Rey Maualuga and children at the Ronald McDonald House enjoy some time together. (Ronald McDonald House photo)
Posted: 10:10 p.m.
As usual, Rey Maualuga does a little bit of everything.
You want a football story?
How about Maualuga's rampaging versatility, along with Michael Johnson's pure athleticism and Roy Williams' relentless work ethic, being one of the bigger stories on the Bengals defense this spring?
You want an off-the-field-get-to-know-them story?
How about Hurricane Rey already sweeping the community? The last time we glimpsed him during the rookies' visit to the Ronald McDonald House in downtown Cincinnati on Wednesday, Maualuga was autographing the money he lost to the little kids when they caught some of his passes.
Somewhere tonight a third-grader with good hands has a picture of Abraham Lincoln signed "Rey Maualuga."
Whether it is fellow rookies finding his lunch table or a toddler wandering up the stairs to listen to the big man with the flowing hair under the knit cap read a story, all kinds gravitate to him.
And there was also the teenaged girl who approached him for a picture on the stairs.
"Hey," he says. "C'mon. Like we're at the prom."
Or the pictures he takes on the playground from on top of the slide before he went down, a 245-pound All-American wedging himself from the bottom.
Last week at the Carthage Tot Lot when the Bengals rookies showed up to work, Maualuga and fellow linebacker Dan Skuta were the last to leave. Not until the last load of mulch had been shoveled so the playground would be ready to open the next day for the first time since arson destroyed it back in November. They closed the place.
"We were there for a reason and a purpose and I didn't want to leave without finishing what we came to do," Maualuga says. "That's something I've always done. It's something my dad taught me."
Tony Maualuga has been gone nearly three years now after cancer ravaged him at 45, but every day like Wednesday brings him back for Rey. The Ronald McDonald House boards families of seriously ill children while they are at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, so visits like Wednesday's are as much for the siblings, the parents and the staff as they are for the kids.
But don't tell that to six-year-old Alicia Reed. Her hair is beginning to grow back after a bone marrow transplant and her mouth was covered with a surgical mask. But you could have heard her screams of delight all the way back to her hometown of Wichita, Kan., Wednesday when Maualuga reached down and tickled her tiny belly, grunted out a high five, and then kept calling on her to help him read parts of the book he read to the group.
"He's just one of those guys who's a good leader," says rookie punter Kevin Huber. "He's a guy people always kind of watch. He's got a good personality. He always tries to keep it loose."
If his dad taught Maualuga to help, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is reinforcing it. Lewis has mixed the rookies' on-field introduction the past month with community forays and just exactly what good works can do.
Last week it was the Marvin Lewis Community Fund that rebuilt the playground in Carthage, and on Wednesday he gave them a glimpse of one of the causes close to his heart. There were no on-field workouts Wednesday (they resume Thursday), but the rookies got a needed drill during an afternoon tour of the Ronald McDonald House.
One of the stops took place in the spacious sun room that serves as the facility's play room, complete with a flat screen TV on the wall. Stephanie Creech, communications manager of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Cincinnati, noted it had been donated by Lewis and his wife Peggy.
"Giving back is all a part of getting this opportunity," Lewis has often said.
And as the players walked out of the lounge, Maualuga, carrying the camera for Creech, looked at the pictures of a red-headed eight-year-old girl plastered on the door of a guest room and zoomed in to snap a photo of her healthiest picture.
Tony had colon cancer, a brain tumor, and multiple growths in his chest, and the ordeal will always linger with Rey. His mom once told him if Tony kept going with the chemotherapy instead of stopping after one series, things might have been different.
"My dad was hard-headed about things like that," Rey Maualuga says. "He was a pastor and he left it in God's hands."
Now he was thinking about the little girl whose name is Alicia Reed.
"Coming to events like this makes me think of the things my dad went through," he says. "When he had chemo he lost his hair. He couldn't walk. You just have to make sure you appreciate life more. You never think it can happen to your family. But it does and it sucks.
