It was one of the first preseason practices, and Louisville coach Charlie Strong barely knew freshman Lorenzo Mauldin. It was getting-to-know-you time for Strong and his freshmen, when these kids were still just jerseys, helmets and numbers.
What Strong did know was that Mauldin was loafing on a drill.
"I'm always yelling, 'Run to the football. Run to the football,'" Strong, now the coach at Texas, said the other day. "Lorenzo wasn't running. I stopped him and said, 'Listen! I want to talk to you after practice.'"
It is called laying down the law, breaking a kid down to build him back up. And then Strong looked into his huge defensive lineman's face.
"Tears were coming out of his eyes," Strong said in disbelief. "He said, 'Coach, this isn't me.' I told him, 'When you finish dinner, come up to the office and we can sit down and talk.'"
When he came up later, Strong said Mauldin "just really opened up. 'This is what I've been through, Coach. This is what I'm dealing with.'"
The story Mauldin told Strong is like many other hardscrabble tales you hear about: His mom was in and out of prison for dealing drugs, and his dad was barely in the picture. Mauldin himself bounced around the system, in and out of foster and group homes for boys.
"We're so quick to judge a young person," Strong said. "I told him, 'Yes, you've been dealt a tough hand. But still other people have been dealt a harder hand than you. You can overcome those circumstances if you handle it the right way.'"
Could it be simple as that? After so many foster homes, Mauldin has lost count—was it 10? Twelve? Sixteen?—and anger issues, trust issues and constant fights, Mauldin wasn't sure.
But fast-forward three-and-a-half years. Mauldin graduated from Louisville this past December with a degree in communications and is projected to be as high as a third-round pick in the NFL draft.
Based on what some draft experts say about Mauldin, there is no hint he'd ever been in trouble. On his NFL.com profile, Mauldin, a 6'4", 259-pound defensive end/outside linebacker, is praised mostly for character and work ethic.
According to NFL.com's Lance Zierlein, Mauldin is "confident and tough; doesn't quit on plays; changes directions quickly." He is praised for his pass rush and his ability to beat offensive tackles. His negatives are things that can be worked out, mostly that he needs to build up the strength in his legs.
And the site quotes an NFL North scout saying, "He overcame a tough childhood and developed a mindset that nothing is going to stop him. ...I'm cheering hard for this kid, and I'll bang the table for him when the time is right."
Still, he is exactly the type of kid who typically falls through the cracks or is labeled a bad kid by people who don't know him. He is the type who disappears; he becomes a statistic instead of a person. But that fate didn't befall Mauldin, thanks to a handful of people who were there to catch him and push him back into the game, into life.
They were his safety net.
And those people, that safety net—football coaches, a chaplain, a mentor, a woman, volunteers—are as much the heroes in his story as he is.
"It was his freshman year, and they were going through some tackling drills," Louisville team chaplain Chris Morgan said. "He went to tackle and dropped down on the ground. They called in the ambulance. I drove to the hospital, and I said, 'Hey man, you doing OK? Let me call a family member and let them know you're going to be OK.'
"He dropped his head and said, 'I don't have anybody you can call. I have nobody in my life.' I picked up a Post-it note that was lying there and wrote my name and number down and said, 'Man, just want you to know: You have someone in your life now.'"
Morgan and Mauldin would grow close. Morgan said that Mauldin didn't trust men; Mauldin said the same thing.
"I told him, 'You will leave me before I leave you,'" Morgan said. "I'd have him at my house. He'd play board games with my daughters. He's like a son to me.
"I tell him I love him."
You assume that somewhere along the way, something just clicked for Mauldin. An understanding hit him, maybe from a bottoming-out moment or a quiet meeting with a coach in an office or a scary moment in a hospital when a minister was there for him.
But that wasn't it, Mauldin said. It was a process. It was all those things added together. And while his story, told in the simplest form, might sound like the movie The Blind Side, his real life had many more ups and downs and steps forward and back than any Hollywood version.
"Seeing my mom get incarcerated and my dad get incarcerated a long time ago...I was pretty much mad at the world," Mauldin said. "I couldn't find a way to channel my anger. What I did was fight a lot."
That began to change when he started to play football as a high school sophomore.
"I could play one day, practice on the field, release all that anger and the next day be fine," Mauldin said. "Another thing, I had mentors, inspirational speakers (at the Families First group home in Atlanta), anger-management therapy. It was all very helpful. It changed me for the better over a period of time."
Through it all, Mauldin, who was the second-oldest of five kids, said he was never angry with his mom for getting in trouble and leaving the family behind.
"I was a mama's boy," he said. "I never really had any grudge against her because I know what she had to do to take care of five children by herself. My mom sold drugs so she could take care of us and provide for the family. And she was an alcoholic. All the pressure was put on her."
Monique Gooden was a 26-year-old actress in Atlanta when her best friend, who worked for the Division of Family & Children Services, told her there were 200 kids sleeping on cots with nowhere to go. Gooden wanted to help.
"They said, 'We have two boys, age 12 and 13.' They were brothers and were coming from another lady's house. She couldn't put up with them; they were fighting all the time. So I came to the office, and they were just sitting there. Your heart breaks. But I was just 26 years old trying to do this."
She took in Lorenzo and his brother, "and he and his brother were always fighting. Like, always. One fight got really bad, so they separated them. They told me Lorenzo had to leave."
She had been his foster parent for seven or eight months, Gooden said. And just like that, Mauldin was gone. But a year or so later, she said, she ran into Mauldin, who asked if he could move back in with her. They got permission, and Gooden was Mauldin's foster parent again.
