CINCINNATI -- Rey Maualuga's spirits were crushed. All the Cincinnati Bengals linebacker figured he could do was keep his mouth shut and try to occupy his mind with thoughts other than the ones that were steadily trying to creep inside it.
While teammates walked up to him and tried to give encouraging pats on the helmet or stern, but he stared ahead, silently. Even though no one in his immediate vicinity was saying it, he could only hear inside his striped helmet the chorus of Bengals fans hundreds of miles away who were angrily yelling at their TV sets and already pinning a season-opening loss on him and his selfish spur-of-the-moment play.
There were actually 66 seconds left on Soldier Field's game clock when Maualuga grabbed Chicago Bears right offensive tackle Jordan Mills and threw the 316-pound lineman to the ground. But it didn't feel like it. It seemed the game was over. Even coach Marvin Lewis pulled off his headset and placed it onto the ground. Like everyone else, he could sense the inevitable finish of the game.
It's a feeling Maualuga doesn't want Lewis to experience ever again.
"You've just got to get over it and learn from the mistakes," Maualuga said. "I sure did."
For the first time since his unsportsmanlike penalty at Chicago effectively cost Cincinnati a drive that would either tie the game or give the Bengals a game-winning score, Maualuga spoke with reporters about the sequence Wednesday. He contends he has moved on from the moment of lost composure.
Just after whistles blew to mark a Bengals third-down stop, Maualuga got tangled up with Mills near the Bears sideline. Mills wasn't quite letting go of his run-block on Maualuga and was letting the linebacker know it.
Something inside Maualuga snapped. He felt the urge to retaliate. So, to both quiet Mills and to drive home an emphatic point, he picked up the lineman and threw him to the ground. A referee standing nearby saw the post-play fracas and threw his flag in the air. Had it not been thrown, the Bears, clinging to their 24-21 lead, would have punted. Instead, they got an automatic first down and went through a series of kneels to end the game against the timeout-less Bengals.
"Who knows what could have happened? In a perfect world we might have drove the ball down and got enough space for our kicker to kick a field goal to tie the game and hopefully win. But nobody will know," Maualuga said.
Just after the official conclusion of the game, the fifth-year player walked up to his coach in the training room inside the visitors locker room and apologized.
"There was nothing I could say. It was over," Maualuga said. "But I told him I'm sorry for taking it over the top. He said it was a stupid mistake, but that you can't put this on your shoulders because it wasn't just you that lost the game."
The conversation helped and Maualuga came out Monday night in the Bengals' Week 2 game against the Steelers more focused on keeping his cool and emotions in check.
"It put me at ease, but at the same time, I'm worried about what my coaches say," Maualuga said. "I worry about what the front office says. They're the only people that matter. Obviously everyone is going to have their own input on who they felt lost the game for the team. I don't care. Say whatever you want to say. If I come to work and my coach says I did a good job, or I played a good game, or you made a bad decision at the end of the game, I'll take that."
Lewis has said he thought there should have been offsetting penalties charged to both Maualuga and Mills. At the point that Maualuga retaliated, Lewis could see why he would have chosen to respond to Mills' harassment.
Against the Steelers, the Bengals were involved in other shoving matches, but they didn't get flagged for a single incident.
"We could do a better job of keeping some more composure, yes," Lewis said Wednesday. "That's going to be important for us. We're growing and we've got to grow in a hurry because we're two games in and it doesn't get any easier. We're growing, and we can't beat ourselves."