Lorenzo Mauldin picked up his cap and gown in the days before graduation, and laid them both out neatly on his bed.
He looked at them and started to cry, because that was the only thing to do. Words have failed him. He still cannot figure out how to properly explain the way these past four years saved him; how these past four years changed him.
Tears are universally understood.
So he got overwhelmed for a few minutes. Then he dropped to his knees, and prayed through his tears, thanking God for taking him as far as he has come.
In four years, Mauldin has gone from an angry, distrustful teenager to Louisville’s most beloved player, his easy smile and community embrace hard to ignore.
“It makes me feel really good,” Mauldin said in a recent phone interview. “If there were other words that I could say, I would say them. I’m glad I can put smiles on people’s faces. I’m glad that I can make people’s days. I’m just blessed.”
His childhood has been well-documented. Mauldin grew up in foster care and group homes, without any family stability in his life. In high school, he committed to South Carolina, only to be told there would not be a scholarship available to him. Mauldin eventually found Louisville, but more than that, he found himself.
But it took time. The first month was nearly impossible. School was hard. Practice was hard, especially with his position coach at the time, Clint Hurtt, constantly in his face.
“He had a tough time with hard coaching,” Hurtt recalled recently. “He never had a male figure in his life really get on him about the little things he was doing. He had a tough time trusting men. It was very difficult for him.”
One month in, Mauldin got hurt in practice and was taken to the hospital for tests. Sitting in the hospital room, he thought no one would even bother to visit because he had made no effort to let anybody to get close to him. But in walked Louisville chaplain Chris Morgan.
In walked his coaches.
“They embraced me and talked to me and I understood they were here for me,” Mauldin said. “That became the year I decided it would be me plus the coaches instead of me versus the coaches. I got closer to the team, and they became my family. I became closer to the fans and started to help out more and show myself wherever I could and it gave me the opportunity to call this my second home. “
While Mauldin allowed himself to blossom as a person, he also blossomed as a football player, becoming one of the top rush ends in his conference. During his junior season, Mauldin had 9.5 sacks playing defensive end. When Charlie Strong left for the Texas job, Hurtt left, too, for the Chicago Bears.
New defensive coordinator Todd Grantham decided to use Mauldin as an outside linebacker. Hurtt said the former staff also discussed moving Mauldin to linebacker and using him in a similar way. Though Mauldin had to get to know an entirely new coaching staff, he did not close himself off the way he did when he first got to school.
He responded like the senior leader he has come to be, embracing Grantham and coach Bobby Petrino. Mauldin thrived in his new spot, earning first-team All-ACC honors from the coaches after notching a career-high 45 tackles, 6.5 sacks and a team-high 13 tackles for loss.
When it came time for Senior Day, he had Hurtt standing right beside him, living up to a promise made four years ago.
“It was an honor to do it,” Hurtt said. “Forget that he’s an excellent football player. That adds onto it. He could have been a statistic. He could have blamed everybody else for what happened in his life, but he’s never taken that stance. He has been the total opposite. He tries to see the brighter side of life. He cares about everybody else before he cares about himself. That’s how he’s always been.”
“To see him be successful, and knowing he’s going to have a successful future, whether it’s in football or just in life in general, is what makes me so proud and happy for him.”
Once the regular season ended, Mauldin finished up his finals and had time to sit and reflect. He looked around his room at all the mementos he has from the games he has played. He looked at his cap and gown. The memories all came back, but only the newest one would allow what was happening to truly sink in.
Mauldin walked across the stage last week with his four siblings there to watch, the first member of his family to receive a college diploma. He flashed a triumphant smile.