Hayes says he received scholarship offers from Georgia Tech, Louisiana Tech, Mississippi, Tulane and UCLA but couldn't meet the academic requirements so instead chose Alcorn State, where he could practice with the team while attempting to qualify. He wasted no time making an impression. In practice he had to mimic the opposition's best player, and Alcorn's Hall of Fame coach, Marino (the Godfather) Casem, recalls Hayes playing the role of Jerry Rice, then at Mississippi Valley State, almost as well as Rice himself. Cornbread, says Casem, was an NFL-caliber talent with the same qualities that would define his son. "He didn't have a lot of size, but he had all the rest," Casem says. "He was tough. Extra tough."
But Hayes never played a snap at Alcorn—he was caught with a gun on campus and kicked out of school. He says he then walked on at a community college in Mississippi but didn't last there either. He wound up playing semipro football around New Orleans for a few years, but he says he was soon smoking marijuana and selling drugs, eventually developing a cocaine habit. He fathered four children with three women and served a two-year prison sentence, from 1991 to '93, for robbing a store. While in prison, Hayes got word that one of his daughters, born to ex-girlfriend Sonya Smith, was calling Smith's new boyfriend Daddy. Hayes wrote to her saying that the guy, Donald (Pork and Beans) Noten, would die. "Keep this letter," Cornbread wrote, "to use it as evidence in my murder case."
Hours after being released from prison, Hayes and at least one other armed man sought out Noten. According to Smith, Hayes stood over Noten with a gun drawn as he pleaded for his life and pulled hundreds of dollars from his pockets. Noten was shot seven times by two guns. Cornbread denies he murdered Noten, saying he regrets his "casual involvement." But along with the letter to Smith showing he'd contemplated Noten's death, he sent one to a fellow inmate afterward that seemed to confess: "The n----- cross me wrong. And that cost him his life." The passage included a smiley face.
In 1994, Hayes was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Tyrann was two. His mother, Tyra Mathieu, was a struggling single mom, so Tyrann spent his first five years living with his maternal grandparents. After his grandfather died, an uncle, Tyrone Mathieu, and his wife, Sheila, took Tyrann in and raised him with their kids. Throughout, Tyrann maintained a relationship with Tyra and Darrineka, who was also the child of Tyra and Cornbread.
Tyrann stayed in touch with his father, too, occasionally visiting him in prison and writing to him. Hayes provided SI with some of the letters that father and son exchanged. In one, written when Tyrann was 12, he referred to himself as Lil Bread and drew hearts around his and his father's nicknames. "First of all I love [you] and miss you very much," it begins. "I've been thinking about you."
Hayes hasn't seen Tyrann since he enrolled at LSU or spoken to him since October 2010, but he still writes his son letters and watches LSU games on a 48-inch flat screen at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, 14 miles southeast of Tiger Stadium. Every day Hayes prays that his son doesn't follow his path. "Tyrann has a drug problem," Hayes writes to SI. "I expected more out of him because he know how I lost everything behind drugs."
The move to his uncle Tyrone's house took Tyrann from one of the poorest parts of New Orleans to a middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of the city with houses and yards. Tyrone, a UPS driver who's best known around the city as the King of Zulu in the 2009 Mardi Gras parade, says he raised the kids on church, discipline and private education. For Tyrann that meant St. Augustine, an all-boys' Catholic school in the Seventh Ward.
That's where Tyrann's talents first emerged and where he made many of the friends who would become an ongoing influence. In 2006, Tyrann's freshman year, the school had recently reopened after Hurricane Katrina, which left it with a depleted roster. Coach Wayne Cordova needed bodies for a game against perennial power Archbishop Rummel High, so he threw a few of the more promising freshmen on the field with the varsity. Although he was only 5'7" and 125 pounds, Mathieu showed he had the ability to be a defensive star. By his final season, he put such fear into opposing quarterbacks that he had to pretend to slip in order to get the ball thrown to his side of the field. Still, Cordova would hear the old-timers bark from the stands, "Tyrann don't have nothing on his daddy."
Late in high school Tyrann and his friends formed a crew called Era Nation, made up of a dozen self-described athletes, rappers and songwriters. Era Nation remained part of Mathieu's life after he moved to LSU, and he stayed tight with the group even as he became nationally famous. Mathieu felt so strongly about Era Nation that Era was part of the handle on his Twitter account (@TM7_Era), which he recently shut down.
Over the last year Mathieu has appeared with his Era Nation buddies in multiple videos online that show them at clubs partying. In another video Mathieu wears a shirt that says, HERE'S TO FEELIN' GOOD ALL THE TIME. One Era Nation member who appears in many of the videos with Mathieu, Samuel Brooks, a rapper who goes by the name of Yung Soop, told SI about Mathieu's marijuana use: "It was a recreational thing. I don't believe he's addicted." Brooks, who was arrested in December 2010 for battery against his mother and later pleaded guilty to a charge of criminal damage, has also tweeted about producing Honey Badger T-shirts. Cordova says that Era Nation has been using Mathieu's celebrity to advance its own agenda. "When Tyrann started doing well, Brooks went around telling people, 'I don't have to do nothing now,'" Cordova says. "'Tyrann's going to put me on when he goes to the league.'"