That also didn't last.
Gooden said she couldn't handle Mauldin, and maybe it was because she wasn't old enough to understand him. But while she couldn't deal with Mauldin the problem child, she believed in Mauldin the person.
"I knew that under that anger, he was a good kid," she said. "We looked for something he could do...He wanted to play football, and I said, 'Look, this is going to be your way out.' He was huge; he had muscles and everything. 'If you take this serious, you're going to go to a Division I (college)."
Gooden said she would go out into the backyard or into the middle of the street and throw footballs with Mauldin.
And even when she just couldn't handle him and he moved to a group home, she stayed firmly in his life, going to all of his high school football games.
"Whenever something happened in a game, he would go to the bench, throw his helmet and cry," she said. "I would yell and cuss at him: 'Get your ass back out there! Get off that bench!' He would always need someone to, like, kick him in the butt and get him back on track. He needed a different type of love.
"I love that kid."
It all started to sink in.
Mauldin said he started to realize that football was his hope. On top of that, he said, anytime he messed up, people threatened to take it away from him.
"I had to change my ways," he said. "And if I didn't get the grades, I couldn't play ball."
Mauldin said the talks at his Families First group home, the inspirational speakers, meant a lot to him, too. It occurred to him that people were actually trying to help him.
"It's a 50-50 thing," he said. "They are trying to help you get your foot in the door of success. That's their 50. The other 50 is what you want to do. It's up to you. Other people don't get you where you need to be. You get you where you need to be."
Of course, it still wasn't that easy. Maurice Hart, Mauldin's defensive line coach at Maynard Jackson High in Atlanta, had to all but take him in, too. They had their own battles.
"He was getting upset at other players all the time when he shouldn't have been getting upset," Hart said. "You could just tell that anger was inside of him."
One time, Hart said, he was trying to teach Mauldin how to get into a defensive lineman's stance. "He said, 'I can't get into that stance.' I said, 'Don't tell me you CAN'T. I'm teaching you that stance. You don't stand up anymore. Your hand is in...the...dirt.'"
When Mauldin refused to do it, Hart, noticing his anger rising, walked off the field. Hart said it took Mauldin five games to master that stance. But once he did, he dominated.
After South Carolina made a verbal commitment to sign Mauldin, the Gamecocks reneged on their offer when their number of recruits exceeded NCAA limits. As it turned out, Mauldin's grades and test scores weren't good enough at the time anyway.
Given that setback, a member of the board of directors at Mauldin's group home called Atlanta healthcare executive Bart Hester, a friend, to ask for help. Hester's son had played at Alabama for Nick Saban, so Hester knew how the recruiting game worked.
He used his connections to get to Strong (Strong said Hester ran into him at an airport; Hester said he went to his neighbor, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, who made a call). Strong, who had seen film of Mauldin, took a chance and offered him a scholarship. But he had to get his SAT score up first, Hester said.
So Hester and a friend hired a tutor to work with Mauldin.
"He had the tutor for eight weeks," Hester said. "And he blew away the SAT. He'd just never had any real structure before that. He's a bright kid."
"Coach Strong said, 'I'd love to have him. I'd love to take him under my wing.'"
Hester and Mauldin became close, with Hester serving as a mentor.
After games at Louisville, Morgan, the team chaplain, said players would celebrate in the locker room and then go out and meet with their families. They didn't notice that Mauldin stayed behind until everyone was gone. He didn't want to go out into the family celebrations because no one would be there to meet him.
Strong and Louisville assistant coach Clint Hurtt stepped into that void. Now an assistant with the Chicago Bears, Hurtt was not allowed by team officials to speak about Mauldin before the draft.
Hester said Strong and Hurtt were "like father figures" to Mauldin, despite butting heads with him at first. Hart, his high school coach, played a similar role and made Mauldin promise to get a college degree.
"Yeah, we made that agreement before I left," Mauldin said. "That agreement stuck. I got my diploma. He cried at my graduation."
So it all came together for Mauldin. He does not go down as a statistic but, instead, as a young man with a bright future. What did it take to get here?
Mauldin said at least half of foster kids are willing to listen, to try, if given a chance. The other half are not.
Gooden, Mauldin's two-time foster parent, said "a lot of things, Lorenzo didn't know how to do. Like making sure you have socks and underwear. How to engage in a conversation. How to be sociable with someone you don't know instead of sitting there as if you're not interested. How to be normal."
Hart said he called Mauldin every Sunday through his time at Louisville because he felt Mauldin needed a father figure. That made at least five of them.
Gooden said it's as if she's not even talking to the same person anymore when she speaks with Mauldin. He comes across as sweet and honest.
Morgan, the chaplain who wrote his number on the Post-it note, said that as soon as Mauldin "started to see there were people who truly cared for him and truly loved him, he became a big teddy bear."
Hester has suggested a way for Mauldin to deal with the money he is about to get. The plan is for Mauldin to get his pay in something that serves as a trust, where he only gets a certain amount at a time and can't get to it if others try to hit him up for it.
Others were surely in Mauldin's safety net, too. And now he has spoken out against men abusing women, saying he's a feminist. He makes speeches and appearances at charities whenever he has the chance.
Mauldin says his goal is to "come into someone's life—not even financially—and change it for the better." He intends to try to become the legal guardian for his youngest sister.
And what about Mauldin's anger issues? He says they are gone.
"I couldn't be angry," he said, "even if I wanted to."