Tyrann Mathieu has been planning to start holding a camp for some time.
The former LSU and St. Augustine star who has blossomed into one of the NFL’s best defensive backs for the Arizona Cardinals had always earmarked the end of his third season to ramp up charity work, particularly by starting a foundation.
Then the shooting death of former Saints defensive end Will Smith shook Mathieu to the core. In the wake of Smith’s death, Mathieu spoke out earnestly against the problem of violence in the city of New Orleans, and he promised to hold a camp for kids in the city.
Mathieu made good on that promise Saturday, bringing busloads of kids to City Park’s Tad Gormley Stadium for a camp led by many of the same men who taught Mathieu to play football: his Pop Warner coaches and youth football coaches made up many of the instructors.
“It had a lot to do with it, the tragedy,” Mathieu said. “But I was always going to come back and help the kids of New Orleans.”
Mathieu immediately became one of the strongest voices against New Orleans violence in the wake of Smith’s shooting death.
The cornerback tweeted that he’d known Smith’s shooter, Cardell Hayes, growing up and said he’d had multiple run-ins with Hayes. Mathieu also told reporters that he rarely spends more than two days in New Orleans now because of concerns about crime and violence.
“I think a lot of people should stand up and speak out and give back,” Mathieu said. “I’m just fortunate enough that I have a platform and I’m able to do that, and we’ve got a good turnout today.”
But Mathieu also still holds a special regard for his hometown.
“I think I was kind of misunderstood,” Mathieu said. “This is the place where I grew up at. This is a place that means a lot to me. All my family’s here. But the most important thing is I lost a lot of family members here, so I spoke from an emotional place, a personal place. You never want to see anybody lose their life. So that was really the gist of me saying what I said at that time.”
Mathieu backed up his words by holding his first annual Heart of a Badger camp on Saturday, a camp he hopes to turn into an annual occurrence. Earlier in the week, he spent some time with family and celebrated his youngest son’s birthday, then headed out to Tad Gormley in the hopes of inspiring some kids.
He brought some heavy hitters with him.
LSU coach Les Miles, who had just finished conducting a camp for high schoolers at the Saints’ practice facility in Metairie, dropped by to see his former player and make an appearance at Mathieu’s first camp, although he didn’t coach. Miles is saving that for next Wednesday, when LSU will be back in New Orleans to hold a youth camp, according to Miles.
“I actually horned in on his camp,” Miles said. “When I was a young dad growing up, I coached tee ball, and when you coach tee ball, that’s where you’re coaching. Everybody is running wild to go do something. You better have activity all the time.”
Mathieu made sure there was plenty for his campers to do, offering stations where they ran with parachutes billowing behind them, throwing stations with targets and plenty of instruction.
He also brought another St. Augustine and LSU product to help show kids the possibilities.
Leonard Fournette, the current LSU star and a presumptive favorite for the Heisman Trophy, has known Mathieu since he was a child, and Fournette showed up to support his friend and Mathieu’s cause.
“Pretty much, I just think this is a great opportunity for the kids to really be around one of the best football players to ever come out of Louisiana and New Orleans, period,” Fournette said. “The overall experience for these kids, I think it’s tremendous, because where we’re from, we don’t get a lot of opportunities to be around NFL players, or get to experience kids from other neighborhoods, the culture. I think it’s a beautiful job he’s done.”
Mathieu hopes he made an impression.
“I’m just trying to encourage them and inspire them,” Mathieu said. “Most of us just need some direction, some sense of leadership. Hopefully I can give that to them today.”