"But you move on. I'm able to play football for the Bengals, walking around, living life. She probably has to get treatment for a couple of hours (daily) to be able to lead the life she needs to live."
When Maualuga arrived in the second round in the NFL Draft right off the cover of Sports Illustrated and one of the greatest college defenses of all time at USC, he suddenly gave the Bengals presence. Already he is one of the most recognizable faces in the league and he didn't escape the gaze of 16-year-old Jared Goettemoeller moments after Maualuga bounced into the lobby wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt that clashed with the ever-present knit cap.
Wheelchair-bound since he was three, Jared, a junior two hours away at St. Henry High School in Ohio, doesn't need much help operating it from dad Ken, younger brother Adam, and mom Linda. Jared pressed a button and zipped right to Maualuga with a football to sign and impressive straight line speed. Jared is in town for a few days for the usual slew of doctor appointments, but this spiced it up.
"We know who Rey is," Ken Goettemoeller says as he watches him carry a toddler through the lobby. "I think he's one of those quiet assassins. He's nice to meet here, but I wouldn't want to meet him on the field. I'd say he's probably a lot like (Domata) Peko. Quiet but very friendly. As you can see, he's not afraid to grab a hold (of the kids)."
Maualuga has also not been afraid to grab a hold of the Bengals playbook. If one of the reasons he dropped to the second round is because of that low test score (reportedly a 15 out of 50 on the Wonderlic), both he and linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald scoff.
FitzGerald: "Some people take tests well, others don't. Does that make them stupid? The guy's a football player with instincts. We've put a lot on his plate and he's responded well. We've thrown a lot at him."
Maualuga: "It's football. It's not a mathematical thing you have to learn. I'm a football player. That's what I do."
What the Bengals have him doing is splitting time with starter Rashad Jeanty at SAM linebacker, a spot he has never played during a lifetime in the middle. But he's also taking some snaps in the middle, and he's getting plenty there when the defense is in passing downs and on the goal line.
FitzGerald: "We know he can play middle linebacker. Here's a guy with tremendous skills and we're not going to find out all the things he can do?"
Maualuga: "(SAM) is a little different as far as the defensive scheme I used to play in college, but it's not that different. I just have to get the defense down and get the mental part straight and I'll be all right."
Why did Maualuga fall to the second round? He's passionate, competitive, fiery, and plays with a jagged edge. Like his old USC teammate and current Bengals backer Keith Rivers says, "The same things that make you love him also worry you."
But four-year-old Kaylee Clayon has no worries. She has been at Children's and her parents at the Ronald McDonald House since November (Nov. 4, dad Dave says) while she battles a rare immune system disease. They come from Moundsville, W. Va., and with Dave and Holly no longer working in order to be with Kaylee, the Ronald McDonald House is a gift of incalculable proportions.
Since she had a bone marrow transplant in February, Dave and Holly have tried to keep her isolated as much as possible. But she's such a fireball it was fate that she would eventually hook up with Maualuga. It happens late in the visit with Kaylee sitting in a toy car on the playground wearing her surgical mask being pushed by the most feared defensive player in a nation of colleges.
They are playing a game. Find the guy that beat her up, which, of course, no one did. Maualuga steers her to a suspect and she stares and says, "No." But she gives Huber and Andre Smith a long look before she lets Maualuga continue.
"It's uplifting for me," he says. "Earlier she wouldn't take a picture with me.
"I got her to laugh and giggle. It puts a smile on my face and makes me realize that there's something I can do, take time off to come out here and hang out and it would mean a lot to these kids. ... I want people to know I'm happy to be here."
Creech finally gets her camera back, suitably impressed with Hurricane Rey.
"Very engaging, very empathetic, a lot of fun," she says with an eye to future visits.
Suddenly he is the last to leave again as Johnson and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald wait for him to give them a ride back to Paul Brown Stadium.
"I've got to go. I've got to go. I'm out of money," he says.
But it sounds like an investment has been made on all sides.