The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One question has tortured Tyrann Mathieu’s entire life. He’s not sure he wants the answer.

Tyrann Mathieu, sitting in his home last month, says, “I got this different kind of wiring of thoughts.” (Annie Mulligan/For The Washington Post)

HOUSTON — Just a few weeks ago, Tyrann Mathieu woke up in his big bed, in his big house, in the middle of his big contract with the Houston Texans, and the first thing he felt was anger.

Or emptiness. Or inadequacy. Or something.

He cannot positively identify the emotion, though its discomfort is unmistakable, and the Texans safety would assume his unhappiness was tied to the same thing it had always been: that question he has never gotten around to asking his mother.

He used to try drowning these feelings inside a cloud of marijuana smoke, an activity he now associates with both celebration and penalty. But since 2012 — a few months after the “Honey Badger” became the first college defensive back in 14 years invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony, LSU would dismiss him for yet another substance abuse violation — he has tried to be more constructive. He does yoga sometimes, practices a form of daily meditation inside the Texans’ steam room, used to meet with a therapist when he played for the Arizona Cardinals.

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Sometimes it works. But the feelings return. They’re never gone, and part of him wonders whether that’s even a bad thing.

“I’ve always wanted a perfect life,” he says, resigned to the impossibility of such a thing, as he lounges on a big sectional sofa in a big gated house with a putting green in the back.

Though it would seem there’s plenty of goodness in his life — he earned $7 million this season while using honesty about his experiences to inject some much-needed attitude into Houston’s locker room, helping lift the Texans to nine consecutive wins and perhaps Mathieu’s most complete season as a pro — the heart and soul of the Texans’ secondary has something missing from his heart and soul.

“I know what I want, right?” he says. “It’s like this positive and straightforward and no-bumps-in-the-road kind of life, and I don’t know if I’m fascinated with adversity. I don’t know if it’s just, like, there’s this bone in my body that calls for adversity. I don’t know.”

Except he does, and he might even know how to fix it.

Mathieu, 26, has, for better or worse, conditioned himself to be comfortable in chaos — including that of his own making — in part because, years ago, he vowed to reach football’s mountaintop not because of size or speed but through fearlessness and will. That would be the only way to convince his family, specifically his mother, that he was worth something, that Tyrann Mathieu was worth keeping.

Therefore, there would be no fight he wouldn’t pick, no cage he wouldn’t rattle. And with confrontation as his superpower, he would be lifted from the urban decay of New Orleans and into the college ranks (where he would be compared with an animal whose fearlessness sometimes outweighs its judgment) and eventually the NFL.

“I got this different kind of wiring of thoughts,” he says. “It’s kind of like I put thoughts in my head just to keep me going.”

One of those has been there longer than the others, and though Mathieu has been a success for a long time, he still will engage most any opponent — teammates, broadcasters, fans, his own mind — because those little fights help him avoid the one confrontation he has spent a lifetime avoiding.

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Mathieu isn’t afraid of much, but for several reasons, a three-letter question terrifies him: Why?

Seeking approval

Some of his earliest memories are of examining photographs, remembering the faces that weren’t there instead of the ones that were.

His biological father was absent from any picture after Mathieu was 2, swallowed by a life sentence following a conviction for second-degree murder. Three years after that, his grandfather’s heart quit, and so his face was gone from photos, too. An uncle disappeared after he was murdered; an aunt was gone after a car accident.

Unpleasant as those reasons were, the boy could accept them. But why was his mother, Tyra, never in the pictures? Come to think of it, why was she never in the bleachers during his youth games? Why were her arms never those surrounding him when he was injured or sad? Why was it he lived with his grandparents and then Aunt Sheila and Uncle Tyrone?

So one day the boy saw his mother and just asked her: Why couldn’t he live with Tyra and his siblings? Why was Tyra’s second child and eldest son the only one of her five children who had to live elsewhere? She wouldn’t answer.

“I couldn’t understand,” Mathieu now says, “why I was the chosen one.”

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The boy assumed he had to earn his mother’s love, and maybe if he ran the football hard enough, she would invite him home. If the game someday paid him enough money to buy her a house, perhaps they could live in it together. So he tackled with bad intentions, ran track and performed the long jump as if his future depended on it, got in opponents’ faces, trained harder, talked louder, made himself the most outlandish promises because maybe fulfilling them would convince her.

