Christmas presence


Rey Maualuga

Dustin Spencer hasn't slept since the fire two weeks ago.

Ever since the flames and smoke in his Ludlow, Ky., home took his grandmother and four-year-old twin girls, he can only take naps. And even then his wife has to shake him awake because they usually end up nightmares.

So when the teacher from his daughter's school phoned him Monday to tell him what Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga had planned for his grief-stricken family, it is one of the few moments he has been able to smile.

"He's got a pretty tough name to say and she couldn't say it," Dustin Spencer said Tuesday night. "I said, 'You mean 'Mow-uh-LOO-guh. She said, 'You know him?' I said, 'He's my favorite Bengal.' When they drafted him I told my wife to go out and buy his jersey."

The No. 58 jersey, of course, is also gone. The fire took everything but wife Beth, 11-year-old daughter Kristina and two-year-old son Ethan. Their story turned up on Maualuga's Facebook page shortly after he asked the community for nominations for a disadvantaged family he could treat to a Christmas shopping spree. When he began reading the flood of heartbreak and hardluck, he realized he had to adopt more than one.

"Sad. Very sad. It was like reading about myself as a kid," Maualuga said. "No disrespect to the older people who are having trouble with their mortgages and need help paying it off and things like that. But we were looking for families with kids that weren't going to be able to get what they wanted."

So Amy Palcic, from his public relations firm, and Maualuga put their heads together and came up with two families in addition to the Spencers. Hamilton County Sherriff's patrolman Dale Mikes, who needs a liver transplant, hasn't been able to work for nearly two years and has four children eight and younger. And another family, a single mother who works at a fast food restaurant while raising four children from ages 16-2 in a home with no electricity, is going to be surprised by their church before being driven to a Target in Florence, Ky., for Wednesday's 6:30 p.m. event.

Maualuga is going to be the excited big kid waiting in the pizza place in the store. After they eat, he'll give a couple hundred dollars for each child to spend and $100 Under Armour gift cards to the people that nominated them. Then he'll watch the kids go at it.

"I think back to 13, 14 years ago," said Maualuga, who turns 24 next month. "If I was able to walk into a Target and get anything I wanted, I think I would have peed my pants."

How could that guy not be your favorite Bengal?

Maualuga got inspired last week during Shop With a Bengal with guys like Carson Palmer and Bobbie Williams. Domata Peko couldn't make it, so Maualuga pinch-hit for him.

"To watch the looks on those kids' faces when they went into that Toys"R"Us, it was great. I thought back to me at that age. I'd be crazy," he said. "I kind of felt bad. People were coming up to me saying, 'Thank you,' and all I was there to do was support. Domata paid. But I knew right away I wanted to do something like that, so I put it up on Facebook. Let's face it; the first place they go to is the electronics section. But I was thinking of Target because it also has clothes."  

Dustin Spencer likes what we all liked when we first saw Maualuga on TV in the sunshine at USC. Hair flying, big hits, tightrope TDs on interceptions, bellows of emotion. And how when he arrived from The Coast he immediately got involved.  

"He's Samoan, right?" Spencer asked. "I remember when he went back to his country to help his people get through hard times."

These times can't get any harder for Spencer, 29. He's a forklift operator who recently has been able to get only temporary jobs and right now he's in between. He's also a mechanic on the side and he's got a friend that may have something lined up for him. Family members have told the media that gas to the century-old home was cut off for non-payment and the fire was sparked by space heaters.

Maualuga is going to have a hard time with that one. He didn't lose anybody growing up in Eureka, Calif., until he went away to USC and his father died of cancer. Until then, Christmas and birthdays had been standard fare.

"As a kid, I knew I wasn't going to get what I wanted," he said. "Nintendo. SEGA Genesis. No way. No shot. But I remember being appreciative of what we did have. I had parents and siblings. A lot of people don't have a family."

At one point the Maualugas had to live in the attic of the church where his father preached and the other kids teased him because of his old clothes. But he remembers a birthday before that when they lived in an apartment about a minute walk from the store where the cream of mushroom soup was $1.09 a can.

"I loved cream of mushroom soup; whenever I had two bucks I'd go down and buy one," Maualuga said. "One time on my birthday I asked my mother for Pokemon cards and she got the wrong ones. I cried, but then she got me a can of cream of mushroom soup. Can you imagine anyone getting a can of soup for their birthday? But that's what I loved."

Before the fire, the Spencer home had been a beehive of activity whenever the Bengals played on TV. They would invite friends over and Beth would make potato skins and cheese balls and Ethan would sit on his father's lap watching the TV yelling "Bengals," one of the first words he could say.

"We're still with them," Dustin Spencer said. "The girls' favorite player was Ochocinco, but I think they just liked saying 'Ochocinco.' Matter of fact, a friend of mine offered me some tickets to the game last Sunday and I would have loved to have gone. But I had to find a home. Family always comes first."

Just like it does in Green Township in Cincinnati, where Dale Mikes, 36, keeps his phone next to him whenever he goes to bed and wakes up. He's waiting for the call for a new liver. He got a call back in August and he was prepped on the table ready to go when doctors decided it just wasn't the right match.

"My immunity system is being attacked and the place where it's being attacked is my liver," Mikes said. "For the longest time they weren't able to figure out what it was and I'd go through so many tests. One week they were taking a pint of blood a day. It got to the point where all I was doing was sleeping and working."

The medical problems just overwhelmed him and he can no longer work his beat on the city's west side. But so many brethren have donated their vacation and personal days that he's still getting paid.

"The department is a big family," Mikes said. "The plan is when I get the new liver; I'm going back to work."

The kids have used bikes and there has definitely been talk about new ones on Wednesday. Mikes knows what he'll say to Maualuga.

"Without him, my kids could not possibly have the kind of Christmas they're going to have," he said. "How can you even begin to say 'thank you' to something like that?"

Maualuga's not looking for that. He's not looking for credit. The Bengals SAM backer is just wondering if he can beat 8-year-old Sam Mikes to the games section. Jane Pauline, the lady that couldn't pronounce his name, does know the meaning of the word "community" because she's certainly not looking for anything, either. Her only connection to the Spencer family is she is Kristina's Gifted Ed teacher at Ludlow Elementary, and she went right to Facebook to nominate them when her mother saw Maualuga's offer on the TV news.

Dustin Spencer says Kristina is going to be there Wednesday night. She has been in and out of Shriners Hospital with second-degree burns on her face and hands, but the only spot she still has to have bandaged is on her back.

"I guess I'll tell him 'thank you,' and that I'm glad we've got him and that he's in our town," Dustin Spencer said of his impending chat with Maualuga. "He doesn't have to do this. Think of all the money he has and what he could be doing with it. He could be doing anything. I'm from just a small town in Kentucky. For him to be doing this for my family…"

But Maualuga would tell you it could be his family. The Facebook thread turns out to be a family tree.

"I wake up every day, look into the sky, and it's another day. Life doesn't stop," Dustin Spencer said. "I loved my grandmother more than anything. I loved my girls more than anything and they loved me. They thought I was Superman."

Sounds like he still is. With a little help from the guy who changes into No. 58 on Sundays.

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