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Like the honey badger, LSU's Tyrann Mathieu doesn't back down

CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Heisman finalist focuses on the present after an upbringing that was far from sweet.

January 05, 2012|Chris Dufresne
  • LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu celebrates after returning a punt 42 yards against Georgia in the SEC championship game.
LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu celebrates after returning a punt 42… (Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images )

Reporting from New Orleans -- Louisiana State cornerback Tyrann Mathieu didn't initially care for his nickname, "Honey Badger."

What part?

"The honey part," Mathieu said Thursday at a news conference in advance of Monday night's Bowl Championship Series title game against Alabama.

Not much about his life had been sweet. In fact, a bitter residue lingered through a tough upbringing that took place not far from where LSU will try to win its third BCS crown since 2003.

Mathieu was cast off by his mother and raised by his grandfather before he died when Tyrann was 5. Tyrann's father is serving a life sentence for murder at Louisiana State Penitentiary.

"I don't talk to him much," Tyrann said. "I just try to focus on the present."

Where's the honey in that?

The more he learned about the "Honey Badger," though, the more his nickname fit.

He came to know the animal is a tenacious carnivore and considered one of the most fearless creatures in the world.

John Chavis, LSU's defensive coordinator, showed Mathieu a YouTube video of the animal taking on African cobras and warding off thousands of bees in search of nectar.

One video hilariously merged the animal's attributes to LSU game film of Mathieu's wild on-field antics. "We were laughing pretty hard at it," Mathieu said of the video. "It was pretty funny."

Mathieu's fame soared as his nickname went viral and LSU rocketed in the rankings to No.1.

At 5 feet 9 and 175 pounds, Mathieu is, pound for pound, college football's best player.

He finished fifth in Heisman Trophy balloting this year and won the Bednarik Award, given to the nation's top defensive player. Only a sophomore, Mathieu already owns the school record with 11 forced fumbles and led the team in tackles this year with 70.

Mathieu and teammate Morris Claiborne form the nation's best cornerback tandem.

Mathieu earned a Heisman finalist invitation with dramatic punt returns against No. 3 Arkansas, then against Georgia in the Southeastern Conference title game.

And the nickname "Honey Badger," well, it stuck.

"I think it kind of grew on me," Mathieu said. "I look at 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."

Mathieu is, without doubt, the electrical socket on LSU's defense.

"I think we feed off Ty's emotions," safety Eric Reid said. "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."

Some of the early notoriety went straight to Mathieu's head. He dyed his hair blond and was a noted trash talker.

Mathieu is definitely trying to dial things down. Some of his teammates insisted upon it.

"We joke with him all the time that everybody is still human around here," safety Brandon Taylor said. "… We need to be humble to be where we want to be in life."

Mathieu was humbled mid-season when he suspended for the Auburn game for reportedly testing positive for synthetic marijuana.

"I think I learned a lot," he said last month after LSU's SEC title win. "I think I've matured, I am more well-grounded. If you put your teammates first it will take you a long way."

Mathieu said Thursday he didn't think he played his best during LSU's 9-6 win over Alabama on Nov. 5.

"I was disappointed in myself the first time around," he said.

Mathieu loves to express his views via social networking, but promised no Twitter-board material for Alabama this week. He's even promising not to taunt Alabama receivers.

"To me it doesn't make sense, especially if you're winning the game," he said. "I don't really have much to talk about. It's really about me just playing the game."

Mathieu diplomatically handled several questions about his upbringing.

"I'm not afraid of it," he said of his past. "I'm not backing down from it. I think a lot of things I experienced in my life helped me get to this point."

Honey Badgers never back down. Mathieu will tell you they "take what they want."

Haven't you seen the video?

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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