Best Human Honey Badger 2013 | Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals | Sports & Recreation | Phoenix

Despite his selection as a finalist for the 2011 Heisman Trophy, Tyrann Mathieu still was around for the Arizona Cardinals to snag in the third round of the NFL draft. It would've been stunning for an athlete of Mathieu's talent to get picked 69th overall, except for what's been reported to be his off-the-field drug habits. He was kicked out of the LSU football program in 2012, after which he entered drug rehabilitation. The New Orleans native returned to the LSU program only to get arrested, with three fellow players, for possession of marijuana. In an age when pro (and college) sports are trying to clean up their images, a "problem" such as Mathieu's can be sudden death for a promising career. But the Cardinals wisely decided to take a chance on Mathieu, one of the most aggressive cornerbacks ever to play the college game (the Cardinals are moving him to free safety).

Come on, his drug use allegedly involved pot, and while the Cardinals don't want professionals playing stoned, this can't be a big deal. Jeez, they can't be worried that he's a slo-mo stoner — the kid's known as the freakin' Honey Badger, and nobody has to tell us how fearsome honey badgers become when they're hungry. And Mathieu's always famished — his on-field grub being opposing guys trying to score. Proof of that is that his zealous attitude got him named MVP of the 2011 Southeastern Conference Championship, which LSU won. (Did we mention that the SEC is the toughest college football conference in the land, whose champion could've beaten the Cardinals last season?) In the '11 regular season at LSU, he had five forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries (two of which he returned for touchdowns), and 60 solo tackles. He received the Chuck Bednarik Award for best college defender for his trouble, the second year in a row an LSU player had won the honor (former/current teammate Patrick Peterson preceded Mathieu in 2010).

More on why Mathieu's called the Honey Badger: He's a little guy by football standards (5-foot-9, 185 pounds) who literally terrorizes much-larger running backs and receivers — something the Cards desperately need in their defensive backfield.

Everybody thought he was crazy (and not in a good way) when he traded slugger Justin Upton to the Atlanta Braves for utility man Martin Prado, pitcher Randall Delgado, and a few tidbits. Towers' thinking was that the Diamondbacks could only contend big-time as a scrappy-ass team, and Prado, who can play almost any position (and has, this season) was better for manager Kirk Gibson's boys of summer than the can't-hit-when-it-counts Upton. And though we had our doubts about general manager Towers at the beginning of the season when Upton was tearing it up for Atlanta, we don't now. J-Up virtually has disappeared into the mediocrity he showed in the clutch here. Truthfully, Prado hasn't hit to his potential — it's been his second-worst season, batting-average-wise, in a long time — but he's on the, um, upswing. And he's saved countless runs with his gangbuster defense. He may well be the better offensive player by the end of the season. Towers still has work to do with his pitchers. Injuries and kismet have effed him somewhat in that department, though his getting rid of mediocre Ian Kennedy for a solid relief pitcher (and change) has helped. As usual, Towers is figuring it out. Arizona's lucky to have a premier baseball strategist at the helm.

Aaron Hill spent almost the whole first half of the Diamondbacks' 2013 season on the disabled list from a rare fracture to his left hand. But when he returned, he was gangbusters. Despite the fact that he's sure to need surgery on his glove hand in the offseason, he came back slugging, complementing slugging first baseman Paul Goldschmidt in the middle of the lineup. Hill always has been the Diamondbacks' best-all-around player when he's healthy. Always in the Gold Glove hunt in whatever league he's playing in (he came to Arizona from the American League Toronto Blue Jays), Hill's been solid-plus at his second-base position, despite the pesky injury. The D-backs held their own without him, but since his return, he's won several games with his stellar offense. A bona fide slugger in his own right, he blasted three home runs in the first month he was back, batted .333, knocked in seven runs, and had a .538 slugging average. Along with Goldschmidt, Hill anchors Arizona's offense; he's a big part of the reason they have a chance of going all the way.

