Tyrann Mathieu is usually a kiwi snowball kind of guy, but he was feeling inspired by the radioactive-green track suit he was wearing, so he changed things up.
This was a few weeks back, before he sent a shockwave through his hometown by signing a three-year contract with the New Orleans Saints. Mathieu, his fiancée, Sydni Russell, and his childhood friend, Tyrell McCall, went to Pandora’s Snowballs on Carrollton Avenue, and Mathieu ordered the sour apple flavor with the neon syrup that matched his outfit.
It didn’t take long for him to be spotted, and it wasn’t his get-up that made him stand out. Blame the eminently recognizable hair and crooked grin. The kids in line locked on to Mathieu and were sucked in by his gravity, making their way as close as they could to the local legend, to see him and hear that familiar accent.
McCall has known Mathieu since the eighth grade. The two played in the same defensive secondary at St. Augustine High School and have stayed close since. He watched the kids flock to his friend, and the significance of the moment was not lost on him. When he was a kid, McCall didn’t have any Tyrann Mathieus of his own.
“Growing up, we didn’t see too many Saints players out in the community, out at the store, out at the snowball stand,” McCall said.
This is the potential power of Tyrann Mathieu in New Orleans. He knows his snowball flavors. Shoot, he doesn’t have to be taught what a snowball is. And, most important of all, he’s there, live and in person.
Mathieu made all the sense in the world for the Saints. In him, the club signed a Super Bowl champion with a long list of professional accomplishments. They plugged a glaring hole on the roster with one of this era’s pre-eminent defensive playmakers.
The Saints desperately needed a safety they could depend on, and Mathieu immediately gave them that and more.
But what shouldn’t be lost in this is that New Orleans made sense to Mathieu, too.
He was once a child of New Orleans with great promise, and he went on to do great things in spite of the forces and temptations that conspired to derail him.
His stumbles and roadblocks have been well documented. He grew up with a fractured family, his biological father in prison and his biological mother not a part of his life. He fell from grace at LSU, dismissed from the team not even a year after his scintillating sophomore season earned him a trip to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. He’s been arrested. He’s entered rehab. He’s engaged in petty squabbles on social media. He’s endured season-ending injuries and professional disappointments, being cast aside by multiple NFL teams.
He is scarred, but he is still here. Mathieu is a true New Orleans success story, but so much of what he has accomplished a safe distance from his hometown.
He was a boy when he left, and he returns as a father. This place that shaped him is no longer just his past but it is now his present, too. That excites him, because now he gets to play an active role in investing in its future.
There are other Tyrann Mathieus in this city; he is sure of that — children with talent and dreams, propelled by the same need to make something of themselves. When he speaks about them, he does so in terms of us, we and ours. He blazed a difficult path to get to this point, and all that energy and grief and triumph is wasted if he does not share it.
“More of us can make something out of ourselves,” Mathieu says. “We don’t have to be professional athletes. There’s a spot and a place in this world for all of us. I’m hoping to get that through to the kids.”
There’s one more piece to that idea, one rooted in hard-earned wisdom that illuminates his sense of purpose.
“I know they need it,” he said.
The New Orleans Mathieu knows is the one he carried with him all those years he was away. This place is defined by its pride. Mathieu thinks of New Orleans as an entity to itself, singular and imperfect.
He sees that reflected in himself.
“Listen, it’s carried me a long way,” Mathieu said. From Willie Hall (Playground) all the way back here to the Saints. It plays a big part, as far as personality. That chip on your shoulder. That feeling of being overlooked and always being doubted. I still feel that.”
A dream. A full-circle journey. A magical, storybook-esque chapter where the hometown hero makes a triumphant return to where it all began.
As big a part of him as his hometown is, he has sometimes felt it necessary to keep New Orleans at an arm’s length, because it has sometimes served a reminder of pain, of danger, of unwelcome intrusions into the life he’s cultivated for himself.
He was a teenager when New Orleans last won a Super Bowl. After the Saints won it all that February night, he and McCall hopped in the car and drove down Canal Street to celebrate with what felt like every other living soul in the city. Mathieu said he’ll never forget that day and the “pure joy” it brought New Orleans. McCall said the Saints’ triumph imbued the city with a sense of possibility, that its residents could be winners, too.
One of the key players on that Saints team was defensive end Will Smith. A little more than six years after helping the Saints win a Super Bowl, Smith was tragically shot and killed in the Lower Garden District.
Days after that happened, Mathieu vented his anger and frustration on the nationally syndicated “Rich Eisen Show,” telling the host he didn’t feel comfortable spending more than 48 hours in his hometown.
“People know where you are,” Mathieu told Eisen in 2016. “They know where you’re at. And they will find you. And they will bump into you. And they will try to start some kind of altercation with you. And the first thing that they think about is to take your life. They don’t want to ask any questions, they don’t want to talk about anything. They just want to let loose with their guns.”
