“The Pro Bowl,” he says.
Given the road to redemption script the Bengals wrote last year, why not? And if there is a guy that knows a Pro Bowl backer in the making, it is Bengals linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald, who one season in Baltimore coached a Pro Bowler at every spot.
“Oh yes. That part is exciting,” says FitzGerald of Maualuga’s potential. “In order to realize that type ability, it’s got to be controlled.”
Admitting he’d been through “a little bit of havoc,” Maualuga returned to the Bengals Monday sounding more in control. Declaring that he’s “a different man,” and that his stint at the Center for Drug and Alcohol Counseling in Charleston, S.C. “was a life-changer for me,” he vowed this is “my year.”
“It was an eye-opening experience and blessing in disguise,” he said. “I found out a lot about myself that I didn’t know. I was able to sit back and listen to people’s stories and they gave me good feedback about mine. But I needed to show it with my actions.”
On Monday, Maualuga displayed why he has become one of the most popular Bengals in recent memory. He’s honest, humble, passionate.
“I just hope the city of Cincinnati and my fans will accept my apology and hopefully help me through all this and move forward now,” he said. “There’s a lot more important things to take care of. Just to get this workout underway and be back with my teammates and get things rolling again.”
What he sees now as more important is that Pro Bowl berth, where a Bengals linebacker hasn’t been named since Jim LeClair in 1976.
He had a strong rookie year despite switching from middle linebacker and playing SAM for the first time in his life. Before he broke his lower leg in the next to last game of the season, Maualuga had started every game and racked up 80 tackles. But this was the nation’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year and he was looking for something more explosive than one sack and two forced fumbles.
(One of those forced fumbles turned the Green Bay game in the 31-24 win on the road that turned the season.)
“It was a good first year for him from the standpoint of understanding the defense, understanding the position and the type of things that can get you dinged in this league week after week,” FitzGerald says. “He’s capable. He flashed doing those things. But you have to govern it. Sometimes you need a speed eliminator on there. Know how and when to control it. No question he made progress last year. But he wasn’t satisfied and neither was I.”
Maualuga may be right. He is already sounding like a different guy when asked what he has to do wreak more havoc on the field.
“Give my body the attention it deserves. My mind and expand it with more information and more knowledge of the game,” he said. “Last year I took everything lightly. I was just going with the steps. Just doing what I was supposed to do. But I think this year is a different year. It’s my year.”
He think his year of experience will “make it a lot easier,” to reach what he says is “The sky’s the limit.”
“I can be way better, I think, if I put all my effort into it,” he said. “I think I’ve got a lot more to offer and a lot more to give. I guess it’s easier said than done.”
So much happened to him so quickly. About a week after his DUI arrest in Covington, Ky., at the end of January, he returned to American Samoa for the first time since he was three years old on a trip with teammates
They were there to give the governor a $40,000 check for relief efforts raised from Bengals fans for last year’s killer storm and to speak to the high school students of Pago Pago. Maualuga donated more than 700 pairs of cleats to the six football teams but it was also a family reunion that helped him develop even more perspective in the wake of his father’s death from cancer in 2006.
“Just to be able to be with my family and get closer to my dad’s side of the family,” he said. “And you see these kids who are trying to get to where myself and Domata and Fanene are at, it just makes you realize you do have a lot to lose. You do have people looking up to you. You can’t take it for granted. It’s a right; it’s not a privilege to be playing. I just have to take every day like it’s my last day and accept it and know there’s a lot of people out there trying to get to where I am.”
Now he’s trying for an ever higher spot.
The Pro Bowl.
“The only person that can stop me," he says, "is me,”