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September 11, 2008
LOS ANGELES ? He has been called "the most feared player in college football," but as USC linebacker Rey Maualuga strolls through a sixth-floor hallway at the Women's and Children's Hospital at the USC Medical Center, he looks anything but mean and ferocious.
Perhaps that's because Maualuga is wearing a Tickle-Me-Elmo puppet over his right hand as he kneels next to Dustin, a 2-year-old battling bone disease. Maualuga extends his arm and shields his face as Elmo begins to talk.
"Hey, there," Maualuga says in a helium-high voice. "Are you a USC football fan?"
Dustin giggles and looks up at his mom, who is standing in the hospital room her son has occupied for the past six weeks. The surprise visit from Maualuga and his teammates, she says, is one of the few things that has made Dustin smile.
The exchange has the opposite effect on Maualuga, who shakes his head and grimaces as he saunters toward the next room.
"Sometimes," Maualuga whispers, "I look at these kids and I have to turn away. We get to go back outside in a little while and play football, but they're stuck in here. They can't have a normal childhood like everyone else.
"It just isn't fair, man."
This, folks, is the real Rey Maualuga. Caring, compassionate and ? if you can believe it ? soft.
Say farewell to the hothead who decked that kid at the Halloween party and the rebel who used to drink too much, and pay no attention to the maniac who scowls during one photo shoot and sticks out his tongue in another.
That stuff, Maualuga says, is all just an act.
"I know there are people out there that will always think I'm a troublemaker," says Maualuga, a senior. "A lot of that is my fault because I had some off-field issues a few years ago. The good thing is that I have a chance to change the image that people have of me."
"I'm actually a very shy person."
Talk to the people closest to Maualuga ? the mother who reared him, the coaches who groomed him, the teammates who admire him ? and they'll say that, along with being one of the best players in the country, Maualuga might also be the most misunderstood.
"It's too bad that more of the world hasn't gotten to see what a good kid Rey really is," says Garrett Montana, Maualuga's defensive coordinator at Eureka (Calif.) High school. "You see all these posed pictures of him with his tattoos and his wild hair and his tongue sticking out. They make him look like a savage.
"Truth is, he's as quiet and gentle of a person as you'll ever meet."
A SLOW STARTER
His merciless hits have become Internet sensations, but for Maualuga, the tackle that stands out the most in his career came on a play when he got popped. It happened back in the sixth grade, during the opening kickoff of Maualuga's first-ever game in Honolulu.
"I had no idea what I was doing," he says. "Everyone else was running down the field, but I was jogging. All of a sudden, this guy came out of nowhere and leveled me ? and I mean he laid ? me ? out."
Before that year, Maualuga never had aspirations of becoming a football player. Most days, he'd attend school, walk home and play on his own without making a peep. Eventually, though, Maualuga began to notice that the most popular kids showed up each week carrying the football pads they'd wear to practice each afternoon.
"All of the pretty girls would walk around wearing their helmets," Maualuga says. "I wanted to be like that, too.
"I wasn't the coolest person growing up in elementary school. I was always the shy kid, so people thought I was ? I don't want to say feminine, but you know what I mean. People say stuff and think stuff."
Eventually, Maualuga showed up at a practice and asked the coach if he could join the team.
"It's amazing what you'll do to impress others," Maualuga says.
Maualuga's mother, Tina, began catching the city bus each week to watch her son's games, but he rarely played. Maualuga was big enough and physical enough, but he didn't understand the game as well as his teammates.
Rey says he had no intention of playing another season after his family moved from Hawaii to Oxnard, Calif., the following year. But one morning, his father barged into his room, escorted him to the car and drove him to sign-ups.
"And I've been going strong ever since," Maualuga says. "That's why I say I owe everything to my father and God."
After playing his freshman season at tradition-rich St. Bonaventure High in Ventura, Maualuga was upset when the family decided to relocate to Eureka, a seaport town of about 26,000 on California's North Coast.
By that point, earning a major-college scholarship had become a mission for Rey and he was afraid he wouldn't get noticed. But with the way he was performing, Montana says recruiters would've heard about Maualuga if he was "playing on a glacier in Alaska."
"One time he tackled the quarterback as he was throwing a screen pass and then got up and chased down the receiver who caught it," Montana says. "Coaches from all over the country ? guys like (USC coach) Pete Carroll and (Oregon coach) Mike Bellotti ? were coming to Eureka to visit, but we wouldn't even hear about it until they left.