Four years later, Mathieu found himself paying for the funeral expenses of 9-year-old Devante Bryant, who was shot and killed while sitting on the front porch of his house in the same 7th Ward neighborhood where Mathieu grew up. At the time, Mathieu’s oldest child, Noah, was 7 years old.
Mathieu has lost personal friends to gun violence. There are others who were talented just like him but were tempted away from the path that would have allowed them to maximize those abilities. His own family history is deeply complicated. The New Orleans Mathieu knows isn’t the sanitized postcard shot from Jackson Square, but a vibrant mosaic that would be incomplete without the sadness and darkness.
Still, something changed to make him feel comfortable coming home, and that something might be Mathieu himself.
Del Lee-Collins got to know Mathieu around the same time as McCall. He coached Mathieu at St. Petersburg. Augustine, and was there to see him emerge from his chrysalis, a somewhat shy middle-schooler morphing into the swaggering Honey Badger.
The change he sees now is more profound, though. The first three decades of Mathieu’s life made him rich and famous, but they also exacted a heavy toll. Being Tyrann Mathieu was no easy thing, and yet all those competing forces that threatened to tear him apart instead have produced a strong, stable and mature father of three.
That alone makes Lee-Collins optimism for what the future has in store for Mathieu in his hometown.
“He’s a family man now. He loves his family; that’s what it’s about for him,” Lee-Collins said. “So as much as — and I get what he’s saying about what he’s been through here — but he grew through all of that to become the man he is today, for him to be able to come back to the city and see it in a different perspective.”
Mathieu considered a question about the complexity of his relationship with his hometown. His response was guarded but optimism. The Mathieu of the present is more willing to let New Orleans back in than the Mathieu of the past. The Mathieu of the past had people in the community looking out for him, too.
“I’ve always had great support, you know what I mean? I was always the dude in the park that everybody took care of and looked out for. Even going through St. Aug and LSU, people have always looked out for me and cared about me,” Mathieu said. “So really the unsafe part was not being sure about yourself. I think I’m past that part of it.
“New Orleans is a one-of-a-kind place, you know? It’s the only place on Earth that’s like that. Obviously there’s good and bad with that.”
How fitting that Mathieu signed with his hometown team on May 4, like the cosmos sending a conspiratorial wink and nod to the locals on 504 day.
His signing kind of broke the internet. After the Saints team account tweeted a link to preorder a Mathieu Saints jersey, the site crashed from the sheer volume of fans trying to get in on the action.
For one, Tyrann Mathieu doesn’t have an official number yet. For two? The NFL Shop link gained so much traction it temporarily broke the website.
“It’s like a dream come true,” McCall said. “Like I was telling him, this never happens. A kid grew up in New Orleans, went to St. Aug, went to LSU, then to now have the opportunity — just the opportunity — to play for the Saints? It’s huge. The fact that it’s true, it’s real and it’s here? Oh man, there’s no better feeling.”
The reality is Mathieu would be a superstar in any of the 30 cities that NFL franchises call home, but being Mathieu in New Orleans is a whole different animal. Here, he is an icon. Here, he knows that anytime he steps out into the world, it’s going to turn into a photo shoot.
It’s going to be fun; it’s also going to be stressful. He understands that comes with the territory, and there’s no way around it. Mathieu has dealt with fame and its trappings for a while now. Some of that has changed him, but at his core he is still the kid who grew up in the 7th Ward.
“I’ve always wanted to be somebody in this lifetime,” Mathieu said. “Whatever challenge that comes, you take it on the chin, you learn what you can from it and you fix it without trying to change everything about yourself. I kind of like the dude that I am.”
And the person that he is resonates in New Orleans. His already huge platform has deeper reach in this city. He aims to harness that power, to have his impact soar beyond the statistics in the box score, to be something truly transformational.
Mathieu is being paid handsomely to return to his hometown and perform on the football field, but his vision expands beyond the Superdome’s confines. There is a responsibility — and an opportunity — for him here that is different from other places.
Celebration is woven into New Orleans’ fabric. This is a place that knows how to champion its culture and the people who create it. Mathieu felt the love from his community when his return was announced, but he wants to get something across.
“It’s good for the city; it’s good for the spirit,” Mathieu said. “I think a lot of people should be happy that I’m coming home, but I want them to understand that I’m not about to set up a tent and throw a picnic. I’ve still got a lot of work to do, you know what I mean? It’s going to be a tall task trying to help the community and reshape how kids think. It’s going to take a lot of me.”
It starts with something small, like simply being there.
McCall and Mathieu never saw Saints players at the snowball stand. Lee-Collins grew up in Algiers and attended Edna Karr High School, and he didn’t have those sorts of interactions, either. Just imagine what could come out of that little spark?
“I wish I had those types of guys around that would show us something greater than ourselves, plant seeds in us to make us know that we could be better than what we are,” Lee-Collins said. “Just give us a glimpse, a hope of what we could be.”
Mathieu gets that, Lee-Collins said, because he was once that kid.
New Orleans native Tyrann Mathieu will be receiving a 3-year deal worth up to $33 million with $18 million fully guaranteed from the Saints, a…