The Chiefs needed this Honey Badger: Why safety is key to their defensive turnaround

Tyrann Mathieu arrived in St. Joseph in the back seat of a black SUV.

Wearing a purple throwback LSU sweatshirt, the Chiefs’ safety shut the door to the car. The door settled back in its frame, just next to a gold logo, a thick letter L encased by a box. Just below the box were the words: ‘Leader.’

Mathieu greeted the cameras that were waiting for him just outside the car, engaging with them as he collected his luggage from the driver. Then he paused and hugged the driver, who was also wearing a Leader-logo polo.

Mathieu, signed to be the leader of the defense during free agency, didn’t pick the car service to send a subtle message. But it was an appropriate coincidence.

The whole thing wasn’t totally unplanned, though. His driver, Bruce, was the same man who picked him up at the airport when he signed his three-year, $42 million contract with the Chiefs in March.

After that, Mathieu promised he would be his driver for every major event in Kansas City.

“It’s always good to see him,” Mathieu said when asked about the car early in camp. “He picks me up, takes me to the airport, He’s my guy. He sent my fiance an edible arrangement before camp. Obviously he’s thinking about me, so, ‘Hey Bruce!’”

That’s just who Mathieu is. He’s a loyal guy, one who truly and deeply cares about people in his life. More importantly, he’s also a leader. And as the Chiefs moved on from Eric Berry, that’s the defining characteristic that made Mathieu the first guy the Chiefs targeted in free agency.

“There were a bunch of good safeties out there, but this guy is a true bell cow, when he speaks people listen,” Veach said. “Moving on from a guy who had that room for so long, how do you duplicate that? You put high priority on not just talent, but character and leadership. It made a lot of sense to get him.”

Lead by example

Mathieu’s on-field persona is brash and aggressive.

With a knack for making game-changing plays and viciously attacking offenses, Mathieu earned the Honey Badger nickname during his LSU days, and it stuck.

But even before Mathieu’s nickname, Mo Claiborne knew Mathieu was going to be a good player.

The two spent two seasons together in Baton Rouge, and Claiborne knew Mathieu was special from the first time the two met during 7-on-7s the summer before Mathieu’s first fall camp.

“He came in and the first day, he had like three interceptions, and it was against the ones,” Claiborne said. “You could tell right away that this kid was special, and you know his personality, it’s out of the world. You don’t find too many people on this earth like him.”

Claiborne noticed then that despite Mathieu’s quiet demeanor, guys were still attracted to him. He was a natural leader, even if he didn’t have the loudest voice.

“He don’t have to say much,” Claiborne said. “He leads by example. When he feels like he needs to speak, he speaks, and people listen.”

Tyrann Mathieu, right, is being counted upon to provide more punch to the Chiefs’ defense than fans saw last season. Jill Toyoshiba

Those traits he showcased at LSU and fine-tuned with the help of Patrick Peterson in Arizona and J.J. Watt in Houston are the things that made the Chiefs go get him in free agency. Yes, he was an incredible player, but the team needed more than that.

They needed to fill the leadership void left by Berry and infuse a maligned defensive unit with renewed energy. They also needed to pair Mahomes with someone who could be his equal on the other side of the ball. Mathieu had that kind of relationship with Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.

“It was his duty to guide the offense,” Mathieu said. “And for me, I was like the energy bug for the defense.

So the Chiefs used the MVP in their pitch to Mathieu, and it worked.

“Me and Pat, we chatted quite a few before I actually signed here,” Mathieu said. “I think his mindset was just like mine. He was going to focus on the offense, and it would be my job to come in and try to rally the defense. I think he was excited about me being here. I think any time you get to play with an MVP quarterback, it’s a no-brainer.”

Honey Badger does care

It’s not just that Mathieu is committed to be a leader among the Chiefs, it’s that he believes part of his calling is to be a leader within the greater community.

In stints in Arizona and Houston, Mathieu adopted the community as his own, but he didn’t make it a point to meet with local politicians. In moving to Kansas City, though, Mathieu felt his priorities shift.

So he reached out to then-Mayor Sly James.

“That was actually a first for me,” he said. “I’m stepping into a new situation. A different challenge, and I think everywhere I’ve went, I’ve always been a part of the community. But obviously I want to make Kansas City home and try to do things a step further than what I’ve done in the past.”

The pair had a productive conversation just days before training camp to discuss ways Mathieu could engage the community and use his platform to help children in the city.

Though James is out of office now, Mathieu’s relationship with him is still strong — and he’s still continuing the relationship with the Office of the Mayor.

Newly elected Mayor Quinton Lucas attended the Chiefs’ penultimate training camp practice in St. Joseph and briefly met with a couple of players as they left the field. One of those guys was Mathieu.

“When we think about the gun violence in Kansas City, frankly, the lack of hope that you see in a lot of kids’ lives, this is a group that really has a voice with that,” Lucas said of meeting with the Chiefs. “I was excited by Tyrann really taking on that opportunity and that pledge.”

In his election campaign, Lucas emphasized reaching out to young black men between the ages of 15 and 30. Doing that, he said, requires the right messenger to connect the targeted community with the organizations that could help. He believes Mathieu can be one of those facilitators.

“I don’t know if a politician can ever do it,” Lucas said. “I talk to schools all the time, and they’re like, ‘All right, whatever a mayor is, right?’ They know what a football player is, and particularly players who have dealt with some amount of adversity or frankly worked for guys who have dealt with adversity.

“I have a story where we grew up with some struggle. I like the fact that Tyrann is able to share not only his story, but that of others and of perseverance.

“And I think more than anything, when you’re looking at what’s happening in Kansas City, that’s what we need right now.”

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