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CBSSports.com Senior College Football Columnist

To make it to LSU, Mathieu had to make it out of rough Orleans Parrish


NEW ORLEANS -- The practice field isn't lined. Technically, it isn't even a practice field; it's just kind of an empty lot next to a playground. There is one "goalpost," a 20-foot high chain link fence. Whether kicks are good or not is a matter of opinion.

St. Augustine High School's players have to walk a couple of blocks to get to this little slice of football paradise, crossing busy A.P. Tureaud Ave., past modest homes in a depressed area. The streets are littered. The outlook is bleak.

"Even, say, a police chase during practice," says Dave Johnson, coach of the Purple Knights. "I'll have to tell my kids, 'Get down.' We're in the middle of a neighborhood. This is part of it."

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Ever hear gun shots?

"Maybe, a couple of times," says the most celebrated St. Augustine alum of them all at the moment.

Welcome to a slice of Tyrann Mathieu's world.

You wonder how an unimposing 5-foot-9, 180-pound cornerback can become the most daring college defensive backfield player since Charles Woodson? Look around his high school. Maybe LSU's Honey Badger takes what he wants because, like a lot of his high school teammates, he didn't have much given to him.

"It's part of the culture," said Frank Wilson, LSU's running backs coach, New Orleans high school recruiting guru and St. Augustine graduate.

"To those kids, they don't ever see it as, 'We don't have lines.' It's not an issue. It's not like they're sitting there like, 'We're deprived.' The analogy you can draw is they have a greater appreciation for the quality things they may not have in high school."

So when Mathieu left Orleans Parish for Death Valley at age 17, it was a relief, an outlet. At LSU's first offseason 7-on-7 camps, Tigers veterans remember Mathieu making every play, tight-roping to stay inbounds after interceptions. Skinning knees, bruising elbows. To him these drills were a tryout themselves.

"He wanted to prove his worth," Wilson said, "to prove, 'I belong here, I'm worthy.'"

Mathieu is now two years removed from the New Orleans prep icon they call "St. Aug." You would never know it. His stature and youthful looks suggests he could still blend in at the school of 650 students in grades 6 through 12.

Until his senior year, Mathieu was almost anonymous on the New Orleans high school scene. The stories are legend of how he blew up in camps before his senior season. Johnson took 18 athletes to a Tennessee camp in the summer of 2009. Mathieu shut down some of the best high school receivers in the country and was named camp MVP.

Lane Kiffin, the Vols coach at the time, couldn't bring himself to offer a scholarship because of Mathieu's size. Wilson, then a Tennessee assistant, was practically begging.

"I don't know how to explain it to you guys," Martin said to Kiffin and his dad, Monte, the defensive coordinator. "He's a kid we have to have."

Team Kiffin didn't budge. Mathieu went to an Alabama camp. Same thing. The only offers were from smaller schools -- Western Kentucky, McNeese State and Miami (Ohio).

What happened next is a reason why LSU football is currently experiencing a golden era. Les Miles, knowing Wilson, St. Augustine and Mathieu's potential saw enough in LSU's camp to offer a scholarship.

Still, Wilson suggested to Johnson that he feature Mathieu as a senior. Play him on offense, let him return kicks. Show the kid off. If it all went away for Mathieu, at least he would have that video resume.

In a second, Johnson is on the Purple Knights' website where those highlights are archived.

 Mathieu returning a fake punt as the up man in the formation. It didn’t matter that the ball was on the 10. He went 90 yards.

 Mathieu taking a snap and running out the final seconds of a game like a point guard trying to run out the clock without getting fouled. Never mind that he did it with some spice -- running into and out of the end zone.

"Unfortunately, I couldn't take a knife and cut him open and allow you to see the heart that was in him," Wilson said. "You can't measure what he has. The drive that is inside of him is uncanny. He won't be denied.

"It comes from your entire life being challenged and always having to rise to the occasion. It became habitual for him."

Off the field, Mathieu prefers to reveal himself in small pieces. The 19-year-old told CBSSports.com that he was formally adopted only last year after living with Sheila and Tyrone Mathieu Jr. since age 5. He knows his birth mother, but does not have a relationship with his father. She's a cook. They're close.

When asked why that birth mother chose not to raise him, Mathieu said, "I'm really not sure."

"I'm surprised he told you that," Wilson said of the adoption. "It's been a touchy deal. It shouldn't be. I've known that family my entire life."

People want to know such details when you're the best defender in the country. That designation came at least from those who awarded him the Bednarik Award. People want to know how and why that best defender got suspended for a game. The school called it a violation of team rules. ESPN reported Mathieu and two teammates tested positive for synthetic marijuana.

"I've been in college before," Johnson said. "Unfortunately his mistake is going to be run over and over at LSU ... I said, 'Listen, man. This is part of life. Move on.'"

Given the national climate at the moment, it was a bit amazing that Mathieu was even invited to New York as a Heisman finalist. Right or wrong, voters were able to look past that situation to his on-field performance.

"I think I got punished," said Mathieu, who finished fifth in the Heisman voting. "I think I definitely did. I think I was at the top of a lot of people's discussions [before the suspension]."

Players will do anything for motivation. Mathieu stored up the perceived slight and released his frustration at the end of the season, returning punts for touchdowns against Arkansas and Georgia. He created what has been called the "Badger Play", averaging at least one of the following per game in his short 25-game career: an interception, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery or a punt return for a touchdown.

With at least a year to go in his college career, Wilson calls Mathieu a pro, for sure. When safety Eric Reid was injured for the regular-season finale against Arkansas, coaches thought nothing of shifting Mathieu back to Reid's position. He responded with a team-leading eight tackles, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and that punt return.

"I'm going to show it on the field," he said simply, "and prove that I'm the best."

This is not a portrait of a kid gone wrong. Mathieu's adoptive parents seem to be pillars of the community. Tyrone Jr. has been a UPS delivery driver for two decades. He and wife Sheila were elected king and queen of the prestigious Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club for a one-year term in 2009.

They live in an attractive neighborhood in New Orleans East. Nothing about their two-story home suggests anything but love for a manicured lawn and LSU banners. Multiple attempts to reach them to talk about their son, though, have not been successful.

Without their input, there are still these conclusions: There is something to be said for this particular Catholic education. The cover of the football program features the players' mug shots, along with their GPAs. Like a lot of places, St. Augustine was drowned by Katrina. Enrollment has declined but the school has survived to celebrate its 60th year of existence.

It still produces its share of national merit scholars and athletes. Always, it seems, athletes. Former NBA player and coach Avery Johnson went there. The school has produced at least 25 NFL players including current Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis

"The economy has taken its toll on parents' ability to pay," principal Don Boucree said of the $7,000 annual tuition. "We have a larger population of low-income families than other schools.

"What we also teach them is, you're going to have adversity in your life. If you're prepared you'll be able to deal with those adversities."

When recruiters come to look at the prospects -- 14 players signed scholarships from the 2010 team -- they are amazed at the condition of the "facilities." Johnson recalled an out-of-town reporter dropping by late last year and seeing a group of locals watching practice.

"Coach, tell me they're not actually smoking marijuana over there," Johnson remembered the writer saying.

"I told him, 'Yes, they are. They're actually protecting us. As long as my kids are practicing, they're not going to let anything bad happen to them."

To this point, they are safe and proud -- the team, the school and the most celebrated alum of them all, at the moment.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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