Thursday, September 10, 2009

Maualuga Dons Big Blue

OK, so he’s not as easy on the eyes as Ashley Judd, but Bengals rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga was a welcome sight when he showed up last Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium to play cornhole with the Kentucky tailgaters before the UK vs. Miami football game.

Professional athletes have an incredible opportunity for spreading some joy. It’s always great to see one of them take it.

When I got home Wednesday afternoon after Bengals practice to write this column, my wife was unwinding after a day of school by watching 'The Oprah Winfrey Show.'

I’m not an Oprah fan, but 15 seconds into a brief video about her “Dream Comes True” series – this one was updating John Tartaglio, Jr., about his meeting with Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter – I was tearing up.

It reminded me of a scene in the movie, "Ocean’s 13," when Brad Pitt catches George Clooney sniffling at an Oprah giveaway on her TV show. ("Are you crying?" Pitt asks Clooney.) I can’t help myself. I’m a sucker for tear-jerkers.

None of this is to equate what Maualuga did for Kentucky fans to what Jeter did for Tartaglio (and vice versa). It’s just to say that athletes can make a difference, and I love it when they do.

Maualuga, the hard-hitting linebacker from the University of Southern California, who has won the starting job after dropping to the second round of the NFL draft, is getting ready for his first pro game Sunday vs. the Denver Broncos at Paul Brown Stadium.

He says his forays into the public eye in Greater Cincinnati have made him appreciative of his role as a public figure.

“Tuesday, I went out to Milford to to watch a friend’s 10-year-old practice, and afterward the kids ran up to me and said, ‘Hey, you play for the Bengals, don’t you?

'That’s my favorite team!’ I heard one kid say. ‘Who is that guy?’ I heard another guy say. ‘That’s T.J.’ They thought I was T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) because my hair was in a ponytail. Another kid said, ‘No, that’s Rey Maualuga, our second-round pick; he’s from USC.’

"These are 10-year-olds! You wouldn’t expect ‘em to know things like that. So, things like that - I don’t know - it just brings ya’ down to earth.”

Last Saturday, Maualuga just genuinely wanted to experience the feeling of attending a big-time college football game atmosphere, so he went to the UK vs. Miami game.

“It was my first college game to just walk around and be a fan,” Maualuga said. “I went back-and-forth between the Kentucky and Miami sides, and everybody was happy even though I had a Kentucky shirt on. Nobody from Miami said, ‘What’s with the Kentucky shirt?’ They were all like, ‘Hey, Rey, glad you came out.’ I enjoyed it.”

With his shoulder-length hair and Polynesian tattoos covering much of both arms, Maualuga isn’t about to blend, but he also has the personality to welcome and embrace the attention.

Some athletes don’t do as well as others in public settings. It would be wrong to expect them to, simply because they’re pro athletes. But everybody can make a difference in their own way.

One can tell by Maualuga’s body language that he embraces the love and that it fuels his desire to give his best on the field.

“When I came here,” he said, “I was upset that I (had fallen to the second round). But things opened up for me with the way the fans accepted me and were glad to have me here. I try to give that back.”

There is a Polynesian tradition of closeness of family and God that Maualuga, who is of Samoan descent, tries to live out.

He was born in Fort Sill, Okla., where his Samoan-born father, Talatonu, and mother, Tina, were stationed with the U.S. Army. Talatonu later became a Pentecostal minister. The family moved to Hawaii and then California, where Rey was raised.

“I’m glad that I’m here,” he said unabashedly, noting the family-oriented nature of the team, and the presence of other Samoans, Domata Peko and Jonathan Fanene.

“The team took me in as a brother,” Maualuga said. “I’ve talked to some of the vets and they say some of the guys who were with the team and left for other teams miss the closeness of the guys here. This linebacker group is something special. We go out to eat together all the time. Dhani (Jones) has been the leader. I already cherish the (relationships) here.”

Among the special relationships are those with Peko and Fanene, who share his love for football and family.

“There’s a thing called, ‘The Samoan Way,’ ” Maualuga said. “It comes from within. It’s harder for me to explain, because I didn’t grow up in Samoa.”

And how excited is Maualuga to play in his first NFL game Sunday?

“It’s a feeling I can’t explain,” he said. “I’m very anxious to get out there and perform. I’ll try not to be too over-excited, because if I’m over-excited, it will make me play the game the way I wasn’t taught to play it. I can play with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, but I don’t want to use it in such a way that I’m playing out of control. It would make me play with anger and regret that I don’t want to play with.

“I want to go out there with a calm mind and just do what I’ve been taught to do. I just wish my dad could be here to experience this with me.”

His dad can’t be here, but my guess is that some 10-year-olds from Milford, and some UK fans from Lexington who hadn’t planned to be at PBS on Sunday, now will be.

That’s the Samoan Way, too.

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