The tears in Tyrann Mathieu's beady brown eyes only began to tell the story of his heartache.
They welled last month as the star LSU cornerback spoke longingly of his maternal grandfather, Lorenzo Mathieu, who helped raise him here in this resilient city until he died of complications from a heart attack when Mathieu was 5.
But the tears disappeared and Mathieu's eyes reddened when he spoke of his biological mother, Tyra Mathieu. She has five children, and he was the only one she didn't raise, leaving him to live with his maternal uncle and aunt -- his adoptive parents -- after his grandfather's death.
And Mathieu's eyes narrowed coldly at the mention of his father, Darrin Hayes -- who is serving a life sentence in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for murder.
"It's hard to talk about," Mathieu said of his family.
Yet as heartbreaking as Mathieu's past is, it perhaps explains his fiery passion and relentless drive on the field. Both have made the undersized sophomore one of college football's most dazzling playmakers, as well as a Heisman Trophy finalist and the SEC defensive player of the year this season.
The blond-dyed standout, who is 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, is so feared that he's earned the nickname "The Honey Badger," from a popular YouTube video about the ferocious animal.
"I think when you have something that is burning inside of you, it sometimes comes out in ways that can't be expressed," said Miguel Mathieu, one of Tyrann's maternal uncles.
"He remembers a lot more than what people think. I know that's where a lot of that passion comes from in the way he plays."
When Mathieu returns to his birthplace next week for his top-ranked and undefeated team's rematch against No. 2 Alabama (11-1) in the BCS title game, it will be an emotional homecoming, one that once again reminds him he simply can't outrun his painful past.
"The opportunity given to him by his biological and his adopted parents has allowed him to see things differently," LSU coach Les Miles said. "I think that fuels him."
'I THOUGHT HE WOULD KILL ME'
Like his son, Darrin Hayes, 47 -- who did not respond to letters sent to him by FOXSports.com seeking comment -- was once a football star. Nicknamed "Cornbread" because of his love for the food, the 5-foot-8, 175-pound Hayes attended John McDonogh High School, known as John Mac, in New Orleans' Mid-City Area.
There, he was the best running back in the city, said Sonja Smith, who started dating Hayes at John Mac when she was 15.
Tyrann Mathieu's mother went even further, calling Hayes "the best running back in the state of Louisiana."
"His father is a damn good athlete," Tyra Mathieu said. "God get praise first, but I know where Tyrann gets his skills from."
Hayes was heavily recruited and had about 20 scholarship offers from schools such as LSU, Tulane and Georgia Tech, Smith recalled. But he chose Alcorn State because the historically black university allowed him to enroll early, Smith said.
Legendary Alcorn State coach Marino Casem said Hayes started some games at running back and could have played in the NFL for the right team.
"Cornbread was quick now," Casem said. "He was a stop-and-go runner, a run-to-daylight type of guy."
But Hayes could never outrun trouble. He got in a fight while at Alcorn State and after two seasons transferred to a school in Jackson, Miss., which he also had to leave because of a fight, Smith said.
"He could have got drafted and everything before he got into trouble and stuff," Tyra Mathieu said. "He was awesome. He was the bomb."
Hayes returned to the New Orleans area, but kept playing football for a semi-pro team.
Smith said Hayes eventually started using drugs, but she continued to date him. She said they were together for 10 years, but that during the last few years of the relationship,
Hayes began to beat her.
Most of the attacks were prompted by Hayes' jealousy, Smith said. He would become angry when Smith wanted to go to a friend's birthday party, when a man he didn't know spoke to her at the mall or when she would tell him something he didn't like.
"Anything would trigger him off," Smith said.
Smith said one of the worst attacks came after she learned Hayes had gotten Tyra Mathieu pregnant. Smith told Hayes she was ending their relationship.
Hayes tried to make Smith stay, but then started to threaten her. Smith said he then pulled out a handgun, pointed it at her head and began to beat her with a metal pipe in his other hand.
