Like a true big brother, Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson will politely remind you that it’s pronounced TY-run.
“He hates when people call him TY-ron,” he says.
Because you don’t disrespect Tyrann Mathieu, the Cardinals superstar safety and Peterson’s best friend, the other little brother he always wanted.
“I have one biological baby brother and I always wanted another, but my mom ended up having three girls after us,” says Peterson. “The bond that we have is special.”
It’s the first week of Cardinals training camp in Glendale and Peterson, 26, is remembering the first time he met Mathieu, 24, and describing how both of them have been there for each other for the past seven years. It started in college at LSU in 2009, and it’s continued in the NFL where they star in the Cardinals’ secondary. Two supremely talented players, with two disparate personalities, who compete and elevate each other to new levels, sharing a bond they struggle to put into words.
“We just click,” says Mathieu. “I’ve been trying to describe it for six years—it’s hard.”
Peterson is a five-time Pro Bowl cornerback every bit as good as Richard Sherman; he’s the 18th best player in the league, according to the NFL Network’s Top 100 rankings—only Washington’s Josh Norman was rated higher as a corner. Mathieu is the game’s most versatile safety and a first-team All Pro, nicknamed the Honey Badger because of his ability to body bigger players; according to Pro Football Focus, he was one of the highest rated corners in the league last season, even though he’s listed as a safety. He was the only defensive back to be a finalist for the highly respected site’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
Paired together, they have transformed the Cardinals secondary—the No Fly Zone—into one of the NFL’s elite units and helped elevate Arizona from a 5-11 squad the year before Mathieu arrived to 13-3 last season. “They’re both really special players even though they’re completely different from each other,” says Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
The Cardinals enter this year among Vegas’ favorites to win the Super Bowl after an appearance in last year’s NFC Championship Game. Grizzled vets like Fitzgerald and quarterback Carson Palmer are leading the way on offense, so the window to win the franchise’s first Vince Lombardi Trophy is open—but it won’t stay open for long. And with a schedule that features the Patriots, Jets, Panthers, Falcons, Saints, and two against Seattle, just as much will be riding on Mathieu, Peterson, and the defense if another deep postseason run is to be repeated.
“If we want to be in the position as far as being in the NFC Championship Game and putting a team on our back, we have to be great,” says Peterson. “It’s going to be on us. Mathieu and I take that to heart. And we talk about that all the time because we understand what we mean to this team.”
“I had a lot of fun in college, so right now I’m just trying to make as much money as possible—and not any headlines.”
The Cardinals know all too well what life is like without Mathieu, who wasn’t available for last season’s playoff run because of another season-ending injury—his third in three seasons. He blew out his knee in Week 15, and could only watch as the Panthers (thanks to Cam Newton and four picks from Palmer) cruised in the NFC Championship Game. If Arizona is going to get over the hump, a healthy Mathieu is a requirement. “I feel like this year it’s really Super Bowl or bust,” he says.
On the eve of training camp, when we first caught up with him, Mathieu has no doubt he will be ready for Sunday night’s home opener against New England. He just has no idea when the Honey Badger will return.
“I’ll know that I’m back to being Tyrann, back to being the Honey Badger, once I catch an interception and do some kind of Honey Badger play,” says Mathieu.
“When you see him back in the box a little bit more, that’ll be the telltale sign,” says Peterson. “In my opinion, he doesn’t have to play a preseason game to play at a high level. It’s all about being in shape. Getting back in football shape and being able to take that beating for 60 minutes. I think he’ll be fine.”
The rehab process has been grueling; it pretty much chewed up his off-season plans. Mathieu was finally going to get a coach and take up golf during the winter, the other game Peterson excels at. Playing would allow the buddies, who do just about everything together, to spend even more time with each other—watching football games, playing basketball, working out, traveling, you name it. Their conversations aren’t always about football, but naturally, they often turn to how they can take the Cardinals to the next level.
“I think that’s the glue to our relationship,” says Mathieu. “Always wanting to be the best at what we do.”
That relationship started in Baton Rogue, when Mathieu, a kid from New Orleans on an official visit to LSU, asked if Peterson would be his host. Mathieu chose Peterson because he was one of the best corners in the country. Peterson would end his collegiate career as one of the most decorated defensive players in the program’s proud history. Few knew Mathieu, out of St. Augustine High School, had the potential to be just as good, if not better.
“We went out in Tigerland [after the game] and the first thing he did was just look at me,” says Peterson. “ I told him, ‘You good?’ And he was like, ‘I’m gonna be better than you.’ That’s the first thing he said to me! I said, ‘I like that.’”
