For Rey Maualuga, it’s been quite a journey. A voyage that has never allowed the 6-foot-2, 249-pound physical specimen to remain stagnant in one city.
Yet, from high-school All-American to Rose Bowl defensive MVP, to being named the 2008 winner of the Chuck Bednarick award for top defensive player in the nation, Maualuga has excelled at every level while overcoming every obstacle he’s faced.
Look beyond the Polynesian warrior-style hair and elaborate tattoos, and you’ll discover a kind-spirited individual—until he hits that football field, that is.
Darren Feeney: Rey, you’ve been getting ready for the NFL Draft here in just less than a month. Tell us what a typical day in the life of Rey has been like lately?
Rey Maualuga: I’ve been preparing for the scouting combines ever since the Rose Bowl game and Senior Bowl ended and now I’m just preparing for Pro Day here at USC on April 1.
I wake up at 7 a.m. every day, have my meals prepared for me and then head over to a performance institute and work on combine-specific drills.
I injured my hamstring in Indianapolis in the first combine, so I have physical therapy for an hour and a half every day and also get a massage twice a week.
DF: We saw you pull up a bit gingerly during the 40-yard dash, how is the hamstring feeling?
Maualuga: It’s feeling good. Two weeks prior to the combine I was trying to do too much, thinking that nothing was going to happen and I went out there, did some sprints and just figured it was going to hold up. But during the 40, I felt a pop.
I think it was a blessing in disguise, because it cooled me down a little bit. I’m working harder now, not that if it didn’t happen I wouldn’t be, but my legs are getting stronger and I’m getting the mental side of things right.
DF: Do you think the injury will have a significant impact on your draft stock?
Maualuga: I really don’t. If it does, then I’ll let it be. But true draft stock doesn’t really matter unless you’re in the top 10. The person drafted in the sixth round could be playing more than you. It all depends on taking care of business.
The main difference between a first-round player and a sixth is the money portion of it. But other than that, the first order of business is to get drafted and the second thing is to go out and perform.
DF: Throughout your career, you’ve had to make transitions. The first of which was a transition from one of the top high school programs in the nation, St. Bonaventure, just north of Los Angeles, to small town Eureka High School. How difficult of a transition what that for you?
Maualuga: It was a very big transition. At St. Bonaventure, they produced more college athletes and I had better chance of gaining a scholarship.
But then my dad got the calling from God to move up to Eureka. I was pissed. My dad, mom and brother all moved up North and I stayed with my coach. But then came spring break and my dad told me you’re going to move up here and we’re going to come down and pick up your clothes and stuff.
Coming to Eureka was a totally different transition. Going from city life and big buildings to a town with a small population—it was just crazy—I felt like I was in a movie or something.
DF: Watching you play in high school, it really was a man competing against boys out there. Apart from playing middle linebacker they had you returning kicks, lining up in the backfield and taking handoffs.
How significant of a transition was it for you going from the Big 5 league at Eureka High School to the Pac-10 Conference at USC?
Maualuga: To me, my body was beyond most guys that played in the Big 5 league. I was probably bigger than most offensive lineman. I didn’t really learn the position of linebacker until I got to college.
The Eureka High Rey Maualuga, I don’t want to sound cocky because that’s not me, but the only reason I stood out was because of my size and how much bigger I was than everyone else and was able to overpower.
I’m not saying I wasn’t good but it was basically line up and go after the guy with the football. And then I came to college, and I’m like, oh crap!
There’s dudes that are 6-foot-6, 320 pounds. Coach always said football is 10 percent physical, 90 percent mental. It was different and I had to get used to the mental side of it and ask myself, “Do I really want to play football?”
Because when you’re out here, you really are asking yourself that question. Camp is hard, bumps and bruises all over, dehydrating yourself in practice, it was really a big step for me. Coming to USC, I had to start from square one and learn the position from the bottom to the top.
DF: You were a highly targeted recruit coming out of high school: stacks of letters from every college in the nation delivered to you daily after lunch, Pete Carroll personally flying up to see you.
At what point did you realize that the dream of going on to play in college and ultimately at the professional level was a reality?
Maualuga: I would say my junior year.
DF: And that was the year of the undefeated section championship?
Maualuga: Right. You know, junior year I started getting some Internet love and had reporters calling me. So I’m thinking, okay, these guys are calling me, I think I have a shot.
Then letters started popping up from different colleges and I’m thinking, okay, I think I’m on to something, I can keep it going. The year LSU won the national championship was the same as my senior year. LSU was my first scholarship offer.
DF: Was Southern California always the place you desired to go, was it always your frontrunner?
Maualuga: Sort of. I really wanted to be close to home. Being that my dad was sick, I wanted to be close to home and have him make it to a couple games and whatnot.
Oregon showed me most love, a little nod over USC. I thought that’s where I wanted to go. But when signing day, came I gave the opportunity to my dad to choose where I was going to go, because I really didn’t care.
It was up to him and that’s where he chose, and look at what happened. My greatest moments and greatest times of my life happened right here at USC.
DF: Anyone who has followed you knows that every time you hit the field, you’re not out there playing just for yourself—you’re out there playing with an insurmountable amount of motivation for the passing of your father, evidenced by the word ‘DAD’ on your eye black every game.
Touch on what kind of an emotional yet motivating toll the passing of your father had?
Maualuga: It sucked, you know, because when you’re in Eureka, there’s all of those talks where people come and talk about their parents who have passed and you just kind of sit there not paying attention because it’s not going to happen to ourselves or our family members.
Then boom, something strikes you and it makes you realize anything can happen to you at any time. My dad was a big reason why I started to play football and he never got an opportunity to see a game.
My first game was at Hawaii and the day before we played my dad underwent surgery. He had a tumor in his brain. Since then, my dad was never the same, lost 150 pounds, he knew who we were but didn’t know what was going on anymore.
So technically, he didn’t know football. He didn’t tell me he was going to have surgery.
DF: He didn’t?
Maualuga: No, I didn’t know he had surgery the day before the game. I called them after the game and said, “Hey, did you see me on the sidelines?” And they said, “ No, Rey, were at the hospital, dad underwent surgery.”
Wow. So basically I didn’t talk to my dad before he underwent surgery and I think I have had a grudge this whole time because I didn’t get to hear him talk.
So that’s why I have ‘Dad’ under my eye black, because he saw every Pop Warner game, every high school game, but not one college game.
DF: I’m sure he’s more than proud up there watching your success.
Maualuga: The best seat in the house!
DF: There’s all the talk about who’s going to land the big hitter up the middle from Southern Cal, where does Rey Maualuga want to play?
Maualuga: To be real, it really doesn’t matter and I’ve been telling people that. I just want to strap a helmet on, give me some pads, and I’ll play wherever. An ideal place? I don’t know. My mom is the one person I care most about and want to see happy, so I want to play close to home.
DF: You can call me biased down here in San Diego, but the Chargers, sunny San Diego…
Maualuga: Hey, I wouldn’t mind playing in San Diego.
DF: Close enough to home, I imagine?
Maualuga: Perfect enough for me.