October 18th, 2012

Billy Reed: The Downfall of Champions

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Billy Reed

Executive Editor


Billy Reed: The Downfall of Champions
photo from abcnews.go.com / by Jamie Squire - Getty Images

Billy Reed discusses current plights of Armstrong, Mathieu

The current issue of Sports Illustrated has two stories that should be must-reads for student-athletes and their parents. One is about bicycle-racing icon Lance Armstrong and his fall from grace. The other is about how and why life went badly wrong for a football player developed at St. Augustine High in New Orleans.

The story of Armstrong is only the latest twist on an old plot line. He used drugs to enhance his performance and then lied through his teeth about it. Even now, in the face of overwhelming and irrefutable evidence to the contrary, Armstrong claims he never used drugs to help him with the Tour de France repeatedly. But he also has stopped talking about it.

 

Like disgraced baseball slugger Barry Bonds, he has consigned himself to a self-imposed purgatory. No doubt his most diehard fans will believe him to the bitter end. But the evidence, real and circumstantial, argues that he has compounded his transgressions by spinning a web of lies. As we learned from Watergate, the cover-up always is worse than the crime.

 

The case of Tyrann Mathieu, a/k/a the “Honey Badger,” also deals with how an athlete’s values can be twisted and perverted by success on the field. Like his father, once a running back of enormous promise, Mathieu fell in with the wrong crowd and got involved in shady behavior that caused him to be kicked off the LSU football team before this season.

 

After his father was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, Mathieu moved in with his uncle Tyrone, a UPS driver, and was enrolled in St. Augustine, an all-boys Catholic school. Although he was only 5-feet-7 and weighed 125 pounds, Mathieu proved to be such a fierce hitter that he became a defensive star coveted by many college recruiters.

 

“Late in high school,” write Thayer Evans and Pete Thamel in SI, “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 a part of the handle on his Twitter account.”

 

As a sophomore in 2011, Mathieu became such a force for the LSU defense that he became only the third defensive player since 1994 to become a Heisman finalist. Everybody knew LSU’s “Honey Badger.” But on Aug. 10, the college football world was shocked when Tiger Coach Les Miles kicked Mathieu off the team for failing multiple drug tests (SI quotes sources close to Mathieu as saying the drug was marijuana).

 

Instead of transferring to a lower-division school where he could have played immediately while awaiting his certain selection in next year’s NFL draft, Mathieu went to Houston and check into the addiction rehab program run by John Lucas, the former Maryland and NBA basketball star. Then he went back to school at LSU without a scholarship. He wants to redeem himself by playing for the Tigers next season, but that possibility may be thwarted by the fact that Mathieu allowed his image to be used in fliers and videos promoting a Baton Rouge nightclub favored by Era Nation. The NCAA is investigating.

 

To his credit, Mathieu seems to be trying to make amends for his mistakes. He’s apparently doing well in his four classes, according to Lucas, and he’ll return to Houston for more work with Lucas after the current semester. But his once-bright future is clouded, at best.

 

Mathieu’s sad story is a cautionary tale for student-athletes, certainly, but also for high-school football programs. Considering that the Era Nation Group was formed during Mathieu’s high school days at St. Augustine, it would be interesting to know if the school knew about the group and, if so, how it dealt with it.

 

Did the school turn its head to Era Nation because Mathieu was a football star? Is it possible that the desire to win trumped discipline and good judgment? Or is it more likely that the school administrators and coaching staff were unaware of what was developing under their noses? Either way, it doesn’t look good for a Catholic high school that takes pride in character development.

 

I’m rooting for Mathieu to overcome his genes, his roots, and his parasitic “friends.” After Mathieu became famous at LSU, one of Era Nation’s leaders went around bragging that he’d never have to work again because Mathieu would take care of him when he signed a pro contract. St. Augustine coach Wayne Cordova put it bluntly: “Unless you’re willing to cut these people off, you’re going to be back in the same situation.”

 

Anytime a kid shows unusual athletic ability, he’s going to attract predators as surely as blood in the water draws sharks. It’s the role of administrators and coaches to protect and educate the child, but sometimes that’s difficult – especially when the predators come in the form of family and friends.

 

Unlike Lance Armstrong, who has no hope of redemption, Tyrann Mathieu still has a chance to turn his life around. Let’s just hope that as they yearn for the return of the “Honey Badger,” LSU fans are praying more for Mathieu, the troubled kid, than Mathieu, the ticket to more victories.

 

 

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