It’s 3:30 a.m. at the JW Marriott Turnberry, a luxury hotel in the beautiful Miami suburb of Aventura.
The 300-acre estate is more resort than hotel, one with an 18-hole golf course, a water park that can hold 3,000 people at once and a massive spa acquainting it whose aerial views decidedly make it fitting for a monarch’s weekend getaway. And if the scene here all week leading up to right now seemed crazy – one with top-flight security, bomb-sniffing dogs and thousands of fans packing the outside to get a brief glimpse of who’s coming out of it – then this night dwarfs it by comparison.
This is the site of the Kansas City Chiefs’ team hotel for Super Bowl LIV. Less than four hours after a wild fourth-quarter comeback has netted the Chiefs their first NFL championship in half a century, the scene inside is as chaotic as should be expected.
The hotel is split into seven sections – with stores, restaurants and palm trees overlooking the entire operation – and is clustered with people, some getting kicked out after trying to sneak in without wearing the proper credentials.
Somewhere in the middle of this entire scene, Tyrann Mathieu sees Dasan McCullough, the son of Chiefs running backs coach Deland McCullough and one of Ohio State’s top targets in the recruiting class of 2022, sitting at a poolside table. In the midst of this crazy post-Super Bowl party scene, the Chiefs’ star safety walks over to Dasan, who is also a physically gifted safety – though he would play Sam linebacker if he winds up a Buckeye – and one of the best high school players in America, whom Mathieu has developed a connection with.
At one point in time, all of this seemed impossible for Mathieu. Most people know about Mathieu’s mistake-filled past while starring at LSU: The Heisman Trophy finalist failed multiple drug tests – more than 10, according to USA Today – and was dismissed from LSU, missing the entire 2012 season. He eventually checked himself into rehab but was subsequently arrested on marijuana charges. That’s when Mathieu began to make lasting changes in his life, getting clean for good, going to classes at LSU and working out on his own to prepare for the NFL.
And you probably know what happened from there: Mathieu was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals, turned into a bona fide NFL star with multiple All-Pro honors and became the third-highest paid safety in the league and a Super Bowl champion. All while becoming a role model off the field.
So in this moment, even one as big as this, that’s what Mathieu wanted to convey to McCullough, a young, up-and-coming defensive star. Even if it was for the briefest of moments.
“Tyrann Mathieu is probably who I’m closest with because he’s on the defensive side. He actually sat down, and we talked for a second – just about the game and football in general,” McCullough told Eleven Warriors. “He’s definitely my biggest one who gives me more advice than anyone else. It was nothing crazy, I would say (the night after the Super Bowl). It was really just teaching me about patience and making the right decisions.
“Obviously, we all know he did some stuff he shouldn’t have done in college, so he was telling me you have to stay focused. You can’t mess up and make a mistake like that, especially now. Coaches will just ignore a player that made that mistake. Luckily, he got a second chance, but he wanted to make sure I make the right decisions and stay on the right track.”
It was a bit of a daze during a crazy scene so the length of the conversation isn’t exact. Might have lasted 20 seconds. May have been two minutes or longer. Either way, it was enough to leave a lasting impression, and off the McCulloughs were an hour-and-a-half later.
“You are going against pros. The best receivers and the best quarterback in the NFL. What high schooler can give you that type of work?”– ohio state target Dasan McCullough on working out with kansas city chiefs players
His parents, dad Deland and mom Darnell, his grandmother on his dad’s side, Carol, and his little brother, Daeh (pronounced “Day”) went back to their hotel rooms, and Dasan’s older brother, Miami (Ohio) defensive back Deland McCullough II, didn’t catch an eyelid of sleep as he boarded a 6:45 a.m. flight back to Oxford in southwest Ohio.
That message stuck with Dasan, though, and very soon, a player who could be a future Ohio State linebacker will be getting even more lessons from the Honey Badger. This time they’ll come on the field, as McCullough’s physical and mental growth as he’s aged and matured will allow him to gain even more from the teachings of Mathieu.
“I’m supposed to be training with him starting later this week,” McCullough said earlier this month. “So he’s gonna definitely teach me stuff around football, I know that, because he’s really good in the film room. That’s his biggest thing.
“I wouldn’t say (we talk) on the daily, but we definitely talk. Any time I have a question or if he wants to tell me something, we’ll definitely talk. Here soon, it’s gonna get a lot more football and technical-related.”
Where they will train together is a familiar place for McCullough – the turf at Blue North Valley High School in Overland Park, Kansas.
Mathieu lives just 10-15 minutes away, and many of the other Chiefs players live close by and train here three days a week – Monday, Wednesday, Friday – during the offseason. This is where McCullough has taken the field and lined up against many of the Chiefs' top players, including tight end Travis Kelce, receivers Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman and second-year running back Darwin Thompson.
McCullough has learned from all of them.
“I have a really good relationship with them, especially Kelce and the running backs,” McCullough said. “Tyreek, Mecole and Kelce. Those are the real top three. Some of the running backs like Darwin I’ve gone up against. I only guarded Mecole once. He was definitely a real bad dude. Him and Tyreek.”
And, of course, Patrick Mahomes, who he’s proud to say he’s defended against well, here and there.
“I’ve got a couple pass breakups, but I’ve never picked him off. Not yet,” McCullough says with a laugh. “I mean, it’s pretty cool because you’re basically going against pros – not even basically. You are going against pros. The best receivers and the best quarterback in the NFL. What high schooler can give you that type of work?”
Any trash talk?
“When we’re out there, there’s actually not a lot of trash talk,” McCullough said. “Whenever I’m going up against one of the running backs, there might be a little more because they really know me. Every now and then, there might be a little something back and forth, but it’s pretty laid back for the most part. Mahomes definitely doesn’t say much. He’s really humble about it.”
Going up against two of the fastest wide receivers in the NFL – Hill and Hardman are each clocked at sub-4.33 times in the 40-yard dash – is something McCullough describes as “like a track meet,” which has helped him pick up little nuances of the game and shows him where he can improve.
The best receivers at any level, he says, are great at selling their routes. Normally, he says a receiver isn’t going to beat him on a comeback route because he can see it coming. If the receiver has speed like those guys, if McCullough mistakenly goes for the slant on a sluggo route or if a stutter-step on a go route has him jumping the fake comeback, he’s in catch-up mode in less than a quarter-second with how fast they accelerate and get up field.
“It’s definitely routes like that and a post (that are the hardest to guard) because you have to open up and run with them,” McCullough said. “Anything within 10 yards with those two I should be able to keep up with until one of them starts full-on sprinting.”
McCullough has been working out with those Chiefs stars in the offseason ever since his dad became the Chiefs' running backs coach in 2018, hired the week after an embarrassing playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans. The younger McCullough has seen firsthand the evolution of those players and the organization, as it went from a franchise shrouded in unknowns in 2018 to a team trying to repair itself after a crushing loss in the 2019 AFC Championship Game to eventually standing on the mountaintop in February 2020.
So as he sat in the center of the culmination of all of it, speaking with Mathieu and checking out the entire scene before him, a motivational factor set in that most high school athletes aren't able to witness firsthand.
“Really, the thing it did for me was give me more motivation than anything because that’s obviously the biggest football game you could ever play in,” McCullough said. “Everything you’ve worked for, you work for for a game like that. It really just gave me motivation to get there. You have to be real motivated to get there, and that comes with a lot of sacrifice. I’m just hoping that happens.”