"If I can't have you," Smith recalled Hayes screaming at her, "no one else can!"
According to Smith, by the time Hayes was finished beating her, she had two black eyes, a busted lip and a sprained arm. Smith said Hayes also told her he would kill her and her family if she left him.
"I was young," Smith said. "I was afraid. I thought he would kill me."
After Smith found out about Hayes' relationship with Tyra Mathieu, Smith visited her to discuss Hayes' violence. Smith had been told by others that they had often seen the fair-skinned Mathieu with black eyes and bruises.
But after talking with her, Smith felt Mathieu was in denial about Hayes' violence. A couple of weeks later, though, Mathieu could no longer hide it from Smith.
Smith recalled she had gone to Hayes' home and while there Mathieu also stopped by. She said Hayes and Mathieu began arguing outside when Hayes suddenly started punching Mathieu.
"He was hitting her up side the head," Smith said. "She was trying to fight him, but there was no way that she could beat him. He was too big."
Smith knew she couldn't stop Hayes either, so she got in her car and left.
'KEEP THIS LETTER ... USE IT AS EVIDENCE'
In the spring of 1991, Smith and Tyra Mathieu each gave birth to daughters fathered by Hayes.
Less than six months later, Hayes robbed a store and was sent to a Louisiana prison. But before his incarceration, he got Tyra Mathieu pregnant again with a boy she would name Tyrann after herself.
"He wasn't no bad person," Tyra Mathieu said of Hayes. "I don't look at him like that. We all get caught up at times."
When Tyrann was born in 1992, Hayes was serving his two-year prison sentence for first-degree robbery. During his confinement, he wrote countless letters to Smith, who by then had started dating a man named Donald "Pork and Beans" Noten.
"He was a very nice person," said Smith of Noten. "He didn't bother nobody. He wasn't a violent person."
In the letters, Hayes mentioned his anger about Smith's relationship with Noten, spoke of his impending return to her life, and made threats to harm Smith and her friends.
When Smith received the letters from Hayes, she at first threw them away. But as the tone of the letters became increasingly violent, her family and friends recommended she keep them, which she did.
"I was terrified," Smith said. "I really thought he would follow through on them."
In one of Hayes' letters to Smith, according to court records, he wrote: "Also listen up to this when people you love start dying or getting shot ask yourself why and things you own start breaking or burning up you will know why."
In another letter to Smith a few months before getting out of prison, Hayes expressed anger that Noten had accompanied Smith and his daughter to a picnic, and that while there
Noten had held the child and she had called him "Daddy."
He wrote: "She (the daughter) is my all and believe that my life will be build (sic) on hers. So you will pay for thinking he is her daddy ... Don't be surprise (sic) if your job, apartment, and male friend as you call him come down like I said and your life itself anit (sic) worth s*** right now."
Near the end, he also wrote: "Keep this letter to use it as evidence in my murder case."
'THAT'S WHEN HE STARTED SHOOTING'
On Oct. 3, 1993, the day Hayes was released from prison, he showed up at Smith's apartment, where she and Noten were eating dinner, and wanted to see his then-18-month-old daughter, according to court records.
Because it was late when Hayes arrived, Smith said she told him he could spend time with the couple's daughter the next day. She then stepped away to her bedroom. But when she returned, Smith said, Hayes had taken their daughter and left.
Smith and Noten went outside to Noten's car, but as they approached it, Hayes backed up in a car and blocked Noten's vehicle from leaving.
Inside Hayes' car was the him and Smith's daughter, along with two other men, according to court documents. Hayes got out and asked Smith to ride with him to her mother's house so the two could talk, but she refused and said she was going with Noten.
Hayes then went back inside his car and emerged with a gun, according to court records.
"That's when he started shooting," Smith said. "I can see the fire coming from the gun and the bullets, but I couldn't move. It was like I was glued to the ground."
Smith ran and yelled for Noten to do the same. She fled behind her apartment building screaming for help, but not before seeing Noten get shot in the shoulder.
She quickly realized Hayes was not chasing her, but Noten.
