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His geeklike passion for preparation was embodied by the well-worn three-ring binder Laurinaitis schlepped to and from Wayzata High in Plymouth, Minn. "He would take home film of upcoming opponents, then draw up every single play the other team ran and keep it in that binder," recalls Brad Anderson, his coach at Wayzata.
"I'm a better learner when I write stuff down," says Laurinaitis, who became the first Minnesotan since Sid Gillman (he captained the Buckeyes in 1933) to receive a scholarship to play at Ohio State. Following his baptism by fire in the Big House, Laurinaitis started 13 games in '06 and became the first true sophomore to win the Nagurski Trophy, awarded to the nation's top defensive player.
"Animal's boy!" boomed Ric (Nature Boy) Flair. "How ya doin'?"
To hear Laurinaitis tell it, not so well. That off-season he reached out to one of his predecessors, former Buckeyes middle linebacker Chris Spielman, who asked him what he needed help with. Everything, came the reply. "That's why he's going to make it in the NFL," says Spielman, who played 10 seasons in the league and recognized in Laurinaitis the same insatiable hunger for self-improvement that drove him. They watched video together. "I talk to him like I talk to myself," says Spielman. "When he talks about how some aspect of his game isn't good enough, I tell him, 'It never will be good enough, but that's not going to prevent us from trying to make it good enough.' He knew exactly what I meant."
One of Spielman's quibbles: "James is a sure tackler, but he isn't the most devastating tackler. He could be a little more vicious."
He could stand, in other words, to be a little more like "Big-Play" Rey. But surely there were a handful of Maualuga-like collisions scattered among the 121 tackles Laurinaitis racked up last season, after which he collected the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker. That satisfaction was quickly replaced by the disappointment of a second straight loss in the BCS title game.
Ending his season on a happier note was Maualuga, who had three sacks, forced a fumble and intercepted a pass that set up a touchdown in the Trojans' 49--17 win over Illinois in the Rose Bowl. His dominance earned him the game's defensive MVP award. More important, it marked his arrival as a complete player.
HE DIDN'T know much, but as a freshman Maualuga knew this: He was fast, strong and wanted to undress the ballcarrier on every play. "I just wanted to hear my name over the Coliseum loudspeakers," he confesses. He played out of control, and that recklessness carried over into his personal life. At a Halloween party in 2005 he punched a guy. He was arrested and booked for misdemeanor battery. After attending 26 Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, performing 100 hours of community service and undergoing anger counseling, the charge was dropped. The counseling, in particular, says Maualuga, "was beneficial for me. My counselor was a lady, and we just talked about me and things I was going through in my life—things I couldn't really talk about with other people."
Foremost among those subjects was the decline of his father, Talatonu, a Pentecostal minister who in the fall of '05 was dying of brain cancer. (He succumbed a couple of months later, two days before USC's Rose Bowl loss to Texas.) Some 550 miles from his family's home in northern California, Maualuga was overwhelmed at times by feelings of helplessness, homesickness and grief. "He just snapped," Garett Montana, Maualuga's defensive coordinator at Eureka High, says of the punching incident. "That wasn't the Rey we knew."