Sobered up, Maualuga trying to show a Bengal can change stripes

To most of us, May 11 is just another day. For Cincinnati Bengals' second-year linebacker Rey Maualuga, Tuesday represents his 100th consecutive day of sobriety. For someone who's had a lengthy drinking problem, 100 days without slipping is a long time. For Maualuga, those 100 days are also the infancy of a new life.

"My body never felt so great. I never looked so good," Maualuga said by phone Monday, on the eve of the Bengals' first offseason OTA practice. "I am so anxious for OTAs to start up. Now I can hopefully compare myself to last year when I wasn't able to run 10 or 12 plays within a drive and not be incredibly tired. All my focus is on my body and how much stronger I can get, how much smarter I can be and being a reliable teammate."

In an candid interview, Maualuga, the long-maned 23-year-old, discussed how a January car accident in Kentucky that led to a DUI arrest and a stint in a rehab facility, unveiled his alcoholism. The second-year player out of USC has not had a drink since. Tuesday morning, he took the field weighing 250 pounds -- 15 fewer than when he went into rehab -- and with his first semblance of six-pack abs.

"I am feeling so great about everything," he said.

That wasn't the case the morning of Jan. 29, when Maualuga smashed a car he was driving into a parking meter and two parked cars, and was eventually arrested and charged with DUI after failing a roadside sobriety test. According to reports, Maualuga told police he had about "six Captain and Cokes." His blood-alcohol level registered at .157 -- nearly twice the state's legal limit of .08.

"The moment I heard the sirens and saw the lights I knew it was over," Maualuga said. "I went completely sober after that. I was like, 'Wow, I'm digging myself deeper in a hole I don't need to be in.' That was my life-changer. I think that had to happen in order for me to realize where I am and how much I had at stake."

Instead of trying to work his way through the legal system, Maualuga immediately pleaded guilty. He was assessed seven days in jail, discharged on the condition he doesn't have another incident in the next two years. He also was fined nearly $900, forced to pay for any damages not covered by insurance, and had his license suspended.

"Some people sat there and said they could have got me the best lawyers to get out of it or to push off the court date and see if we can fight it or appeal it and win. (But) what's all that going to prove?" Maualuga said. "I'm going to get a slap on the wrist, pay a ticket and not get a DUI charge? It's not going to prove anything. I'm going to keep doing the same BS stuff and not taking care of my body and partying. I'm glad it happened. I got to learn some things and dig deep inside and listen to and find out about the people who cared who Rey Maualuga is."

Maualuga could face discipline from the NFL for his DUI plea and he could be admitted into the league's drug and alcohol program. He's OK with that. Shortly after the incident, he entered a drug and alcohol treatment center in Charleston, S.C., where he spent more than a month undergoing treatment and counseling.

"I was like, 'OK, I got in trouble, let's see what Rey's going to do,'" Maualuga said. "Going to the program and meeting all these genuine people and seeing folks come in and out of the program, you learn so much about their stories. You get to reflect on it and tell your story. When I was there I realized I really had a drinking problem and that I thought about nobody but myself when I went out and drank and partied.

"I never gave my body the respect it deserves. I never gave my mind time to go through plays and dig deep and watch film and better myself as an intelligent football player instead of just a physical specimen on the field. I don't think I played to my abilities last season. People say, 'You did good for a rookie." I came out and made some plays but that wasn't enough for me. A lot of people cared about me at this program, not as a football player. They liked me as a person. I could open up and I was myself there. I walked out of that treatment program a real person."

The Bengals' coaching staff, management and players also have helped Maualuga navigate this process. They know how important the linebacker is to their burgeoning defense under coordinator Mike Zimmer. He showed flashes as a rookie, finishing with 63 tackles, one sack and three forced fumbles.

"Every coach has been there and been supportive," Maualuga said. "All my teammates have been there since the day of the incident, calling and texting, letting me know that things will be OK and that I'll learn from my mistakes. The last person, I didn't have the (guts) to talk to about this right away was Zimmer. While I was in the treatment plan I texted him, figuring that while I was there what's the worst thing he'd do, not text back? He was the coach I respected the most. He was really great and he said he's just excited that I took steps to go and better myself and hopes that when the season starts, everything will be behind us and we can be great as a team."

Zimmer recently said that Maualuga has been a constant presence at the team facility and that he expects him to have a great season, as long as he stays on track and maintains his priorities.

Maualuga's admission that he had a drinking problem and that he didn't pay total attention to detail while preparing for games further explains why the fearsome collegian at USC dropped from a projected top-15 pick into the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft. It was widely known that as a freshman he got into a fight while drunk, which led to an arrest that was dismissed after he attended a diversion program and Alcohol Anonymous meetings. However, he didn't stop drinking, and teams discovered as much conducting their due diligence prior to the draft.

That he continued drinking after his collegiate arrest opens up suspicion that he could have a hard time staying clean. Maualuga meets with an alcohol counselor once a week and the Bengals, more than most teams because of the character risks they take on, have a support systems in place. Maualuga has also taken steps toward keeping better company, staying away from some of the folks he used to roll with about town once the sun went down. However, he hasn't imprisoned himself.

"I've been in places where I could have been tempted," Maualuga said. "I've been to bars to watch games with my family and I've been to Vegas to go see Cirque Du Solei. I told myself if I could go to Vegas and not drink that was a big deal. I was never tempted. I'm so into my body and doing better, that's all I think about.

"People are still going to judge me. If they see me drinking a cranberry juice, they may assume I'm drinking vodka-cranberry. That's OK. I know what's up. I've changed. I cleared all the alcohol out of my house, and if I go out to watch a game, I go with a friend. And when it's over, I go home."

Having football in his life helps.

"I've always wanted to see how far I could elevate my game," Maualuga said. "Now I realize the more work you put into it the better results. Our people would always tell me that the more time I spent watching film the better I'd get. I just thought, 'Why can't you just show up and play ball and get to the ball?' That's all it was going to take.

"Now it's different. I'm taking a different approach. I spend most of my time now getting ready. Plus, I'm a jealous player. I want to be better than the person next to me. I see my former college teammates: Brian Cushing won Defensive Rookie of the Year (an honor that could get stripped this week). Clay Matthews went to the Pro Bowl. I came out of SC with these two guys and these two guys did something. Rey didn't.

"I need to step my game up and just try to get to where I want to get, and that's to be better than I was."

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