If you’re a college football star who gets kicked off the team, you can run the triple option:
Option One: Enroll at another football power and sit out a year.
Option Two: Drop down a level to play right away.
Option Three: Try to jump straight to the NFL. (This is known as the Maurice Clarett, and like the fullback dive, it rarely gets anywhere.)
Tyrann Mathieu has drawn up his own play. After LSU booted him from the football team, he has decided to stay on campus, work on his studies and try to improve himself as a human being. It says a lot about college football that this sounds crazy.
I tossed this around with a couple of co-workers, and we couldn’t think of any other college football star who stuck around after getting kicked off his team. (Holler in the comments if you remember any.) BYU and a few other schools have players who pause their college careers for Mormon missions. The occasional player comes back to football after trying another sport. But LSU coach Les Miles has made no promise -- at least no public promise -- that Mathieu will be welcomed back in 2013. So for now he’s just a regular student in Baton Rouge, where one year ago, he was the best player on a team that made the national title game.
Mathieu thought about transferring to McNeese State, a smaller school where he could’ve played right away. Instead, he spent time before the fall semester in John Lucas’ Right Step rehab program. (LSU hasn’t said why Mathieu was kicked off the team, but several news stories said he failed multiple drug tests.) Most 12-step programs teach that addicts are powerless over their addictions. That’s a blow to your soul if you’re powerful. And on the field, Mathieu had the power, causing 14 turnovers in 26 games as a cornerback, running back punts like a stunt driver, burrowing into each play with such fury that his team, and then the world, started calling him Honey Badger. College sports can heap attention on young people who aren’t ready for it.
The Honey Badger is a YouTube and Twitter star. Tyrann Mathieu is a 20-year-old whose mother gave him up to his grandparents. His grandfather died when Tyrann was 5. His uncle and aunt took him in, and then Katrina came and put four feet of water in their house. None of this excuses breaking the law or team rules. But it might help explain it, in the same way it might explain why somebody just 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds can thrive among the best of college football. As he once tweeted: Been to hell and back I can show you the vouchers!
These stories don’t often end well. Every year players fight or toke or cheat their way off teams, and that’s about the last you hear of them. If they do pop up, it’s usually something like: “Former Georgia running back Washaun Ealey got arrested again.” A few rare talents claw their way back. Randy Moss got kicked out of Florida State before he ever played a down. He ended up at Marshall and had a run as the NFL’s best receiver. But if Randy Moss is your role model, you’re in the wrong play.
“I'm just kind of working on the self more than the athlete,” Mathieu says now, and the cynic in me hears the empty phrases of everyone who says this time is different, this time I’m going to change. But I want him to make it work, not just because he’s beautiful to watch on the football field, but because I want to believe in somebody who doesn’t run from his mistakes.
A wise friend told me one time that the surest sign of adulthood is the ability to accept delayed gratification. A college football star gets instant gratification almost every day of his life. I don’t know if Tyrann Mathieu can stand the wait, if he can take being an LSU student without getting to play LSU football. That’s a brutal test for a gifted player. It’s also the kind of test that can make him a better man.