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Thank You, Arizona

Apr 5 2018
Photo by
Matt Rourke/AP
Photo by
Matt Rourke/AP
Tyrann Mathieu
Houston Texans
Apr 5 2018

I still remember the day I was drafted pretty vividly.

Most of that day, honestly, I was pissed. Even though I’d expected it to happen and prepared myself for it to happen, it was brutal watching 15 other defensive backs get selected before me. Fifteen. One-five. I knew I had a lot of work to do in order to rebuild my reputation, but that showed me just how much work there was to be done. There was clearly a large gap between what NFL teams thought I could do and what I knew I could do.

Throughout my life, I lost a lot of people close to me and it caused a lot of sadness, which transformed into anger. Football became an outlet. It was a way to take those negative feelings and channel them into something positive.

I think the best way to break out of that negative mindset was to get a fresh start. I needed to be sent to a place where nobody recognized me for my mistakes — or even my hair.

I didn’t realize it until I got the call on draft day in 2013, but I needed to go to the desert.

Perry Knotts/AP

I often get asked about how I managed to turn things around after making it to the NFL. When I reflect on it, I think all the good I have in me now has always been there. The problem was that I didn’t embrace those aspects of myself. It took other people to bring them out of me.

One of those people was Rashad Johnson. He was the starting safety when I first got here.

He was a really intelligent player who understood this business deeply. He definitely understood it well enough to know that when I was drafted, it was probably so that I could take his job.

Because of that, I would have understood if he’d kept me at an arm’s length and hadn’t provided that much help. In fact, that’s what I expected. But it turns out, things were different here.

Even though he had every reason not to, Rashad went out of his way to teach me everything he could to make me better. We watched film together, dissected schemes and we even prayed together after practice. He was a good person to me, not because he wanted anything, but just because it was the right thing to do. That really left a mark on me.

I’ve always had the aggression and determination that inspires my nickname. But what I struggled with for a really long time was learning to like the person I was away from football. People always expected me to be the Honey Badger, so I tried to keep up with that persona all the time.

Rashad’s willingness to help me out not only made me a better football player, but it also showed me that there are people in the world who do good things because they value helping others above everything else. He helped me realize that I could be a ruthless competitor on the football field, and an entirely different person off of it — that there was value in both.

And as I came to discover, that was just the culture here. Up and down the roster there were guys like Fitz, Calais, Jerraud Powers and so many others who were willing to teach you how to be a professional. Over the years, I gained so much just from watching how they handled themselves on and off the field. Beyond showing me what it meant to be a pro, they also were willing to be a friend whenever I needed one.

And that’s what makes it so hard to say goodbye.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

When I finally did get drafted, my mood changed right away. I was going to Arizona. I was going to get to play with Patrick Peterson again. That’s my guy.

Going back to when we first met at LSU, Pat has been a very positive force in my life. The opportunity to share the field with him again was all it took for me to feel great about being drafted by the Cardinals. And I guess Pat was excited too because his wife texted my girlfriend after he found out I was picked and she said he was literally running up and down the street screaming and hollering.

I’ve developed so many meaningful relationships over the past few years, but getting to experience this journey while playing just a few steps away from one of my best friends was really something special. I never made a big thing out of it, but it was real cool to able to look over at him sometimes and appreciate that we were both there. We’ll always have that.

I’m very thankful to all the coaches who invested time in me over the years, but I need to give a special shoutout to Nick Rapone. We clicked pretty much right from the moment I got here and over the years we developed a relationship that went much deeper than football. He became a sort of father figure to me. From the very beginning, one thing he kept reminding me of was that I was a leader and that he believed in me. It might seem like a small thing, but just hearing that from him on a regular basis really inspired me.

As a team we weren’t always perfect. I’m still frustrated by all the injuries that kept me off the field, and wonder what could have happened if a couple of games had gone the other way. But man, when we were clicking, and everyone was healthy, we had some fun out there. At Seattle in 2015? The real ones remember that game.

We were superheroes for a day.

