INDIANAPOLIS - Tyrann Mathieu woke up Sunday at 4 a.m. for what will be the first of many NFL drug tests.
Two years ago, he was known as the Honey Badger, a mighty mite playmaker who tackled with the force of a sledgehammer and was deployed as a defensive chess piece by LSU coaches who asked him to blitz regularly, play safety and cornerback and man the nickel role to shadow slot receivers. A Heisman Trophy finalist in 2011, Mathieu never made it back to the field for the Tigers.
If he wants to play again after a series of potentially fatal missteps to his dream of playing professionally, he's facing an uphill climb.
"First of all, I want them to be able to trust me," Mathieu said of what he needs to show NFL coaches and scouts. "I hold myself accountable for everything I've done this past year.
"I'm not totally asking them to trust me right now, but what I am asking is for them to give me a chance. I've had a lot of time to reflect on it."
The former LSU cornerback is at the Scouting Combine seeking another second chance. He repeatedly failed drug tests - at least three - and was finally kicked off the team and out of the university in Baton Rouge in August.
"All the things that I put before football are really not fun without football," he said.
At 5-7, there are questions about how his skill set might translate to the NFL level and what position suits him best. This week, teams have held mostly informal discussions with him and will have keen interest in evaluating whether Mathieu accumulated rust in his year away from the field. While he said he continued field work and position-specific training with the NFL in mind, the emphasis was on his participation in counseling after rehab. Mathieu maintains close contact with his sponsor.
But his primary support system beyond the sponsor and his adoptive parents are NFL players and LSU products including Patrick Peterson of the Arizona Cardinals and Corey Webster of the Giants. They are driving Mathieu to focus on his goal. Admittedly, it was allowing himself to mind praise from fans and media that contributed to him veering toward drugs.
"I think half of it is you actually start believing the hype -- the newspaper clippings," Mathieu said. "The other half of it is, 'hey, I'm young and want to have some fun.'"
It won't be easy to convince general managers to trust him.
The failed drug tests at LSU led to Mathieu's dismissal. He thought he'd bottomed out personally. Mathieu considered enrolling at an FCS school to play in 2012, but opted against it, feeling he had personal - not professional - goals to prioritize.
But he couldn't quit smoking marijuana and was arrested in October. Mathieu says that was the last time - Oct. 26, 2012 - he used.
"I thought my bottom was when I got kicked out of school, but when I got arrested in October, I found a new bottom," he said.
Not even four months have passed since last smoking marijuana and that recent hurdle is a reason Mathieu said he "doesn't want to be a hypocrite" and talk to young people about the pratfalls of smoking. The question of whether NFL executives can begin to trust Mathieu to walk the straight and narrow while cashing paychecks that take him from unemployed to potential millionaire is a layered discussion all scouting departments must undertake.
"I know there's marijuana in the NFL, I know there's marijuana everywhere you go," said Mathieu. "But at the end of the day, none of those people are Tyrann Mathieu."
He said he understands he likely lost millions, but isn't thinking about money or blown opportunities.
It is likely several teams won't post Mathieu on their draft boards - effectively marking him undraftable. But he needs only glance at another SEC cornerback with a smoking habit, Janoris Jenkins, to understand that 32 general managers don't have to be convinced Mathieu is worth the risk - just one. The Rams took a chance on Jenkins, who was kicked off the team at Florida and spent his senior season at North Alabama, in the second round and he rewarded them with an all-rookie season at cornerback in 2012.
Can he be trusted? Mathieu gave an emphatic yes.
"Because I've been through it," he said. "I know what it's like not to have football. I know what it's like not to be the center of attention. I know what it's like to be humiliated. To go back down that road - not a chance in this world.
"My best friend right now is honesty. I want to be as open as possible. I'm trying to rebuild my trust. I want those guys to hold me accountable."
Mathieu believes his numbers from the cornerback tests should be the start to rebuilding his football resume. He said he was recently timed running the 40 in 4.4 seconds and has plenty of game film for teams to review and evaluate him as the versatile, dynamic player that earned him the Honey Badger moniker.
"I started out at safety, I played nickel basically my whole career and I was a starting cornerback on the depth chart," he said. "It doesn't matter what position I play, I can pretty much play all of them."
As a repeat offender, Mathieu is subject to enter the NFL in the league substance abuse program. His past won't be forgotten, but perhaps forgiven. But his next second chance is likely to be his last.
Jeff Reynolds is the Managing Editor of www.NFLDraftScout.com, published by The Sports Xchange.