You wouldn't want to piss him off. He could take your hide off with his sandpaper face. His stare could bore a hole in the barrel of slugger Paul Goldschmidt's giant bat. Smiles are hard-won from this guy. So are compliments. He never runs with the bulls; they run from him. No, that's the Most Interesting Man in the World ("Stay thirsty, my friends"). Kirk Gibson may not be the most interesting man on the planet, but he's definitely the most interesting member of the Diamondbacks organization. In addition to being a baseball legend who limped around the bases after homering for the Los Angeles Dodgers — in one of the most unforgettable moments in sports history — Gibson's becoming one of baseball's elite managers. He's taken a scrappy bunch of also-ran veterans (Paul Goldschmidt, Patrick Corbin, and Aaron Hill notably excepted) and fielded a club that battled for first place in the West all season. How does he do it? By commanding respect and demanding that millionaire players put out on the diamond. He's a quiet, intense motivator, and that's what it takes to go to the World Series. He's been there. And won. Twice. If anybody can return to D-backs to the Series (which they won in 2001), it's Gibby.

Miguel Montero's got the big contract (five years, $60 million), but it's his backup, Wil Nieves, who's delivered to the maximum this year. We wince when Montero goes to the plate — he seems to have lost his will to hit since getting all that dough. He may have been a guy who's good only when he's lean and hungry (which he certainly isn't on either count). He's left countless men in scoring position this year, batted in the low .200s, and his defense never has been all that. We'd much rather see Nieves — who, amazingly, barely made the team this year — get the lion's share of playing time. 'Cause he's roaring, and Miggy's not. First off, Wil's just as good a defensive catcher as Montero, has a soothing way with pitchers, whom his position must manage on the field, and his hitting's been off the charts. Dude was batting .354 in 37 games (highest average on the squad), with 34 hits and 14 runs batted in, just past midseason. Incredible stats for a part-time starter! The guy's clutch, too. Despite his limited playing time, he's been the reason the D-backs have won certain games. Why he and Montero haven't reversed roles this season is beyond us. Yeah, Nieves is a journeyman backup catcher, but perception isn't reality here! Time to move the guy who's helping the team to the premier role behind the plate — and, maybe, bump up his bargain-basement $800,000 annual pay. If for no other reason than that Montero might wake up and start effin' hitting.

Thank God for Goran Dragic! He was the only bright spot in the Phoenix Suns' dismal lineup last season. He continued to do it all: score, pass, rebound. The Suns didn't win many games — 25 of 82, to be exact — but the ones they did win were mostly because of the lightning-fast Serbian. The Suns are making moves to improve their on-court fortunes, with the addition of promising rookie Alex Len in the 2013 NBA draft. In a year or so, he should become Dragic's principal go-to guy under the basket. Even on last year's dismal squad, Dragic averaged 15 points and seven assists a game. He tutored under one of the game's great point guards, Steve Nash, and it shows. He's a pass-first player who can dunk and rebound. Dragic had three boards a game in the latter category, great for among the shortest players on the team. With better talent around him, he could return to the prowess he showed in game three of the 2010 Western Conference Finals, when he scored 23 of his 26 points in the final period to give the Suns a 110-96 come-from-behind win over San Antonio. It was billed as one of the greatest fourth-quarter performances in playoff history. Dragic's scoring blast included five of five three-pointers. Dragic's a seasoned veteran at only 27. He started his professional career in Slovenia at 17, spending five years playing in Europe before entering the 2008 NBA draft and winding up with Phoenix. It remains to be seen whether he will be as good as his mentor, Nash. But it was at the same juncture in his NBA career that Nash began to break out in points and assists with the Dallas Mavericks. He and Len are the future of Phoenix's oldest professional-sports franchise — how that future plays out under economically cautions Suns management remains to be seen.

Jeez, Heath Bell used to be great! Jeez, he's sucked this season! Despite Kevin Towers' management prowess, his biggest bonehead move this year was bringing Bell over from the Florida Marlins, where he was beneath dismal last season. Kevin, the guy's O-V-E-R! Bell once was great with the San Diego Padres, but he's lost it. Batters seem to anticipate his every pitch (he has only two, a fastball and a curve). You and manager Kirk Gibson believed Bell would improve after his first outing. Remember that first game, Kevin? Gave up two home runs to the first two batters he faced. Um, AZ lost the game. And we've lost countless others because Bell's been worthless on the mound. He apparently got the memo that closers are supposed to damn well close, 'cause we can tell he feels real bad after blowing it so many times. He should've felt like jumping into the Grand Canyon after a couple of those. Man, we quake to think that Arizona's paying $9 million a year for the "Heath Bell Experience." After the All-Star break, Bell was moved into a setup role, which helped. But we still feel nausea when he trots in from the bullpen. We're not sure how Bell survived the trade deadline — maybe he cleans Towers' pool.

