The Bengals may have moved training camp to Paul Brown Stadium, but middle linebacker Rey Maualuga is going to be in the same spot he anchored at Georgetown College during his first three summers in the league when the festivities open a week from Friday.
He'll be the guy security ushers off the field as he tries to sign one more autograph long after practice has ended. "It's a chance to give back. Security kicks me out, you know? One of the last guys," Maualuga says Tuesday while stretched out on the floor in the Ignition gym.
Sometimes he'd sit on the Georgetown College Tigers legendary rock near the end zone to greet the seekers and now he's wondering where his new hangout is going to be as the Bengals jockey their workouts between the practice fields and the stadium.
"I'm not trying to show I'm better than anybody," Maualuga says of signing autographs. "It's just an opportunity to thank these guys that sit out in the hot sun for three, three and a half hours. The guys that purchase my jersey, I want them to wear it with pride. I want them to be happy they have my jersey on and come to the games knowing that, one, I'm a good guy, but, two, I'm going to show up and play my best game. I can't wait to get back."
Then those No. 58s would have loved what just happened up here at the workout facility in Blue Ash, Ohio, on the northern edge of Cincinnati. After a draining workout culminates in a searing sand pit in the high noon glare near 100 degrees, Maualuga tosses a few cookies while safety Taylor Mays throws down a few observations about his close friend.
"He knows it's a critical year for him; he understands that," Mays says. "And he's treating it like that just in the way he prepares and his mindset and his priorities."
As Maualuga tries to floor the cramps biting at his abdomen and gnawing at his legs, several teammates are headed out the door with camp one day closer. The new collective bargaining agreement decrees from the end of the mandatory minicamp on June 14 to the start of training camp players can't be coached by the Bengals staff. And while players can be at PBS to work out, they have to do it on their own and can't be coached.
It's what Bengals head strength coach Chip Morton calls "The Dead Period" as players scramble to find places to keep alive their conditioning in the desert of the six weeks before camp. At Ignition several of them have found an oasis in a program run by the facility's director of training Clif Marshall, the earnest young Morton protégé that has made a name preparing draft prospects for the NFL scouting combine and training current NFL players during these sudden new dead periods.
Gyms like Ignition are becoming more of a presence around the league with players' time in their teams' facilities limited per the CBA. With players not allowed back on site to work until mid-April, along with the six-week blackout before camp, Marshall figures he'll work out 30 pros and prospective pros by the end of this month.
And they just aren't Bengals. On Tuesday a group of about 10 of them were joined by former Bengals defensive lineman Jon Fanene, who just became a Patriot in free agency, as well as new Colts defensive tackle Brandon McKinney, a Michigan State teammate of Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko, as well as former University of Cincinnati linebacker and Colts draft pick Tyjuan Hagler, and former local prep tight end Josh Chichester, still waiting for an NFL call after his last season at Louisville. Texans defensive end Connor Barwin is due this week.
"The players are footing their own bill and it's up to them where they want to work," Marshall says. "It's gratifying that these guys have enough confidence in what we're doing here to keep coming back."
The majority of Bengals are working outside Cincinnati these last six weeks, but some like Maualuga, Mays, Peko, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, and cornerback Terence Newman, among others, choose to do the bulk of their work at Ignition. But even they took off about a week or so to vacation. Others, like cornerback Brandon Ghee and rookie tight end Orson Charles returned to town this week and start work up here Tuesday. Defensive end Robert Geathers and running back Bernard Scott just got back into town recently.
"It's a nice break for them," Morton says. "They get a different program, different coach, a new environment before coming back here for six months."
Marshall has his own program, but he shares a lot of the same beliefs as Morton and both paper their philosophy with the biblical verse from Proverbs 27: "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another."
Which is why Marshall loves to point to wide receivers Brandon Tate and Armon Binns sweating side-by-side this summer even though they are vying for the same No. 2 wide receiver job. And there is Peko and Atkins pushing each other along the defensive front.
Because he had a commitment to speak to a group of children on a stadium tour Tuesday morning, Atkins works out on his own at PBS. But he drove the 30 miles to Ignition to finish the tail end of Marshall's workout on the treadmill and in the football agility drills in the sand pit.
