That he can recite this so matter-of-factly is striking. This was a tough place to grow up; the kids used a “get-down” drill any time they heard gunfire while playing ball. As in, hear shots, “Get down.”
And then, on Mathieu’s other arm, a shrine: a tattoo of a basketball jersey, the number 33 with Stanford’s name. Angels wings on the side, a halo on top.
Mathieu cannot remember when he and Stanford weren’t friends.
In 1996 Stanford’s 5-year-old sister, Brittany, was killed in a drive-by shooting, shot in the back. A year later Stanford lost his father, Phillip Sr., to another shooting. Three years after that his mother, Otoyia, succumbed to leukemia, and Stanford went to live with his aunt.
And then, in 2012, Mathieu lost his friend.
“It pushes me every day,” he said. “Nothing can be worse than losing your best friend. No matter what, no matter how things are, I keep going. Because nothing is worse than I’ve already been through.”
That Mathieu can tell his story is due mainly to his mother, Tracy Johnson, who raised him, his sister and twin brothers mainly by herself.
“I had three boys, a set of twins,” she said. “I refused to let them hang out with certain people. And I didn’t let them go outside and hang out and do all that different stuff. I admit, it was sometimes kind of hard on them.”
She wouldn’t let her kids out of the house after 9 p.m., turning her home into something of an oasis. Books, schoolwork. And, it seems Stanford practically lived there with them.
One time Stanford ran away from his aunt and came to Mathieu’s house. Shortly thereafter the aunt called the home.
“She said, ‘I know he’s there,’ ” Mathieu recalled. “ ‘I’m just going to bring him some clothes. You don’t have to tell him I know he’s there.’ It was like that. If he was running away from home, he was running to my house.”
But Stanford couldn’t run away from the pain. The two boys played together through middle school before choosing separate high schools. Still, they kept in touch.
After being named to several all-state teams as a senior, Mathieu received no Division I offers and chose to walk on at Morehead State while Stanford opted for a junior college. Not long afterward Stanford, struggling, came home.
On that day in January Mathieu remembers talking with Stanford in the morning, saying he’d call him later that day. But they never talked again.
Johnson remembers trying to keep the news from her son until she could get him home. “I knew how hard it was going to be for him,” she said. “This was his best friend. He called him his brother.”
Mathieu remembers the long drive back to Knoxville when he found out.
“I think about it every day,” he said.
Road to Minnesota