GLENDALE, Arizona — The Honey Badger is entering his third NFL season.
Talking to the ever-approachable Tyrann Mathieu and watching him injury-free scrambling all over the field in practice, it's easy to forget how many teams considered him too high a risk to draft until the Arizona Cardinals selected him in the third round in 2013.
A Heisman Trophy finalist as an LSU sophomore, he wound up getting kicked off the team, dismissed from school and arrested for marijuana possession.
He spent 2012 away from football and emerged determined to turn around his life.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians says he has never been more proud of a draft pick.
"To give a guy a second chance," Arians said, "then to see him blossom, to me that's what coaching's all about."
Mathieu is not one to forget what he calls "those dark times."
"That was a journey. I'm still on that journey," he said. "I've had a lot of positive people come into my life. I've had great support, so I can't really take all the credit for the positive things I've done the last couple of years."
Mathieu had 258,600 followers on Twitter as of Monday. He intersperses retweets from fans voicing their support with family photos and inspirational messages.
'I just try to stay positive," Mathieu said. "For me, I remember those dark times and I know what type of person I am. If I tell myself something enough I'll believe it, so I try to stay on the positive side."
He tried to discard the "Honey Badger" nickname as a rookie but gave up because so many fans loved it.
Mathieu thinks his big following comes from his LSU days and from the fact he's a "little guy" at 5-foot-9, 186 pounds.
"I think a lot of fans they don't really expect me to go out there and compete with the Calvin Johnsons," he said, "but when I do it, I think those guys, they can relate to me, being the underdog."
Mathieu quickly earned a starting spot at free safety but his standout rookie season ended in his 13th game when he tore an ACL and LCL returning a free kick against St. Louis.
Last season was a struggle. He couldn't adjust to the brace he had to wear and, to make matters worse, played the last three games with his left hand in a cast to protect his surgically repaired thumb.
"You don't make plays you're used to making, you kind of go in the tank, don't seem right" he said. "I'm just glad that I'm healthy and have my confidence back."
He says football is fun again, and it shows with his enthusiasm on the practice field in the early days of training camp.
"I haven't thought about my knee one bit," Mathieu said. "So I think it really helps me when it comes to breaking on balls, and just being me, being instinctive and aggressive."
Mathieu has gone from outcast to being considered a leader of the team. He said he leads by example.
"I'm not really a vocal guy," he said. "I'm just kind of one of those guys I practice how I want to play in the game. I think a lot of guys can relate to that and respect that."
His teammates respect him for a lot more than that.
"I think he understood what he needed to do on and off the field," linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. "Stuff on the field comes easy to him. He has that it factor people talk about. Football is just in him. That's what he was born to do. But off the field, I've seen great things. ... I've been very pleased with him and very proud of the man he is and the man he's going to continue to be."