As Super Bowl nears, affection for former Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu runs deep

The popularity of Kansas City safety Tyrann Mathieu isn’t just based on his interception skills. Teammates and coaches value the former Arizona player’s intelligence and work ethic. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – The end of the NFL season is near as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs meet in Super Bowl LV today.

This time of the year inspires a look back at the history rooted in the big event and curiosity about what the 2021 game will add to its legacy. Will Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu, a fan favorite in Arizona who was unceremoniously cut from the team after the 2017 season, be part of that storyline?

The affection former Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, now with the Buccaneers, has for Mathieu is well documented, but what became clear in the days leading up to the Super Bowl is how many others in the game feel the same way.

Those who have known him since he came into the league in 2013 cite his abilities as a leader, even if it goes unnoticed by most fans.

“Unfortunately, everybody doesn’t get to see the day-to-day that he does for us. … It’s influential in a big way,” said Chiefs defensive end Alex Okafor, who also played with Mathieu in Arizona.

The praise crosses over to the offensive side of the ball as well. Byron Leftwich, a former quarterbacks coach with the Cardinals who is now scheming against Mathieu in Tampa Bay, sees a well-rounded player.

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“I got so much respect for what he’s about … as a coach and as a player, you appreciate that,” he said.

His former defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles, describes him as “one of the smartest players” he has coached in this game.

With that combination, it is no surprise what he has been able to accomplish in this league.

“You couple (intelligence) with his leadership skills and you have a great player,” Bowles said.

Mathieu, of course, isn’t the only one connected to the Super Bowl teams with Arizona ties. Tampa Bay also offers linebackers Kevin Minter and Deone Bucannon and Kansas City has fullback Anthony Sherman as those who have played on the mobile grass in Glendale, while Leftwich, Bowles, Arians and Tom Moore once roamed the sidelines coaching. The Super Bowl this season might as well be considered Arizona East.

But few generate the words of affection that Mathieu does. All the familiarity on opposing sidelines should create some different emotions come kickoff.

“It’s going to be a weird feeling going up against them,” he said. “I look at all those guys like fathers and uncles in a sense.”

Whatever happens on the field for Mathieu will surely be authentic. As Bowles said, “For him, it’s not anything made up.”

A win would double Mathieu’s ring collection. A loss would be bittersweet.

Either way, his feelings for the franchise remain fond.

“When I think about time in Arizona, I think about all the good people, all of the good teammates I had that really put their arm around me, embraced me and really allowed me to flourish in the NFL.”

Erik Hansen Air-ick han-sen
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Erik Hansen expects to graduate in spring 2021. He has had internships at KTAR radio in Phoenix.