Tyrann Mathieu’s playmaking, turnover-forcing ways live up to ‘Honey Badger’ nickname

Tyrann Mathieu shows up when the quarteback least expects it. That’s the nature of his role as a deep-lying, playmaking safety for the Kansas City Chiefs. He might not win an even fight, but if he can turn the tables in his favor, Mathieu’s turnover-forcing instincts have a chance.

That’s not too different from the honey badger, one of the most resilient and fierce undersized creatures in nature. Mathieu’s almost synonymous with his “Honey Badger” nickname at this point, so much so that it’s less about the animal or the origin and more about Mathieu’s next big play.

But the animal and the origin are important, because they really do align with Mathieu. In some ways, there wouldn’t be this version of Mathieu without the “Honey Badger” nickname.

Why is Tyrann Mathieu called ‘Honey Badger’?

When Mathieu played at LSU, the Tigers’ defensive coordinator was John Chavis. In 2011, a couple videos of wild honey badgers doing crazy things went somewhat viral, and Chavis stumbled across them. The creature reminded him of Mathieu, so he started calling the playmaking safety by that nickname.

According to the Kansas City Star, Mathieu didn’t immediately like the nickname, especially the “honey” part. But then he watched the videos.

“Honey Badger is such a relentless animal. He’s fierce. And he definitely doesn’t fear anything,” Mathieu said in 2012 . “So I just try to take that same approach to the field and just try to play smart and violent football for my team.”

Mathieu even often colors his hair blonde, which has some resemblance to the lighter color on the backs of honey badgers. But it’s mostly about the way that the somewhat undersized Mathieu (5-9, 190 pounds) will take on much larger players and make plays that seem improbable at best and near-impossible at worst. 

How Tyrann Mathieu embodies his ‘Honey Badger’ nickname

Mathieu is an expert at diagnosing plays and reading quarterbacks’ eyes. In spots most safeties wouldn’t dare jump a route, Mathieu jumps the route anyway. He doesn’t care that he’s 5-9 and the receiver might be 6-3 or taller. When he sees an opportunity, he seizes it.

Interceptions are Mathieu’s calling card. He’s had at least one in every season of his NFL career. That included a career-high six during the 2020 regular season with the Chiefs, and he kept up his work in the playoffs.

Mathieu spoke with the Kansas City Star about his initial struggles with the nickname beyond just how it sounded. For years, Mathieu said, he tried to embrace the nickname wholeheartedly. More recently, though, as he bounced from the Cardinals to the Texans to the Chiefs, Mathieu learned how to detach from the moniker when needed.

“Tyrann is a good guy,” Mathieu said in 2019 . “I think Honey Badger, he’s emotional. He’s excited to play football. I think people know the difference now. So I can live with it.”

It’s still there between the lines, though, when Mathieu turns into the fiercest competitor on the field. At his size, he has to avoid being reckless for risk of injury, but the Honey Badger knows there’s a difference between being reckless and being bold. His instincts give him no choice but to be bold.

What’s a honey badger?

A honey badger is a mammal based in Africa, southwest Asia and the Indian subcontinent. It’s not actually that closely related to other badger species, but rather more like a weasel. 

Honey badgers are pretty much carnivores, and they don’t have much by way of natural predators. That’s because the honey badger has evolved with thick skin along with natural strength and ferocity.

Adult honey badgers can grow up to 11 inches in shoulder height and 30 inches in length. Males weigh up to 35 pounds.

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