BERKELEY, Calif. -- Can football save Rey Maualuga?
Southern California coach Pete Carroll must think so. Never mind that at a lot of places the freshman linebacker would be suspended at this point -- perhaps worse. That's a safe assumption after the 18-year-old allegedly punched a man twice -- unprovoked, police say -- at a Halloween night party.
|Rey Maualuga is shown after a win over Washington State on Oct. 29, two days before he landed in legal trouble. (Getty Images)|
A few hours and $20,000 in bail money later, Maualuga was free after turning himself in, booked on suspicion of misdemeanor battery.
Since then Maualuga has been rewarded with the most playing time of his short career. In Saturday's 35-10 victory over California, he was arguably the best defensive player on the field with six tackles, an interception and a sack.
"He's a beast. He's mean," linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. said in what might not be the best choice of words right now.
It's not clear if Maualuga was even suspended after the incident, although he sat out the first half of last week's game against Stanford. When Thomas Williams went down with a dislocated knee Saturday, in came Maualuga, a teenager calling defensive signals for the No. 1 team in the country.
Don't be surprised if the middle linebacker starts next week against Fresno State -- which would be three days before a court appearance to possibly face charges.
"I don't know where I'd be right now (without football)," Maualuga said.
But on Monday and Tuesday, he was without football, excused from the team to visit his ailing father in Eureka, Calif. That's where the story gets complicated. If Maualuga did what is alleged, it is heinous. Carroll's reaction seems to approach the Lawrence Phillips tolerance scale.
Phillips, you'll remember, was Nebraska's former star I-back who dragged a woman down a flight of steps by her hair and was back in the lineup for the eventual national champs after a six-week suspension.
At the time, coach Tom Osborne believed that football's "structure and discipline" would help Phillips. Maybe that's Carroll's rationale. Except there is a huge asterisk next to this controversy.
Talatonu Maualuga is back in Eureka fighting cancer. Rey flew home to be with him early last week, then returned to practice Wednesday.
"My dad is not doing so well," Maualuga said on the field, his voice quivering with emotion. "But we've just got to leave it up to God right now. ... (Football) helps me take out my anger. When I'm on the field, it's a different side. It's not hard. You have to do it."
Carroll has directed his budding star toward anger-management classes and community service. He demoted him to the scout team last week. Was that enough?
This is not adding to the few dark clouds that might hang over what could be the greatest team accomplishment in the sport -- winning three consecutive national championships.
This is a moral dilemma wrapped in an intimidating 6-foot-3, 250-pound package.
Can football save Rey Maualuga? It might have to.
"(He needs football) more than ever," fellow linebacker Brian Cushing said. "It's having a sense of close-knit family. What he's doing right now is unbelievable. If I was in this situation I wasn't sure if I could do half as good."
Talatonu is a native Samoan. He went through life loving the Trojans and considered himself blessed that his son was good enough to play for them.
"All I know is he loves the place, loves the coaches," Rey said. "There's a lot of Polynesian players. It's a good fit for me."
We know that Talatonu wouldn't let his son get a radical "skull head" tattoo, according to his son. Instead, Rey's left arm is inked with tribal symbols that mean "family pride and strength."
To a lot of people, Carroll would look heartless cutting loose a kid whose father is sick. But what about a suspension with some teeth to it? What about the alleged victim that Halloween night? Are we making too much out of a possible misdemeanor?
Remember, the police say the alleged attack was unprovoked.
I own the police?
It looks worse because USC is about out of linebackers due to injury. Two freshmen (Cushing and Maualuga) and a sophomore (Keith Rivers) played most of the game. The truth is, Carroll needs Maualuga to play.
A further truth is, the Trojans haven't been squeaky clean during this momentous run that has reached 32 consecutive victories. Former cornerback Eric Wright was arrested on suspicion of rape. No charges were filed, but he left the team in the offseason after police found Ecstasy pills in his apartment. Offensive lineman Winston Justice was suspended for a year after waving around a plastic gun. He is back this year starting and is considered an NFL prospect.
They were disciplined.
Maualuga gets more playing time.
Then he makes the most of it.
"He did fantastic," Norton said. "He made all the calls (Saturday). He stayed after practice, came up after study hall to watch film. His day is full. Sometimes he doesn't go home until 10 o'clock."
With a heavy heart and pending court date.