METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Tyrann Mathieu longed for another chance to play for the Louisiana football fans that he thrilled as a college star at LSU.
So, when the 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist learned that his hometown New Orleans Saints wanted to sign him, “it was a situation that I knew I wasn’t going to pass up,” he said.
New Orleans “was really the only visit that I went on,” the three-time All-Pro defensive back said after signing a three-year contract with the Saints on Wednesday. “From the get-go, I knew where I wanted to be. It just feels good to see it all kind of come together.”
Mathieu, who played for St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, burst onto the national scene as a sophomore at LSU, when his fearless and tenacious style of play earned him his “Honey Badger” nickname. He helped lead the Tigers to an undefeated regular season and No. 1 ranking in 2011 before LSU lost to Alabama 21-0 in the national championship game in the Superdome — now Mathieu’s new home stadium.
But Mathieu’s highly anticipated junior season never came to be. Then-LSU coach Les Miles dismissed him before that season for a repeated violation of team rules — reports at the time indicated repeated drug test failures.
Arizona took a chance on Mathieu in the third round of the 2013 draft and he played with the Cardinals for five seasons. He moved to Houston in 2018 before joining the Chiefs and playing in two Super Bowls in the past three seasons, winning one.
Mathieu said it was best for him to get away from New Orleans to begin his pro career.
“I think 10,11 years ago when I was a 20-year-old kid, I think it was just important for me to kind of remove myself from certain things, certain environments, so that I could work on myself, get myself to a certain point to where I can come back home and be responsible and be the person that I know I can be,” Mathieu said.
The 5-foot-9, 190-pound Mathieu has played in 129 regular-season games with 120 starts. He has 41 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and 26 interceptions, including three that were returned for touchdowns.
His 13 picks since 2019 are tied for fifth in the NFL.
The Saints lost both of their starting safeties from last season when Marcus Williams signed with Baltimore as a free agent and Malcolm Jenkins retired. They signed former New York Jet Marcus Maye last month and met with Mathieu shortly before the draft.
When New Orleans completed last weekend’s NFL draft without taking a safety, general manager Mickey Loomis hinted that it was the one position that remained “a must” in free agency. Talks with Mathieu heated up Monday and the two sides quickly agreed on a package worth $33 million.
Saints defensive back CJ Gardner-Johnson and Mathieu had exchanged social media posts expressing their mutual hope of becoming teammates. But Mathieu noted that he “didn’t really need to be sold.”
“This has always been a defense that I’ve seen myself being a part of with how much passion they play, the energy, just the tightness that you can just see. It pops off the screen,” Mathieu said.
“I’ve had great success in this league. I’ve made a lot of money. I wasn’t necessarily eager to jump into any situation,” Mathieu said. “It was really the best decision for me to be able to come in and impact this team and impact the community that I grew up in.”
Mathieu joins a team that was seventh in the NFL in total defense last season and he arrives as former defensive coordinator Dennis Allen takes over as head coach after Sean Payton’s resignation in January.
The Saints’ only Super Bowl title came after the 2009 season when Mathieu was preparing to graduate from high school and attend LSU.
He watched the Saints beat the Indianapolis Colts on TV, then joined the Mardi Gras-like celebration in the streets of New Orleans.
“I just remember me and my homeboys getting in the car and going to down to Canal Street,” Mathieu said. “It felt like the whole city was down there. I think that was one of those memories that I’ll never forget, just the moment and just the pure joy that it really brought to the city.”