Shane Doan tends to toss hockey pucks over the glass to adoring fans before home games. The Phoenix Coyotes forward has stuck fast with the troubled franchise when he could have bolted for more secure pastures. Last year, he won the Mark Messier Award for leadership among teammates, during games, and in the community. His charity work in the Valley's legendary. It's hard to glance at TV sports without seeing him around town helping kids, donating his time. He's a hell of a hockey player, too. Last season, the Coyotes faded from playoff contention during the second half of the season, but Doan was a major reason they had made a run the season before, losing to the L.A. Kings in the Western Conference finals. The Kings went on to win the Stanley Cup. Doan's been around since the beginning of the Yotes franchise, which started 18 years ago as the Winnipeg Jets. An Alberta native, Doan's won two gold medals in world championships and was a member of Canada's Olympic team. Doan lives year-round in Phoenix and routinely expresses his love for the Valley. A "Wild Westerner" at heart (he grew up in Canadian cowboy country), he feels right at home on horseback galloping through the desert. And now that the Coyotes are assured of staying in Glendale for at least five more years, Doan, who'll be 37 in October, could finish his playing career here. If the Coyotes are smart, they'll keep him around as long as he wants and then move him into coaching. Intelligence/leadership skills like his are hard to come by in a game where players get concussed for a living.

Let's face it, 6-foot-4, 220-pound Mike Smith was the main reason the Phoenix Coyotes made it to the NHL's Western Conference Finals two years ago. Which is why it was good to see the team give him what he deserved — a six-year, $34 million contract. To lose Smith, near the top of the goalie class in the NHL, would've been devastating to a team whose front-office woes have bled onto the ice. So, finally, the team got a respite with a guarantee of staying at least five more years in Glendale, and the Kingston, Ontario, native will be here through that time. Like Smith, Coyotes coach Dave Tippett is great at what he does, and Smith has said Tippet's presence helped seal the deal for him in the desert. Without Tippett, Smith might have tried his luck on the open market, where many teams were interested. Goalie, despite the fearsome masks, isn't a flashy position on a hockey team. You don't grow up hoping to stand in front of the goal and have guys slamming pucks at you. The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, was in the business of making goals. Scorrrrre! And that's what kids skating on frozen ponds far from here want to do, too. When you notice a team's goalie is when he fucks up, which rarely happens to Smith. The stopper with one of the widest wingspans in the league has a save percentage of .913 — and a goal-against average of 2.56 in 263 career regular-season contests. Add to that 24 shutouts, and you have a crucial piece of the puzzle if the Yotes are to return to the playoffs and (now that they're not worrying about the franchise bolting) go deep.

The Phoenix Suns are rebuilding after the almost-heady days of Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire. We mean, despite his two MVPs, Nash never brought us a trophy. Neither did Charles Barkley back in his day, though he came closer. Then came last season, when the Suns without Nash (Amar'e was long gone) were nowhere close to contention. In fact, they were the worst team in the NBA's Western Conference. So because of this new low in suckage, we're heartened by any seemingly positive development. Anything that could bring the team back to almost glory. And we think thrifty owner Robert Sarver and his crew may have stumbled on a guy who could help ace guard Goran Dragic make our purple-and-gold goons respectable again: 7-foot-1 Alex Len. We know: Tree-tall white guys (jump-shooters like Dirk Nowitzki aside) tend to be meat in the middle in today's NBA, not the mega-scorers needed to be to win championships. But if Len can stay healthy (ankle issue), we predict he'll be different. A sophomore at the University of Maryland last season, the Lithuanian averaged 11 points, eight rebounds, and two blocked shots per game (impressive college numbers). Against the reigning-national-champion Kentucky Wildcats last year, he dominated the player whom scouts would declare the best big man in the '13 draft, Nerlens Noel — scoring 23 points, grabbing 12 rebounds, and blocking four shots. Don't look for the Suns' fifth overall pick in the NBA draft (he could've gone first if not for the ankle injury) to start immediately; he'll play behind journeyman big man Marcin Gortat, whose contract expires after next season. The Suns say they picked Len because of his, um, "upside." He's a giant 20-year-old who, they say, may not be done growing physically. He's certainly not done growing as a scorer and defender. We pray he becomes the franchise player that the Suns can build around.

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