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Rey Maualuga is appreciating his opportunity to be an NFL player.

Posted: 8:10 a.m.

GEORGETOWN, Ky. - A good half hour had passed since the last practice horn blew Saturday night and under the lights of Georgetown College the sweat on Rey Maualuga's arms shone and the grass still tangled in his mountainous hair.

Billy Newman of Newport, Ky., wearing an "85" Bengals jersey, stretched his arm over the fence ringing the field waiting for one of Maualuga's team-leading autographs and he didn't hesitate to explain why.

No. 58, of course, is No. 85 backwards. Cincoocho in Bengals hopefully means the defensive intimidator this generation of fans has never had.

As security urged fans to let him go because they to had to lock up the place, it was as if the two sides never wanted to leave because it might not be here tomorrow.

"Tomorrow I'll probably do the same thing; stay until I get kicked out," Maualuga said. "Just showing them I'm glad to be here. Show the fans I love the team. The draft is over. When we line up it's not going to matter where you were drafted."

For Maualuga, the poor kid from California who never got the chance to go to a football camp or an NFL practice, these are the fans that adore him and erase the hurt of being taken in the second round. For the fans seeking power in the AFC North who have seen so many hopes vanish into what-ifs, there is the middle linebacker of the future. 

"A great player. Great. Great. I've got every one of his rookie cards," Newman said. "He's what this defense has needed for a long time."

The fans kept calling and Maualuga kept signing. The mother with the pictures told him, "You're a first-rounder to us." A rail-thin teenager exclaimed, "The greatest draft pick ever." A little kid with an even littler football just kept saying, "Rey. Rey. Rey."

Maualuga looked up and said, "Kids are calling my name. It's a dream come true. Just knowing you finally made it. I'm excited."

These past two days have been the first Maualuga has had a chance to mingle with the fans. It is probably why it is just now beginning to sink into him that he's an NFL player.

"The OTAs were closed," he said of the spring workouts at Paul Brown Stadium. "So the only people we really saw were the four or six at the end of the sidewalk. Look at these fans. They've been out here every day supporting us."

Then he looked down and kept signing. USC photos. NFL footballs. Carson Palmer jerseys. A No. 58 Rey Maualuga Bengals T-shirt.

"Do you think this would be happening if I didn't play football?" Maualuga asked. "No. I'd probably be a fan of somebody else. I'd be home taking care of my mother."

Maybe it was the rookie card that got him and made it all real.

He must have seen it after the morning practice, when he was again the last player left on the field signing. He was there so long that intern trainer Lemar Mosley had to make him stop and drive him to the locker room in the cart because he began cramping in the legs.

It had been quite a practice, his first as a pro in shoulder pads. Particularly the first drill, the 9-on-7, when right away on the first snap he drilled running back Brian Leonard and tossed him aside like crumpled paper.

Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer just started laughing when asked how No. 58 looked in the morning.

"Oh yeah. Pretty good. Pretty good. He made every tackle in the period," he said between cackles.

Someone else who had just watched film walked by in a hallway and could only whisper, "No. 58, ooh."

Apparently on one of those first plays people thought they had seen Leonard run an outside zone and Maualuga, lined up on the opposite side as the outside linebacker, blurred to the spot and was the first to touch him.

"I think some of the guys were even talking they knew him as a head knocker, but he's been shaking some people and showing some athleticism," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth.

But Maualuga got rocked by something after practice.

"It's the first time I ever saw my rookie card. I had on my Bengals jersey and helmet. Somebody had it for me to sign," said Maualuga, who was told that would give anyone chills.

"Me too."

Now he was sitting on the rock just to the left of the end zone near the steps leading from the dining hall. Almost 12 hours since the cramps. The fans were suddenly gone, herded out in an instant with Maualuga making one of his last autographs a football that he threw back as security walked him away.

"Don't be mad at me if I can't sign," he said.

Now in the emptiness he looked up at the lights and then down at his pen looking for all the world like he didn't want to leave.

"You know, getting drafted in the second round," said Maualuga of the bad taste that dried in his mouth on draft day. "But when I got here I did a conference call with a bunch of season ticket holders and they were calling in saying how happy they were to have me. That they considered me a first-rounder. No disrespect to Andre (Smith). But the fact they thought of me as a steal, that made me feel good."

As he sat on the rock he admitted that, yes, the NFL was now, finally, beginning to seem real and sinking in.

"When I was a little kid I never got a chance to come to these camps. I never got a chance to go to a football camp. So when I finally got here, to go through all this, it's a dream come true. Words can't express it," he said. "I didn't start playing until I was in seventh, eighth grade. High school was right around the corner. These kids start to play football when they're six, seven. I would have fallen in love with it sooner. I never had a football hero or idol growing up."

As he eased himself off the rock and began to contemplate the cold tub in a silent stadium, the word was unspoken.

Some kid in stripes somewhere would have a new hero.

Both, after all, have tomorrow.

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