Just last week, Tyrann Mathieu was the rare collegiate defensive back who had earned star status as an outspoken dervish of a player, one who demanded attention whenever he got near the ball. But Mathieu’s life has changed drastically, taking two sharp turns.
He was dismissed from the Louisiana State team Aug. 10 for an unspecified rules violation, and his father reportedly told a New Orleans TV station that he has since checked into a drug rehabilitation facility in the Houston area. He is also being counseled by John Lucas, a former NBA player and coach who has struggled with drug addiction.
The turnaround in Mathieu’s life may be considered stunning, but the struggles he is facing are not unusual. Just this offseason, Michael Dyer, a former Auburn running back, was dismissed from Arkansas State. Greg Reid will play cornerback for Valdosta State, not Florida State, for violating team rules. Georgia running back Isaiah Crowell was dismissed from the squad. Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees and Clemson wideout Sammy Watkins face suspensions.
“I guess they’re too young, or too immature, but there are too many temptations out there, and particularly if their background lends itself to that," said Joe Tiller, a former Purdue coach. “It’s just a matter of time until the guy implodes."
The list of college stars who ran afoul of the rules stretches back for years. Brian Bosworth in 1987, Lawrence Phillips in 1995, Peter Warrick in 1999 and Cam Newton in 2008 all gained a degree of notoriety.
In today’s information age, it is easier to get in trouble, said LaVar Arrington, who starred at Penn State in 1998 and 1999. He said he never considered himself a star, though he said he was overwhelmed by the attention he received after he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Now it is to a point, Arrington said, where “you almost have to live like a hermit if you don’t want to get in trouble."
Mathieu already had a memorable nickname — the Honey Badger — and his dynamic style of play, coupled with his outgoing personality, turned him into a public figure last season at the age of 19.
“It’s difficult to tell people to be that character that makes people want to buy your jersey, or label you the Honey Badger, and then when the lights are off and there’s nothing else going on, now you’ve got to take that uniform, that costume, off and be something totally different," Arrington said. “Your best commodity that may make you into a superstar may be the same thing that leads to you being in trouble."
These types of problems can begin even during the recruiting process, when coaches, confidants and friends repeatedly tell players “how special they are," Tiller said, adding, “Almost to the point where we elevate ourselves to a status where we believe we’re nearly untouchable."
Once they reach campus, they can become exposed, especially with the advent of Twitter. Mathieu has more than 150,000 followers on the social media site, on which he posted in a space reserved for biographical information, “Dont follow me, I am not perfect."
Unlike in past eras, a player’s every move can be watched, recorded and dissected these days, said Lloyd Carr, a former Michigan coach. Coaches’ pleas to act with caution can fall on some young and immature ears.
“The truth is, the great majority of them, they get it," Carr said. “But there are always examples out there every day that we can use, things that happen when you make mistakes."
In January 1987, Bosworth was suspended for steroid use and ultimately forced off the team at Oklahoma. In 1995, Phillips, a Nebraska running back, was arrested on charges of assaulting his girlfriend. He wound up being reinstated by Tom Osborne, the Cornhuskers’ coach, as the team finished with the No. 1 ranking in the country.
In 1999, Warrick was arrested in connection with a scheme to underpay for clothes at a department store in Tallahassee, Fla., where he attended Florida State. His subsequent suspension may have cost him the Heisman Trophy.
Newton transferred from the University of Florida in 2008, having been charged with the theft of a laptop computer. He eventually wound up at Auburn, where he won the Heisman, but his collegiate career was dogged by controversy.
And there seems to be no letup in these types of situations.
“The sport has never been as popular as it’s been today," Tiller said. “I think it’s a little bit of overkill, really. We’re almost placing these athletes in an unreal world, sending them messages that aren’t in line with real-life facts. As a result, they think they can act any way they choose."