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The smell of deep-fried tailgates and Cajun spices fills the air. Beer funnels swish and gurgle. Footballs fly, and an electricity pulses through the revelers in rhythm with the beat of the LSU marching band. It's game night in Baton Rouge and anything feels possible.
Wading through the sea of purple and gold inside Tiger Stadium is an unlikely spectator in a jungle-themed snap-back hat and a red NOTORIOUS B.I.G. shirt. He's small but draws a big crowd; fans come over to wish him well and pose for pictures. One female student leans in and says, "Hey, you going out tonight?"
In a soft voice he replies, "I don't go out anymore."
"Why not?" the girl asks.
He doesn't answer, letting the question hang in the thick bayou night, and by halftime he is gone. Amid the party he leaves behind, his former teammates cruise to a 41--3 win over Washington.
A year ago 5'9", 175-pound cornerback Tyrann Mathieu emerged as one of the best players in college football. With a nickname that summed up his playing style, the Honey Badger took what he wanted all season, forcing six fumbles, grabbing two interceptions, racking up 15.6 yards per punt return and scoring four touchdowns. During a 13--1, SEC-championship-winning season that ended with a 21--0 loss to Alabama in the BCS title game, Mathieu's playmaking swung or sealed victories, and he became only the third defensive player since 1994 to be named a Heisman Trophy finalist.
But everything changed for Mathieu on Aug. 10, when LSU dismissed him from the team for failing multiple drug tests; two sources close to Mathieu say the drug was marijuana. At that point Mathieu could have transferred to a lower-division school, played out his junior season—thought to be his last in college anyway—and awaited his certain selection in the NFL draft. Instead he underwent four weeks of drug rehabilitation with John Lucas in Houston before returning to school. The unconfirmed aim for the 20-year-old Mathieu, who declined to speak to SI, is to play for the Tigers next year. But that possibility may be more tenuous than he knows: Since last January, Mathieu has allowed his image to be used on a flyer promoting an event at a local night club, appeared in several promotional videos online and, multiple sources told SI, received benefits at the club that could affect his eligibility.
For now he lives by himself off campus and takes classes. Banned from the football facility, he works out in the LSU rec center. If the crossroads he has arrived at—between redeeming his football career or squandering it, between old loyalties and new priorities—feels familiar to him, it should: Three decades ago his father came to the same point and washed out in a spiral of drugs and violence.
The path forward seems simple enough: Stop smoking, get to the NFL, enjoy the fruits of success. But for Mathieu that's not so easy. It means negotiating complex family dynamics, distancing himself from lifelong friends and supporting a baby boy due in January. "I'm not making excuses for my brother," says 21-year-old Darrineka Mathieu, "but I would smoke too, dealing with everything."
Before Tyrann Mathieu became the Honey Badger, he called himself Lil Bread, after his father, Darrin Hayes, who was known as Cornbread. Hayes grew up near the downtrodden and violent St. Bernard housing projects in New Orleans. Only 5'8" and 175 pounds, Hayes starred at John H. McDonogh High in the early 1980s. "He wasn't afraid of anything," says his high school coach, Percy Duhe. "He could flat-out play. He was the best running back in the city."