“My whole point,” he says, “was to prove I was worth something. Like, anything.”

When that didn’t work, marijuana sometimes did — the first of many temporary and indirect remedies — so he settled into the cloud and built himself an emotional cocoon. Aunt Sheila offered love, but Mathieu sometimes braced for her to cross him, too. His grandmother once listened to his thoughts, but when her mind faded and her health failed, the boy again felt abandoned.

“No matter how old you get,” Tyrone Mathieu says, “you still need that hug.”

High school victories and personal bests didn’t yield his mother’s affection. A starting job at LSU and the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to college football’s best defensive player, did not elicit an invitation home. “Honey Badger,” a nickname he had come to enjoy and then hate and then accept, could help upset Alabama and captivate the nation but wasn’t bold enough to compel his mother to answer a simple question.

Then LSU dismissed him in August 2012, and again Mathieu felt isolated. He entered addiction rehab in a Houston suburb, accepting what he now calls a “code of honor” to take his reliance on marijuana seriously, and a few months later, the Cardinals drafted him anyway. He says he has avoided marijuana, suggesting he hasn’t smoked since 2012 — though the urge was strong, he says, following Arizona’s NFC West title in 2015 because “life felt so perfect” — but kept looking for new targets to confront. He experimented with new ways to soothe his mind, though he avoided asking the question that might allow him to wake up without anger because what if his lack of an answer was why he was exceptional?

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So he picked fights and challenged teammates, donated backpacks and meals to kids growing up as he once had, defended his team or himself — or something — on social media, with its infinite flow of opponents. He indeed bought Tyra a house in New Orleans. He talked about her in therapy. He invited her to games. He flew her to Phoenix and, more recently, Houston, where not long ago he watched Tyra play with and love on his own two sons.

“I’m just like: I don’t remember those days,” he says. “I don’t remember you hugging me at all.”

He pauses, examining a mental photograph in which he is the one who’s absent.

“I’ve lived my whole life,” he says, “trying to prove that I’m worthy of being a part of something because I never really felt that.”

'The core of all my success'

Mathieu is on the sofa with the TV blaring when his girlfriend heads downstairs, and because he woke up earlier than Sydni, she’s not entirely sure what — or who — she’s facing.

Once or twice a week, he will rise and go stalking around the house. He will ignore her, shoot her a mean look, demand to be left alone. But they have been together since LSU, long enough for Sydni to realize he doesn’t mean it; Mathieu’s mood, she will say, is actually tied to frequent, persistent affection. But she occasionally needs her own space, so why can’t her boyfriend just ask when he needs her to sit with him, to rub his shoulders, to give him a hug?

But they also know their relationship works in part because of their differences: For one, Sydni has no problem initiating an uncomfortable discussion — she lit up her father last April after he forgot her birthday — and Mathieu prefers to internalize crises to keep the peace.

“Sweep things under the rug,” she says from the kitchen on this day, “because it’s easier.”

Mathieu looks at her and shrugs.

“I’m not right?” Sydni says.

“I guess.”

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She knows Mathieu has been thinking recently about his mother, who returned to New Orleans a few days earlier. So Sydni being Sydni, she just asks: Why is he — why are they — doing this? Still. Wouldn’t it ultimately be better to just have the confrontation, to ask Tyra his question and move past this, for both of their sakes? For the sake of their 4-year-old son?

“The pain comes back in different forms,” she says, “and you think, ‘Oh, it’s ’cause this; it’s ’cause this; it’s ’cause this.’ But, no, I feel like it’s still the same little issue that has now snowballed.”

Mathieu begins squirming, his eyes trained on a loud sports debate show.

“I’ve turned out all right,” he says flatly.

“Right, exterior-wise: You have a nice house; you have a good job; you have a nice car.”

Internally I turned out all right,” he says, and this is the part he believes Sydni cannot understand: that his mother’s rejection actually made his success possible. “. . . My solution is to constantly overachieve. Until that day comes where we have that conversation, in my mind, I’m still a rejection.”

“Because that ignites you.”

Mathieu looks at her, rises from the sofa and walks toward her.

“I’m trying to figure out if I find that closure, do I still wake up with the same fire?” he says. “Do I have the same want-to?”

