perpetuated the feeling around LSU that Mathieu would return. "If he stays the course, I like his chances of being. ... " He searched for the words. "Being back?" someone offered. Miles shook his head no. "That's not the point. The point is being better."
Once the semester ends, Mathieu is scheduled to spend a month with Lucas in Houston. Lucas reports that Mathieu is doing well in his four classes and that he texted Lucas a photograph of A's he received on two recent assignments. But it's too early to declare victory. "It's not crazy for him now," says Lucas. "It will get crazy when he gets back to being the Honey Badger."
Cornbread, the man who took the wrong path, is confident the things his son has seen will help him take the right one. After his first visit to see Hayes in prison, an eight-year-old Tyrann wrote to his dad, "The only reason I didn't smile [is] because I just don't like to smile. But I still love you no matter what. I would love to visit you again."
Twelve years later Hayes watches his son from prison, getting updates from newspapers and relatives. "Tell Tyrann I said life is serious and we must be thankful and careful," Cornbread wrote to SI, "cause one misstep can cause us years of regret, grief and sorrow."
This story appears in the October 22, 2012 issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.