According to court documents, one of the other men with Hayes slid behind the wheel of Hayes' car and followed the two men down the street. Several shots were fired.
The final blasts came on the sidewalk inside a gated area of an apartment complex, court records say. A woman who witnessed the shooting later told Smith that just before those shots, a desperate and wounded Noten had fallen down and that Hayes stood over him holding a gun -- along with Smith's daughter.
The witness said Noten begged Hayes to spare his life and even tried to give him all of the money in his pockets, but Hayes said he didn't want the cash.
Instead, he wanted Noten's life.
According to the witness, Hayes then shot Noten three times in the head and fled with his daughter in hand.
When police officers found Noten, who was on probation at the time for cocaine possession, he was lying dead facedown next to two piles of money, one with about $300 and one with about $700. He had been shot seven times and an autopsy revealed he had cocaine in his system.
'IT WAS JUST UNREAL'
At the time of his father's murder conviction, Tyrann Mathieu was 2. Back then, Tyra Mathieu was "a partier," said Miguel Mathieu, one of Tyrann's uncles.
Mathieu's maternal grandparents -- Lorenzo and Marie Mathieu, who had 10 children -- cared for Tyrann and his older sister, Darenika.
"Fun times came before responsibility back then with her," Miguel Mathieu said of Tyrann Mathieu's mother. "She wasn't on drugs or anything like that. She was just very outgoing."
Tyrann became especially close with his grandfather. Nicknamed "Red" because of his reddish skin from his Crow Indian tribe heritage, Lorenzo was a self-employed painter and carpenter.
"He was a real survivor," said Miguel Mathieu, Lorenzo's son and Tyrann's uncle. "He taught us that if we wanted to do something, we had to go out there, work for it and provide for ourselves."
But Lorenzo Mathieu's favorite job was taking care of his grandson. He and Tyrann were inseparable.
"He was my best friend," Tyrann Mathieu said. "It was unconditional love. He would do everything for me. He always made me smile and was just always there for me."
The two used to walk hand-in-hand along Bayou St. John, as well as to Eastern and Starlings parks to play. At night, Tyrann slept in the same bed as his grandparents.
"Wherever you saw my dad, you saw him," Miguel Mathieu said. "They were so close."
But heart disease is prevalent on Mathieu's mother's side of the family, and Lorenzo Mathieu also had health problems. In 1997, his right leg had to be amputated above the knee and late that year, he had a massive heart attack.
When doctors told Marie Mathieu her husband had only one week to live, she said she took him home.
During her husband's final days, Marie Mathieu said he instructed her to have Tyrann go live with his uncle Tyrone Mathieu after he died. He wanted Tyrann to get a Catholic education and have a strong male influence in his life.
A few days after arriving home from the hospital, Lorenzo Mathieu held the hand of his longtime wife and reminded her about the plans for his beloved grandson.
"Do the things you're supposed to do for him," Marie Mathieu recalled being told by her husband.
And with that, Lorenzo Mathieu took a final breath and died at the age of 54.
In the following days, Tyrann Mathieu cried nonstop, Marie Mathieu recalled.
"It was tough," Tyrann Mathieu said. "It was just different sleeping on my own versus sleeping next to him every day."
Marie Mathieu honored her husband's dying wishes for their grandson. Yet she struggled with Tyrann's move.
"It was hard on me," she said. "But I had to live with it."
When Tyrann moved in with his aunt and uncle, who have three biological children of their own, he said he struggled in his new home.
"It was difficult to leave my real brothers and my real sisters," he said. "I always had a close relationship with them. To kind of leave them behind and just change into this different, new person."
Tyrone Mathieu took credit for Tyrann's success. He said he and his wife preached academics, hard work and humbleness to his nephew.
"He had to grow into us," Tyrone Mathieu said.
'HE KNOWS THAT I LOVE HIM'
Mathieu's path to football stardom is more well known than are his family's trials.