Sydni says nothing as he glides into the kitchen, past her and toward the pantry, where he keeps his tins of smokeless tobacco. He will say it’s just something he started years ago to fit in with the country boys in Louisiana. She will say it’s him trading marijuana for yet another habit, one more temporary anxiety shield, and that maybe this — so much of this — could disappear in exchange for one hard discussion.

Mathieu tucks a pinch into his cheek.

“This has caused me great pain,” says Mathieu, who through a spokeswoman declined The Washington Post’s request to interview Tyra; independent efforts to reach her were unsuccessful. “But, like, this has also helped me win many battles.” 

He returns to the couch, carrying the tin and two decades of survival instinct, proved on one hand but outdated on another. He watches the men shouting at each other on TV, debating a topic whose resolution can never be known.

“But you don’t need that negativity,” Sydni says. “Because it’s flaming that fire, but it’s flaming another fire, too — another negative fire.”

He doesn’t say anything.

“Sometimes you have to have your own closure,” she says.

Another point to prove

He had settled into a solid enough groove until last winter, when the Cardinals asked Mathieu, popular and valuable but injury prone and expensive, to rework his contract. He said no. Arizona said goodbye.

Life in the NFL, to be sure, but that wasn’t how Mathieu’s mind processed it.

“I felt like I was part of that team. I felt like I was part of that culture,” he says. “I felt like I was a leader in the locker room, and for whatever reason y’all don’t want me anymore?”

He pauses.

“I always focus on the negatives,” Mathieu says.

But for the first time, he tried something new. He took a deep breath or two, confronting those old instincts by thinking about his accomplishments in Arizona. The relationships he had built. That division championship and the temptation and restraint that followed. Focusing on positivity took nearly everything he had, but he convinced himself that his emotions could be controlled, that it was possible to be grateful and not vindictive, to wake up with energy and hope and not resentment and anger.

“A balance for me every day,” he says. “A fight when I wake up.”

Then Houston called, a one-year deal offering less money and security than Arizona and New York, and Mathieu’s mind told him that was the offer he should take. That it was the one that would allow him, he says, “to prove my point,” which was to give himself a 12-month deadline to show he’s a reliable defensive back and a man worthy of respect.

So he joined the Texans and moved into a house two miles from the rehab center he attended after leaving LSU. “Full circle,” he would call it, and he wondered what else he was capable of. He would go to practice, keep to himself, let his work introduce him to his new teammates. He arrived early, stayed late, kept quiet and worked as hard as possible, even when his position coach asked him maybe to dial it back, considering it’s just a damn warmup.

After a few months, Mathieu’s personality was becoming the temperament of the Texans’ defense, a unit with plenty of talent but one that needed someone unafraid to rattle cages.

“I love the fight,” veteran cornerback Johnathan Joseph says.

“He knows how to get guys to really buy in,” rookie safety Justin Reid says.

“When he speaks, you know people listen,” Coach Bill O’Brien says.

For a long time, Mathieu has harnessed his emotions, often saving them for the field because it’s where, he says, “there’s no part of me that’s flawed.” But perhaps for the first time, he is seeing that his work and determination, not the ghosts of his past, ultimately will influence the Texans’ offseason decision: Keep him beyond the one-year experiment or become just the latest to give up on him?

“There is just so much more for me to accomplish,” he says during a hopeful moment, though after two decades, his fear is never far behind. “I don’t know, man, I had, like, these crazy — I feel like I’m so close to going back to where I don’t want to be.”

But maybe he can keep outfoxing his own mind. Perhaps he can continue overpowering the dread of his youth and mistakes of his early adulthood, realizing as he approaches 30 and settles into fatherhood and makes plans for his and Sydni’s future that he’s ready for his life’s most important and complicated confrontation.

Soon, Mathieu says, Tyra will be returning to Houston. He says he hopes to sit across from his mother and, during a quiet moment, finally ask: Why? Why did she abandon him all those years back? Why couldn’t she love and accept him? Why didn’t she think about how it might affect him?

Over the years, he has heard versions of what her answer might be. Back then, family members say, Tyra was young and irresponsible. Nothing more. No addiction or legal bind, no demanding job or complicated story — just an immature young woman, relatives say, who had children but wasn’t ready for motherhood, who relished her independence without regard for any emotional wounds she might be carving.

Tyra’s eldest son has heard those things and that she has changed. But he needs, finally, to hear it from her.

“I can’t make someone tell the truth,” Mathieu says.

He takes a breath.

“But I can ask,” he says.