Long road to recovery: Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu patient, passionate about his journey back from knee injury

Kent Somers
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Tyrann Mathieu is measuring success these days by the smallest of accomplishments. He no longer has to wear a brace on his surgically repaired left knee, meaning a better night’s sleep and easier access to the television’s remote control.

That’s a big deal to someone who has spent most of the past three months relying on others for help with almost everything, from the menial to the major.

“When you’re on crutches and you’ve got a brace, you’ve got to let other people do things for you,” Mathieu said. “They don’t quite do it the way you want it done, and you really can’t do anything about it.”


“The volume on the TV. You can’t get to the remote and they don’t quite turn the volume to where you want it. It’s just the little bitty things.”

Mathieu, the Cardinals’ starting free safety, is focusing on the little bitty things because the great big one, returning to the football field, can’t even be seen on the horizon.

Mathieu knows that now. That wasn’t the case a few days after he suffered two torn ligaments — the ACL and the LCL — in his left knee while returning a punt against the Rams on Dec. 8.

Coach Bruce Arians told reporters then that Mathieu likely wouldn’t be healthy in time for training camp. Mathieu smiled at the notion he was going to miss time.

“Coach is just being generous,” he said then.

Today, Mathieu appears to have accepted the likelihood that he is going to miss the majority, if not all, of training camp. His rehabilitation is on schedule, but his injury was severe, and he is trying to take a “veteran’s approach” to returning.

Mathieu uses the word “mindful” a lot these days when talking about returning from the first major injury of his football career. In the NFL, it’s hard to play any position, but especially defensive back, at less than full health.

“Maybe back in high school you could try to stiff-arm five people and make a big play,” Mathieu said. “You just have to be mindful that this is the NFL. Those guys don’t ever stop coming after you. I think the key is you want to take care of your body and just have that veteran mind-set.

“This has helped me become more of a veteran, see it as a career and not just as a season or a game or two. I definitely have to be mindful of being 100 percent and finishing each and every season.”

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been dark days or that going months without running doesn’t exact a mental toll.

And Mathieu knows it won’t be easy not being on the field when the Cardinals open training camp in late July.

“Those are times when a team comes together, when it picks its leaders,” he said. “They know who is going to come to play on Sundays. It’s just that preseason, that camp vibe that you just got to have with your teammates.”

It’s that passion for the game that helped convince the Cardinals to take Mathieu in the third round a year ago.

He came with more baggage than an international flight, having been suspended his final year at LSU for problems associated with marijuana.

Mathieu quickly won over people in Arizona by admitting his mistakes and blaming no one else for them. Many of his teammates treat him like a little brother, and his play as a rookie made Arians and General Manager Steve Keim look like personnel gurus.

That passion has served him well in returning from the injury, too. In the first days of his rehabilitation, Mathieu tried to get coaches to watch game video with him, a violation of the NFL’s collective-bargaining agreement with the players union.

That can’t happen until April 21, when the team’s off-season program starts.

“We have to run the guy out of the building; he’s over here all the time,” Keim said. “I’m at the (scouting) combine timing players and I’m getting texts from Tyrann telling me who he thinks looks good, whether he thinks this guy is a dog or not, whether this can guy can play.

“So not only is he our nickel, our safety and one of our corners, I refer to him as one of our recruiting coordinators.”

Mathieu has relied on many people to help him through the rehabilitation process. Quarterback Carson Palmer, who suffered a similar injury in the 2005 postseason, has told Mathieu what he can expect to go through, mentally and physically, in returning.

There are a handful of teammates going through rehabilitation now, including guard Jonathan Cooper and outside linebacker Alex Okafor, members of the same draft class. So Mathieu has company in workouts at the team’s Tempe facility.

Mathieu’s girlfriend, Sydni Russell, the stepdaughter of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, has been there all along, too.

“These past couple months, I’ve been asking her to do a whole lot,” Mathieu said. “She’s been real patient with me.”

While Mathieu is proud of himself for the way he’s handled the months after the injury, there have been difficult times. It drove him crazy to watch the Cardinals victory in Seattle because, “That was a playoff atmosphere.”

And sometimes just seeing people playing basketball at a local park makes him melancholy.

“I usually hopped out of the car and went to play with them,” he said, “but now I have to be mindful that I can’t do that right now.”

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