He only started playing the sport because his uncle Tyrone's two biological sons played. But as a cornerback at St. Augustine High School, Mathieu's playmaking ability was so feared that he had to pretend to slip on plays to even have a chance of a quarterback throwing to his side of the field.
Still, he didn't receive much recruiting attention initially because of his lack of size. Even after he dominated their camps, Alabama coach Nick Saban and then-Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin declined to offer him a scholarship. They thought Mathieu was too small to play in the SEC.
Eventually, LSU offered Mathieu a scholarship, which he accepted the summer before his senior year.
"I'm not saying that if I would have stayed there (at my grandmother's) or if I wouldn't have moved with my uncle and them I wouldn't be somebody," Mathieu said. "I was always self-driven to be somebody in life."
Mathieu was stellar as a freshman last year and has followed it up this season with even better statistics (six forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries and two interceptions). He has also excelled as a punt returner with a 16.2-yard average and two touchdowns.
But Mathieu has had off-the-field hiccups this season. On the day he was announced as a Heisman Trophy finalist, naked photographs of him surfaced on the Internet.
Mathieu also was suspended in October for LSU's game against Auburn after testing positive for synthetic marijuana. After the failed drug test, Tyrann's uncles Miguel and Tyrone visited him.
Initially, Miguel was disappointed in Tyrann, but his perspective changed once they talked.
The standout all attributed his
"I think it was the pressure of all his success happening fast," Miguel said.
But he also thinks his nephew's off-the-field struggles may have to do with the complexity of his family. He said he has tried unsuccessfully to talk to Tyrann about his roots.
"I really believe that sometimes you really need to sit down and talk about a lot of things," Miguel Mathieu said. "But you have to ask the question. He needs to be open."
Tyra Mathieu said her son visited his father in prison a couple of times. But when asked about his father, Tyrann Mathieu was short.
"I don't really have a relationship with my dad," he said.
Asked whether his father is still alive, Mathieu said he did not know.
"I could care less," Mathieu said.
Mathieu's relationship with his mother is also complicated. She said she is a chef at the Royal House Restaurant in the French Quarter and has been cooking for more than a decade.
She said her 13-year-old daughter and Mathieu's half-sister, Cierra Coleman, has had at least six open-heart surgeries.
"I have been through a lot," Tyra Mathieu said.
She praised her brother Tyrone Mathieu and his wife for raising her son, but said, "He didn't do no more than what any other family would have did in helping out a family member in need."
Tyra Mathieu has been to only a few of her son's games at LSU because she doesn't have a car. She had to watch his appearance at the Heisman Trophy ceremony last month on television because she wasn't invited.
She said she talks to her son at least every other day. When he calls, she always tells him, "You da man.'"
"He knows that I love him," Tyra Mathieu said. "Believe that."
Tyrann Mathieu is unsure why his mother raised her other four children, but not him.
"I really don't want to know why," he said.
He described his relationship with his mother as "OK," but acknowledged it was difficult to talk about her.
"She's still my mom, you know," Mathieu said.
'MAKE EVERYBODY HAPPY'
The complexity of Tyrann Mathieu's family and the pain they have endured make it difficult for him to put it all into words. It isn't easy for a 19-year-old still trying to discover his own identity while balancing his stardom and college life.
"He's such a good kid and he's got a good heart," Miguel Mathieu said. "But at some point when things are burning inside you so bad, a fire can be a fire to light up somebody and make good, and some of it can just turn into an out-of-control inferno. That's the part that I'm scared of happening."
Every day, Tyrann Mathieu thinks about his grandfather and wishes he were still alive. He's torn between his past and present. His father, mother, siblings, adoptive parents, adoptive siblings, father's family and half-sister -- all figure into his life.
His mother, grandmother and uncle Tyrone all mention the money they hope Mathieu will someday make in the NFL. But that's not necessarily what drives Tyrann Mathieu.
"The motivation," he said, "is to make everybody happy."
With that, Mathieu's brown eyes drooped almost in exhaustion. He knows that challenge just might be the biggest of his life.