Louisville LB Lorenzo Mauldin's Journey From Foster Child to Top NFL Prospect

The young LB from the University of Louisville had a tough childhood, but it gave him a burning desire to make it to the NFL.

Lorenzo Mauldin doesn't know what to make of the paper in his hand.

His brow is furrowed as he stares at the page, which is full-notebook size but looks like a speck compared to the 6-foot-4, 252-pound mound of muscle that is Mauldin. His eyes busily scan the tangled mess of lines and arrows diagramming a long series of moves he'll perform during an on-field test at the NFL Combine.

"This is just one drill?" he asks, incredulously.

The question is almost rhetorical, apparently meant to grab the attention of his training partner, Jake Ryan, and imply, "Can you believe this?"  Ryan, a fellow linebacker who's been working out with Mauldin for weeks, looks at the paper and chuckles. "Yeah," he says.

All Mauldin can do is shake his head. It's going to be a long day.

"Test Anxiety"

Mauldin, a former defensive lineman and outside linebacker for the University of Louisville, is training for the NFL Combine at Proactive Sports Performance in Santa Ana, California. Each day he ambles from his apartment, which is located in the same building as Proactive, up to the rooftop training facility, where he spends time making use of the turf field, cryotherapy chamber and more weightlifting apparatus than Arnold Schwarzenegger used in his entire life. But resistance training is just part of the work.

Down the road from Proactive, Mauldin stands on a football field at Laguna Hills High School, going over the drills he'll need to perform at the rapidly approaching NFL Combine. Today, his guide to the exercises is Keith Bulluck, a former All-Pro linebacker for the Tennessee Titans, who now helps up-and-comers like Mauldin and Ryan get ready for the NFL.

Though slightly smaller in stature than he was during his playing days, Bulluck still bulges with muscle and has a commanding presence. He's calm and conversational, exuding a relaxed air as he tells the aspiring pros what they can expect at the Combine. Perhaps that's because, with so much at stake, there's no sense making them more nervous than they already are.

"It's like taking a big test at the end of the year when you are in high school, or a final in college," Mauldin says. "I have very bad test anxiety, so when test day comes, I'm sweating and like, 'Oh man, I don't know.' But once you actually get [the test] in front of your face, you say 'Ok, I've seen this before. I can do this.'"

Indeed, although the NFL Combine is a huge opportunity, it's nothing compared some of the things Mauldin has already seen, and the tests he's already faced.

"A Ward of the State"

Maudlin grew up in east Atlanta, and early in his life, both of his parents were jailed. The government became his legal guardian. He was separated from his four siblings, and shuttled among foster homes—16 in total.

Today, even as he stands at a lavish training facility in California, Mauldin reflects on those hard times daily. He says, "All I think about is being a ward of the state. While I was going through that, I didn't think that I would be in this position right now."

Football became his way out, but that wasn't immediately clear. He first tried the sport as a youth in Pop Warner, but didn't love it and later quit. He didn't try again until he reached ninth grade at Maynard H. Jackson High School. There, several coaches and players encouraged him to try out.

Once he stepped back on the field, Mauldin's combination of size and speed made him a nightmare to stop no matter where he lined up. He played offense first, wide receiver and tight end. Eventually he got tired of being the one getting hit and wanted to do the hitting. So he moved to linebacker, and later, defensive end, where he thrived.

Even back then, many who watched Mauldin play thought that his reaching the NFL was a matter of when, not if.

"I'd heard so many things. 'Oh, Lorenzo you can do this, you can take football as far as you want to go,'" Mauldin says.  "I didn't start buying into that until my senior year of high school. By then I had plenty of schools coming for me. I was like, 'I might be really good at this.'"

Lorenzo Mauldin

Mauldin celebrates a 44-40 Louisville victory over the Kentucky Wildcats

"I was Always High-Spirited"

Mauldin's college football days didn't start out great. He committed to South Carolina, which later reneged on its scholarship offer. Left without a suitor, Mauldin eventually signed on at Louisville. But soon after he arrived and started playing for the Cardinals, things took a scary turn.

Just a few games in to his freshman season, a botched tackle put him in the hospital with a spine injury. "I was never taught how to tackle, so I went in with my head down and hurt my neck and spine," Mauldin says.

The injury turned out to be just a muscle spasm, albeit a terrifying one. Resilient as always, Mauldin was back on the practice field a few days later.

Then came yet another position change. Worried about the possibility of another tackling mishap, Louisville moved Mauldin to tight end. He played offense until the final two games of his freshman season, when coaches inexplicably switched him back to defensive end. Mauldin never wavered.

"I consider myself a player who goes 110 percent on every play," Mauldin says. "I never wanted someone to come in and take my spot, so like I always gave it my all. Even when I was exhausted, I was always high-spirited."

As Mauldin progressed through college, his game blossomed. As a junior, he racked up nine and a half sacks, ranking him 10th in the nation. After then head coach Charlie Strong took off for Texas, Mauldin switched to outside linebacker in Louisville's new defense. Playing in his new position, he became one of the leading tacklers on his team, and he still brought down opposing quarterbacks six and a half times in games. With his red-dyed dreadlocks, Mauldin became one of the faces of a new-look Cardinal team.

"He Knows His Defenses"

After a grueling mid-afternoon lifting session, Mauldin and Ryan are again with Bulluck. This time, they're sitting around an iPad, going over the nuances of NFL defenses.

Bulluck loads up footage of the Carolina Panthers, and then the Seattle Seahawks—teams that run defensive systems similar to the ones he thinks Ryan and Mauldin will end up in. On every play, Bulluck instructs the young athletes to keep their eyes on the linebackers onscreen, and offers advice as they watch. "If you don't know, don't go," Bulluck says, cautioning them not to blitz if they aren't 100 percent certain of the play call. Mauldin stares wide-eyed, trying to soak it all in.

"The biggest thing I'm working on with Lorenzo is playing behind the ball," Bulluck later tells a reporter. "He played defensive end in a 4-3 scheme for three years. Then he played outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, which he grasped very well. He knows his defenses."

Toward the end of the tutoring session, Bulluck asks Mauldin to graph out a certain defensive alignment. Mauldin's hand is a blur as he gets to work, and within seconds he has sketched out the play perfectly. Bulluck then asks how the alignment would change if there were one running back behind the quarterback, and what to do if there were two. Mauldin answers correctly without hesitating.

When the Combine arrives, Mauldin won't have Bulluck at his side. It will be on him to draw up defenses correctly—as well as blast through drills and answer questions teams hurl at him. Watching his mind work, you get the sense he'll be just fine.

"A Blessing for Me"

Back on the field under the never-ending sunshine, Mauldin looks beat. His face is wrinkled with fatigue. But he doesn't stop. Beads of sweat fall onto his gray Louisville-branded compression shirt, darkening each spot they land on as Mauldin finishes the session with a series of Lateral Shuffles with a resistance band.

Later, the young prospect turns reflective. He says he still has a hard time believing that a kid who had no place to call his own much of his life is about to find a home in the NFL. "I think about the trouble I've been through and how football has gotten me out of most of it," he says. "I'm a product of poverty. Being able to actually find a way out is a blessing for me."

He wraps up the day with a handshake from Bulluck. Like his mentor's outstretched arm, Mauldin's NFL dream is close. He's just got to reach out and grab it.

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Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: FOOTBALL | PATH TO THE PROS 2015