Steve Dykes/Getty Images

As I get ready to start this new chapter, it feels right to be moving closer to home. In a lot of ways, moving back to Houston feels like a full-circle experience.

After Katrina hit, my family lost everything and we were forced to live in a shelter in Northern Louisiana for two weeks. The conditions there were terrible. I was just 13 at the time, but even all these years later there are still a lot of things ingrained in my mind from that experience. We had to eat these beans that were as hard as bullets. I can still feel the crunch in my mouth when I think about it. I watched a baby fall off four bunk beds that were stacked on top of each other, crying the whole way down. There were all sorts of drugs, fights and destruction all around me. Just desperate, desperate people in a desperate situation.

Eventually, my family got moved into an apartment just outside of Houston. It honestly felt like a safe haven.

What I’ll never forget is just how much the people in Houston embraced us. Like I was in this strange place, we had lost everything and I get on this school bus where I don’t recognize a single face, and everybody was really cool to me. They told me that they were praying for my family. And for the first time since the storm, I felt a sense of relief.

So, looking back on that situation, it feels kind of gratifying to be able to return to Houston on my own terms in a completely different state of mind.

I’m not gonna lie: After the Cardinals let me go, of course I was kind of hurt. But at the same time, it was also pretty dope to see J.J. Watt openly recruiting me to play on his team. I wasn’t super highly-rated coming out of high school, so I’d never really experienced what it was like to have a lot of people openly lobbying for me to play for them. I let myself enjoy that.

When I sorted through my options, Houston was the right choice for a lot of reasons. It gave me an opportunity to be closer to home, with a new perspective on life. But even just from a straight football perspective, the Texans had the best defense in football two years ago. When everyone on their roster is healthy, there’s no reason this team can’t have the best defense again.

I like that I’m a hungry player coming to a hungry organization. I expect this to be a big year. It’s not enough to just make the playoffs, I want to win a Super Bowl here.

Houston welcomed me and my family with open arms when we needed it most. I’ve never forgotten that. It feels good to be back.

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

When I get asked what I’ll miss most about Arizona, the truth is that it’s hard to pinpoint any one particular thing. Ultimately I think it’s going to be a bunch of small things that will make me smile whenever I reflect on my time here.

Like, I’m going to always remember that fan who was at training camp every single practice of every single year, constantly shouting what he thought was my name.

“TYRONE! TYRONE!”

“TYROOOOONE!”

I never bothered to correct him.

There were also guys like Art. He reached out to me on Twitter when I was just a rookie and we started messaging back and forth. I found out that he was a pretty cool guy, and he even showed up at the first event I held in the community. Now, five years later, I’ve seen him at every single charity event that I’ve been part of since I joined the Cardinals — just to support me. I’ve gotten to know his wife and his daughter. We created a real connection through football. There are so many more examples I have like this, of people who showed me a level of compassion and kindness that truly touched me.

And that kind of gets to the biggest thing that my time in Arizona has taught me: The best part of getting love, is giving it back. I knew that everyone here believed in me, and ultimately, all I wanted to do was to live up to that. Being around a culture of helping others in the community made a big impression on me, and eventually it became a sort of therapy for me. It helped me to realize I had the ability to become the sort of mentor that I had needed when I was younger. That gave me a sense of purpose I’d never felt before. That changed my life.  

No matter what happens next, I’m always going to treasure my memories of looking up into the stands in Glendale and seeing all the fans rocking blonde mohawks and a single eye black. Through all the wins, losses and injuries, you guys gave me strength.

When I first got here, I was just a kid who loved football, but didn’t understand much else about life. Today, I’m a man who understands how much you can offer the world if you give a little of yourself. Arizona did that.

So to every Cardinals fan who has taken an interest in me over the past five years, thank you. Thank you so much for accepting me and embracing me, not just as Honey Badger, but as Tyrann.

And to the fans, community and my new teammates in Houston, let’s do this. I’m ready.

Tyrann Mathieu
Houston Texans