Rey Maualuga started his new chapter the other day.
Nick The Tailor did the writing. It was Nick that took just under two hours to tattoo 13 words on the right side of Maualuga’s rib cage. From just below the armpit to just above the hip to what Maualuga hopes punctuates in the Pro Bowl.
at one point
Right now, Maualuga is sober, simmering and texting. He dodges thoughts of the needle with getting his broken leg back in time for the first snap of the May workouts. As always, these 245 pounds of Bengals linebacker are flowing in a restless current of contradiction. Laid back and passionate. Friendly and fierce. Funny and profound. You don’t get to be one of the most popular Bengals in recent memory by being a cardboard cutout.
He is lying on a massage table at Beelistic’s Blood & Money Tattoo & Piercing at the corner of West Clifton Avenue and McMillan Avenue on the lip of the University of Cincinnati campus. There is a lunchtime buzz in the place and in the back, Nick The Tailor’s résumé heavily influenced by mid-20th century motif glares from a wall of its own contradiction. There are the Sailor Jerry nods to booze and broads and pride and glory, heaven and hell and life and death. Maualuga’s bracelet dangles off the table with the name “Mrs. Davidson,” a Trenton, Ohio teacher diagnosed with leukemia late last year that he visited in a Cincinnati hospital.
Even amid the buzzing Maualuga is planning with Nick the next project on the left side of his ribs. It will be some sort of religious display. It is important to Maualuga that any brand on his body is not some blow-it-off-Post-It Note.
They all mean something. Particularly the dates on one of his arms:
It is the birth of his father and “when he went to heaven.” It was his father, a pastor who told him that he could only put tattoos on his body if they meant something significant in their Samoan heritage.
“If my father were here when I got my DUI,” Maualuga says, “he would have been on the next plane and kicked my butt. ... He wasn’t bigger than me. He was shorter. But he had these huge arms. I remember when I first stood up to him. I was in eighth grade. I said something like, ‘Bleep it,’ and he dropped me. Boom, boom. ‘Sorry, I won’t do that again.’ You hear about Samoans and discipline? Oh yeah. He told me, ‘I’m sorry I had to do that. But I love you and respect you and you can’t keep doing those things.' "
Cancer took his dad four years ago. Maualuga, 23, began drinking when he was 17. No connection he says.
“I could say ‘Yes,’ but I would be a liar,” he says. “I drank because I wanted to have fun and I wanted to do what everyone else was doing. The one thing I learned in there is that you can’t make excuses.”
He has been out of there, the Center for Drug and Alcohol Counseling in Charleston, S.C., for nearly two weeks and his body feels almost brand new. After he took out two cars and his reputation in a DUI arrest in late January, he vowed to get help after what he calls the worst day of his life. Ask him if he is an alcoholic, Maualuga gives the definition they gave him inside.
“If you drink and drive and get a DUI, you’re not an alcoholic,” he says. “If you do it again, now you’re an alcoholic. Certain people have certain limits. Every time I got in trouble was because of alcohol.”
No more, he says, and so far so good. He says he's looking for a foundation, so he is moving out of his rented Clifton condo and looking to buy away from the lights. Last Thursday night came and went. A party night. He got texts and calls, but he stayed in. His “Goodbye To Alcohol Letter” he wrote in the clinic is still fresh in his mind.
“Thank you for making it easier to talk to girls even though I had a great one,” he recounts one passage.
One of the things he wrote made him think of one of his favorite songs.
“I wrote I thought it was love at first sight. You know that Bob Marley song?” he asks. “That’s what I thought about my relationship with alcohol.”
“From the very first time I rest my eyes on you, girl, my heart says follow through.”
But he is following through away from the stuff. He is still mad at himself. He is mad for letting off the teams that passed on him in the first round last year.
“There was speculation around me,” he recalls. “Can we trust him? He’s a party animal. Can he handle the money? Stuff like that. I just solidified what every head coach and owner said. ‘Thank God we didn’t draft this guy.’ ’’
And there are the Odell Thurman whispers. Had to be. Got in trouble after a sold rookie season at middle linebacker helped the Bengals win a division title…
“We’re two different players,” Maualuga says. “I’m moving on."
His two off-field goals are, "I don’t want to lose my fans. I don’t want to lose the respect in the city."
Thurman was a second-round pick who fell out of the first round because of character issues. It is all too familiar for Maualuga. But he is burning like one of Nick The Tailor’s needles to re-draw the scene. He says he’ll be the best example of “what not to do” for the draft class the Bengals choose in 16 days.
“Because I was a liability,” he says of his draft day tumble. “I didn’t take care of the classroom. I partied too much. I didn’t take things too seriously. I expected to go higher, but I can sit back and say, ‘OK, those things I did to myself.’ What I learned (in rehab) was you make your own decisions. Really, I was being interviewed the whole four years at ‘SC. Something else they said in there. ‘This too shall pass.’ ”
The Thurman thing should pass. For one thing, the Bengals never counted on Thurman being their middle linebacker again once they found out how far he got off the rails in ’06. That was made clear with the drafting of Ahmad Brooks. But Maualuga may actually get his first taste of NFL middle backer this spring after a solid rookie season at SAM, the first time he ventured out of the middle.
When the Bengals drafted him, he was seen as the middle linebacker of the future. That could be now, even with
“I think Rey is a linebacker. He can play any of the spots,” Zimmer says. “We just have to find out what’s best for him and what works best for the team with the right combination. He played very well at SAM and that’s one of the questions at this time of year. Do you tweak things and if it doesn’t work, have you wasted time? How much do you mess with something that’s been OK? The don’t fix-it-if-it’s-not-broke theory. But you also want to see how good you can be. We’ll look at different combinations. The spring is kind of like spring ball in college and you get a chance to move some guys around and see what they do in different spots.”
Maualuga can’t wait to play anywhere. He’s driving the rehab for his broken leg as if the May camp is the first day of training camp and they have to remind him that he’ll be out there soon enough.
He’ll not only be out there, but he thinks he may be at a grade school in Trenton, Ohio one day this spring. When he got back last week, he had about 40 thank you letters from Mrs. Davidson’s class, thanking him for taking the time to visit their teacher. Now they want him to come and be principal for a day.
“Sounds good to me,” says Maualuga, who wonders if he has tipped Nick The Tailor enough.
“Plenty,” The Tailor says.
Not bad, Nick, for a new chapter.