NEW ORLEANS - Let’s cut to the chase with this “Honey Badger’’ stuff regarding Louisiana State cornerback Tyrann Mathieu.
At first, the 5-foot-9-inch, 175-pound sophomore wanted no part of it. It seemed he didn’t like the “honey’’ part of the nickname, given to him by an LSU fan who saw toughness akin to a honey badger, which has been described as “the most fearless animal in the animal kingdom.’’
The “honey’’ caused Mathieu to pause - which he seldom does on the football field, one of the reasons the top-ranked Tigers will be playing in the BCS title game Monday night against No. 2 Alabama at the Superdome.
At first, Mathieu didn’t think the nickname was macho enough. But then he found out that the honey badger takes what he wants, and has been known to bite the heads off venomous snakes.
“The honey badger is such a relentless animal,’’ said Mathieu, who played that way this season on defense, plus returning kickoffs and punts. “He’s fierce. And he doesn’t fear anything. So I just try to take that same approach to the field and just try to play smart and violent football for my team.’’
He did more than that this season. He played great football, and people noticed. Mathieu won the Bednarik Award, given to the nation’s best defensive player, and was a consensus All-America pick.
He led LSU in tackles (70) and had six forced fumbles (recovering five), two interceptions, and scored four touchdowns (two on fumble returns, two on punt returns).
With each victory, Mathieu became more of a presence. And the nickname didn’t hurt.
“It’s a way to describe how he plays,’’ said LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis. “He’s not opposed to forcing his will on the field.’’
Chavis saw a special player in Mathieu. “I’ve been in this business a long time,’’ said Chavis, whose career began as a graduate assistant at Tennessee in 1979. “There’s been other guys similar, but he has as much natural ability as anyone I’ve been around.’’
The question that most people outside of the team are asking is, where did Mathieu come from? How did he reach this level as a sophomore?
Mathieu was virtually discarded by his mother and raised by his grandfather, who then died when Mathieu was 5. There was little paternal influence, since Mathieu’s father was in prison for murder. The main family support came from an aunt and uncle.
“It obviously was a blessing to see two sides of the scale,’’ said Mathieu. “And they definitely helped me out a lot and took me out of a rough situation.
As for Mathieu’s father, the contact is minimal. “I don’t talk to him much,’’ Mathieu said. “I just try to focus on the present.’’
Growing up in New Orleans in such circumstances toughened Mathieu quickly.
“It teaches you to fight for everything and nothing is going to be given to you,’’ he said. “So with that being said, you try and take that to the field. You don’t want to take any opponent lightly.’’
What emerged at LSU was a mind-set to attack football, and life.
“I think it kind of grew on me,’’ Mathieu said of the nickname. “I took it like this: I see little kids and they’re in love with the honey badger. So, I’ll be the honey badger for them.’’
Others see different traits.
“You can see the other players on defense feed off his energy,’’ said Alabama wide receiver Brandon Gibson.
Mathieu’s teammates agree.
“I think we feed off Ty’s emotions,’’ said safety Eric Reed. “So when Ty’s having a good game, we’re all having a good game. If he gets the ball on the ground, you’ll see 11 of us swarming to it trying to get it, and then blocking for him if he gets an interception.’’
It has not been an entirely smooth ride this season for Mathieu, who finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. He missed a game against Auburn after being suspended for testing positive for synthetic marijuana.
Although he has been known to taunt opponents, he has promised to be more low key Monday.
Still, Mathieu said that learning things he can use against his opponents is part of his strategy. “Anything you can do to get a guy out of his game gives you an edge,’’ he said.