Peterson would declare for the NFL Draft after his junior season; Arizona snatched him up with the fifth pick in 2011. Mathieu was soon on his way to following in Peterson footsteps, morphing into the Honey Badger in his sophomore season. He was Big Man on Campus in 2011, becoming the first Heisman Trophy finalist from LSU since 1977. A month after that, LSU was in the BCS Championship Game. But the loss to Alabama would be his final game as a Tiger—coach Les Miles kicked him off the team the next summer for repeated drug offenses. Mathieu’s name became synonymous with marijuana. He said he failed at least 10 drug tests at school.
“I had a lot of fun in college, so right now I’m just trying to make as much money as possible— and not any headlines,” Mathieu jokes.
“We literally don’t have to say a word to one another as far as each other’s feelings, what’s on our mind. It’s really a genuine, deep, personal relationship."
He cleaned up his act with the help of Patrick Peterson Sr., who took the Honey Badger under his wing to train for the NFL Combine while the younger Peterson prepped him for the interviews, advising him to “just be yourself and tell the truth, because they already know” everything. Mathieu was fully transparent during the sit-downs, owned up to his mistakes, and willingly took tests to prove he was clean.
“He didn’t hide from it, he didn’t run from it,” says Peterson. “He was like, ‘Alright, I made a mistake. I didn’t know how to handle the bulls-eye on my back. I didn’t know how to handle kids looking up to me.’”
Despite his first-round talent, teams stayed away from him on draft day and Mathieu slid all the way to the third round. With pick No. 69, the Cardinals couldn’t pass him up. Peterson had vouched for Mathieu to Cardinals GM Steve Keim and owner Bill Bidwell, telling them he would take the rookie under his wing. “I had conversations all the time with [Mathieu], saying ‘I’m trying to get you to Arizona,’ and I told Steve and Mr. Bidwell that he would be on the straight and narrow,” says Peterson.
Mathieu says Peterson showed him what it took to be a professional without any big speeches or lectures—instead, he set an example. “He expects you to follow that lead,” says Mathieu. “That’s what he’s been doing for me, not only dating back to LSU, but specifically with the Cardinals."
Besides his knee, there was another big off-season storyline involving Mathieu. He’s the most versatile defensive back in the NFL, a 5’9” and 186 pound safety/defensive Swiss Army knife, but he was scheduled to make $1.5 million this season—dirt money for a player of his caliber. He hoped to have an extension before the season began that would pay him his market rate. We ask if he’s stressed over the situation, particularly in light of his injury history,
“I’ve never made that much money in my life, so I’d be stupid to say I don’t think about those things,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s something that weighs on me. If my team sees me fit to be the highest paid safety—or however they view me—that’s just how it is.”
Mathieu’s new deal was announced Aug. 2 and Arizona rewarded his three years of controversy free football with a 5-year, $62.5 million extension that, while slightly complicated, guarantees him at least $21.25 million "even if he’s never able to pass a physical," according to Pro Football Talk.
“The guy did everything the organization asked him to do—which was to stay clean,” says Peterson. “Even though he tore his ACL for a second time, they know what type of athlete they have. Tyrann held up his end of the bargain and Mr. Bidwell held up his end of the bargain because this guy went out and played balls out each and every Sunday.”
Ask him his favorite story about Mathieu, and Peterson will admit he has a ton “that I want to keep to myself.” But he remembers the first time Mathieu—an introvert who’s “very, very to himself”—addressed the Cardinals defense.
“Every Friday we have a different player talk to the defense after we get done watching the opposing team’s top 20 plays, and no one really heard him talk,” says Peterson. “When he started talking he had his normal voice, you know, got a little bass in it. But once he starts getting excited his voice gets high-pitched. So people started looking around like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’”
Peterson, meanwhile, is the more out-going type, the one with the easy smile, the guy taking selfies on the sidelines of a preseason game. He's gregarious, but not boastful. "He’s humble. I’m humble, for the most part," says Mathieu.
And just like his partner in crime, Peterson struggles to describe their bond.
“We literally don’t have to say a word to one another as far as each other’s feelings, what’s on our mind,” says Peterson. “ It’s really a genuine, deep, personal relationship. I look at it deeper than a friendship, even though that what's it is. I really look at him like a little brother.”
Peterson has been lauded for the guidance he's provided Mathieu, but Mathieu’s been able to see things and say things to Peterson when others couldn't or wouldn't. In 2014, Peterson put on some weight early in the season. His game started suffering—he let up four TDs in the team’s first five games and the criticism started raining down. Mathieu knew something wasn’t right.
“He’s one of the guys who came up to me like, ‘What’s wrong with you, bro? I’ve never seen you like this before.’ And I can’t see it,” says Peterson. “He was definitely one of the guys who helped me put a finger on it and go to the doctors and figure out what the hell was going on.”
The diagnosis was type 2 diabetes, but before Peterson got it under control, Mathieu served as a crutch. There were days when Peterson felt so ill he couldn’t drive himself home from practice and Mathieu stepped up. “He did the same things that I did for him when he went through his situation,” says Peterson.
Because that's what brothers do.