"It's not football yet," one veteran acknowledges, but it's the best they and we can do until July 27 and Maualuga is jumping on the chance. Back in June, the powers-that-be in Bengaldom thought it was the best he had looked physically in his pro career and Mays, Maualuga's friend of the past seven years from their days at USC, thinks it's the best he's ever seen him.
They hang out together in their downtown apartments, take care of Maualuga's six-month-old daughter together, eat together, drive to the workouts together, and needle each other about their weight.
"I always say he should be lighter and he says I should be lighter," Mays says. "I tell him we should be within 30 pounds of each other."
So far so good. The 6-3 Mays figures he's at 231 pounds as he gets down to his report weight of about 227. Maualuga figures to go about 262 as he gets down to 258. The iron is sparking. On Monday, Maualuga broke his personal bench press record by hoisting 415 pounds once while a few weeks ago Mays set the group standard on the self-propelled treadmill when he hit 15.1 miles per hour.
After he sets Tuesday's standard with 14.1 seconds, Mays reflects on how his buddy has changed since USC.
"Rey has always been a hard worker; I just think he understands the full aspect of the opportunity that's ahead of him, starting from taking care of his body," Mays says. "He's trying to be the best player he can be, the best dad he can be. There's a different level of focus.
"His day-to-day priorities have changed. There are a lot of little things that are adding up in the big picture for him."
Maualuga is hesitant to say the arrival of Avayah has changed his football mentality. But he clearly is smitten. This has been the Summer of Bingo. She cries whenever Mays picks her up, he says with a laugh. But when she fusses, Maualuga goes right to the baby app on his iPad and pulls out the old standards "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" and "Old MacDonald," not to mention "Bingo," and he's rewarded with contentment.
"She's awesome, she's beautiful," says Maualuga, who recently returned from her first trip to see the California relatives. "It does put me in a different mindset when it comes to my decision-making. It makes me strive to be better and better so she can grow up and be happy and live a comfortable life."
Maualuga is also hesitant to say that his contract year is driving him. What's driving him, he says, is reaching the potential he's flashed sporadically full time. In his first two seasons he was adjusting to a new position at SAM. Last year he didn't know for sure he was moving to the middle until camp opened and then when he seemed to be emerging in mid-season he lost a month with a serious ankle injury that wasn't right until he had surgery after the season.
"I know in my head the type of player I can be, the type of person I can be around my teammates," Maualuga says. "This is my last year (of my contract) and I really didn't play up to my abilities last year. I'm just going to give everything I've got to me, the organization, and my teammates and we'll see if we move on or sign on for a couple of more years. I like Cincinnati. There's no place I'd rather be."
Maualuga loves the fans. It's why he enjoys camp and is excited about it coming downtown. He draws the same kind of energy from them that he hopes he can give his mates.
"I feel as if I was just more so concentrated on my responsibilities and not trying to let my energy feed off to other people," Maualuga says of last season. "That's what I wanted and it's what I know I can do. If I can do that coming into this season, everyone can feed off me and we can play with that passion."
One of the goals of new linebackers coach Paul Guenther is to make Maualuga play less mechanically. "Let Rey be Rey" is the thinking. Let the play come to you. Don't overrun it. And Maualuga seemed to respond in the padless practices of May and June.
"(Guenther's) motto is, 'Football is an easy game made complicated by coaches,' " Maualuga says. "Line up. Be coachable. Know what you're supposed to do and everything will fall into place."
If 2012 is going to be a passion play, then PBS is a great place to start for Maualuga because he really is the people's choice. Probably because he is so human. He admits, "I've had my ups and downs in Cincinnati on and off the field."
But even though he was involved in a curious incident during the offseason at a bar in a legal proceeding that was dropped, his charity work and accessibility have carried the day. Maualuga's No. 58 jersey is the third-most popular in the Pro Shop behind A.J. Green's No. 18 and Andy Dalton's No. 14 and he'll tell you he knows that means something.
"I want to be a reliable person on and off the field," he says. "I see a kid who says, 'Hey, I'm a big fan,' I don't want him to be afraid to come say hello.
"There are people out there that are going to hate me and judge me for things that I've done, but I've also done a lot of good in this community."
They'll see some of it next week when he finds a new spot in the sun.