Picture a young Tyrann Mathieu, the Honey Badger in training, tuning in to watch the Heisman Trophy presentation then striking that famous pose - stiff arm out in front, legs churning below.
He never put himself in the trophy room, though, never in the stereo of his mind heard his name called out as a Heisman finalist.
Never, that is, until before this season. Going into this campaign, the years of images on a TV screen, of seeing Tim Tebow and Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart and Chris Weinke win sports’ most visible individual prize, finally coalesced into a tangible goal. A goal that he made real through the force of his singular talent.
“Absolutely, it’s been a dream of mine,” Mathieu said. “I think I’d tune in every year I knew it (the Heisman awards show) was on. I didn’t imagine myself there, say two years ago, but coming into this season I thought I could put myself in a position to be there. To represent my team.”
Few, if any, players have taken advantage of being in position for so many plays - so many big plays - as LSU’s sophomore cornerback.
The byproduct of his play is a seat at college football’s most prestigious table.
Saturday night at New York’s Best Buy Theatre in Times Square, Mathieu’s name will be called out along with that of the four other Heisman finalists: quarterbacks Robert Griffin III of Baylor and Andrew Luck of Stanford and running backs Montee Ball of Wisconsin and Trent Richardson of Wisconsin. One of them will become a college football immortal.
For Mathieu to hear his name called out as the award recipient, he will have to overcome some long odds.
Mathieu is the only sophomore among the five finalists. He is the only defensive player. He hasn’t even taken a single offensive snap, a critical fact that would make him the first non-offensive player to win the Heisman since Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997 and the first player ever to win the trophy without playing offense at all.
Woodson took snaps on offense, and like Mathieu made his mark as a kick returner.
Of course, what the Honey Badger does best of all is take the ball away from the other team.
LSU’s leader with 70 tackles, Mathieu also has six forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries, one of those for a touchdown against Kentucky. After just 25 college games, Mathieu has already shattered his school’s record and tied the Southeastern Conference career mark with 12 forced fumbles.
On special teams, Mathieu has been a potent force. He stripped Oregon punt returner Kenyon Barner for a key early touchdown that he recovered, then returned punts for touchdowns the last two weeks against Arkansas and Georgia when his team’s hopes of remaining unbeaten were endangered.
His play has already earned Mathieu a treasure trove of awards.
Thursday at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Mathieu received the Chuck Bednarik Award, which is given annually to the nation’s best defensive player. Mathieu also made the Walter Camp All-America team - he was one of five finalists for the Walter Camp Award as well, which went to Luck - and was The Associated Press’ choice as Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
Despite all his exploits, Mathieu understands his place as a long shot in this year’s Heisman field. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t enjoying the ride as LSU’s first legitimate Heisman finalist since running back Charles Alexander in 1977.
“I’m thankful and I’m blessed that somebody decided to give a defensive player a chance at winning the award,” Mathieu said. “It’s a tremendous accomplishment for me and my team. I’m going to represent those guys and everyone at LSU.”
To date, LSU has had only one representative when it comes to the Heisman Trophy. That would be Billy Cannon, the winner back in 1959, who was presented his award by then vice-president Richard Nixon.
LSU halfback and former coach Jerry Stovall almost won the award in 1962, finishing runner-up to Oregon State’s Terry Baker.
“Just to be mentioned in the same class as (Cannon) and Charles Alexander is a tremendous honor for me,” Mathieu said.
Whether Mathieu will join Cannon’s singular status among LSU football players will be revealed Saturday night.