"Rey stayed humble through it all. You never heard him brag or boast. People saw the way he handled things, and they became his fan."
TOILING THROUGH TOUGH TIMES
Rey Maualuga remembers getting out of bed and already being able to smell the feast. Later that day, Carroll and Trojans assistant Rocky Seto would be making a recruiting visit to his home, and Rey says his father, Talatonu, was "stoked."
"He had gotten up real early to start cooking," Maualuga says. "He made crab in this amazing coconut sauce. He was so excited to have them there.
"When they left, he said, 'You're going to USC.' I was like, 'OK, where do I sign?' "
But Talatonu never got to attend one of his son's college games. He had surgery for brain cancer the week before the opener of Rey's freshman season and died four months later ? two days before USC's loss to Texas in the Rose Bowl.
"Things were tough on Rey as a freshman," says Seto, who has become one of Maualuga's closest mentors. "His father was bedridden in the hospital that whole fall, fighting for his life, while Rey was away at school playing football.
"He wanted to be by his side."
The stress took its toll on Maualuga.
Two months before his father's death he was arrested for punching a man after drinking too much at a Halloween party. One year later, the Los Angeles Times reported that Maualuga had been disciplined by Carroll for disruptive behavior at fraternity party.
Some say Maualuga was having difficulty adjusting to the attention that goes along with being a star athlete in a prominent program. Others believe his actions were the result of pent-up anger over his father's illness and death.
Rey always admired his father, who was well-respected in Eureka. Talatonu moved his family there before Rey's sophomore year of high school when he felt "called by God" to begin a Pentecostal ministry for the town's Polynesian population.
Talatonu always told Rey that he had a purpose in life, that he could use his talents as a football player to touch others and be a role model. Each day after work, he'd show up at Rey's practices to show support. Rey pays tribute to Talatonu by wearing eye-black stickers bearing the word "DAD."
Three years later, Tina still has a difficult time talking about her husband's death and the effect it had on her middle son.
"I'm sorry," she says, sniffling. "It's just too hard. I just know that he would've been proud of Rey. I pray to God that nothing happens to him. Whether he makes it to the NFL or not ? I'm not the type of parent that goes around and talks about all of his accomplishments. I just praise God for his talents and pray every day that nothing happens to him.
"He's a good boy, a nice boy. He works hard. He's earned this."
MAKING ANOTHER IMPRESSION
At the hospital, the Trojans' hour-long visit is winding down. As USC's players head back to the bus, it's clear Maualuga is moved.
"It made me feel grateful that I have everything that I want," he says. "I have all my (limbs). I'm not sick. I'm healthy. You take things for granted, but then you see those kinds of things and you realize that you have an opportunity to do something with your life that others don't."
Maualuga is a leading candidate for the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation's top college linebacker, and a favorite to earn first team All-America honors. Draft analysts agree that he's one of top two college linebackers in the country, which means NFL riches await.
Maualuga, though, wants more.
"I want to make an impression on the people that don't know who I am ? the ones that don't know the real me," he says. "My freshman year, with all of that partying and drinking ? I know I caught the eyes of people for (the wrong reasons).
"All of a sudden people were like, 'Uh-oh. When Rey gets angry, you better watch out.' I take full responsibility for that, but now I have a chance to change it."
USC coaches have noticed a difference.
"He knows how to handle himself in crowds now," linebacker coach Ken Norton Jr. says. "Before, he was a little uncomfortable with all of the attention. Now he's able to embrace it. He's beginning to understand how much his presence means to so many people. It's fun to watch him put a smile on their faces."
Maualuga's efforts can be seen on the field, too. In the past ? dating to high school ? he has had problems being a vocal leader. Rather than express his opinion, he has always left the motivational speeches to teammates, choosing instead to speak with his play.
These days, though, Maualuga has become one of the Trojans' most respected players. He doesn't just speak because he feels like he has to. He wants to.
"It's on my shoulders to earn respect," Maualuga says. "You're only given a certain amount of chances. If you screw up, you may not get those chances back. Me ? I can't screw up anymore.
"When you go out and party and do all that stupid stuff, you're just wasting time. That's how I see things now. I don't want to be a person who came onto the earth and didn't do anything with my life."
Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.