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It Didn’t Break Him

Lorenzo Mauldin spent his childhood bouncing from foster home to foster home—16 of them to be exact. The statistics said he was unlikely to amount to anything, but now he's a college graduate about to be drafted into the NFL. He beat the odds; he wants foster kids to know they can do the same

You step into a room and the door closes behind you. Inside, there are five men, one of whom you recognize from television; he’s an NFL head coach. You shake everyone’s hand and sit across from the group. They ask about a dozen questions. For Lorenzo Mauldin, each one smacks of one overarching, burning question, unspoken but ever-present.

Did it break you?

The road that Mauldin—a Louisville pass rusher and a veteran of 16 foster homes—took to a December graduation ceremony is nearly impossible to retrace in the 15-minute window teams are allowed with prospects at the combine. Wearing red-tipped dreadlocks that cover half his face, he did his best.

“I didn’t hide anything,” he says. “I just tell them the truth; what I’ve been through and how I worked so hard to get where I am now.”

* * *

Mauldin likes to say, “I didn’t become a statistic,” which is true in the sense that he beat the odds. But his story is a statistical anomaly. There are more than 400,000 children in this country’s foster care system. A 2012 study showed that among those who “age out” of state-subsidized care, 60% of males have been convicted of a crime, less than half are employed, and 25% have not graduated high school.

Lorenzo Mauldin IV and his three siblings—older sister Tashia, younger brother Taiwan and younger sister Sakia—were well on their way to a similar fate in the late-90’s. Their mother, Akima Lauderdale, struggled with alcoholism while maintaining a kingpin-like reputation as a cocaine dealer in their sliver of Atlanta. In ’99, when Mauldin was six, she was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, sentenced to 20 years, but released in time to be arrested once more, for aggravated assault, in 2006. His father, Lorenzo III, was in and out of jail as well. Lorenzo, his sisters and brother found themselves in foster homes six times between 1994 and 2005.

“I wasn’t thinking that I would make it to college,” he says. “We were so worried about taking care of each other that we would skip school, so I didn’t think I would graduate high school.”

With online records still in their infancy, the kids sometimes fell through the cracks. In most cases, they would be retrieved from school by the police shortly after their mother’s arrest and put in the custody of the state. Occasionally, they’d spend several weeks alone in the apartment while she was in custody; the county was sometimes slow to realize there were four unattended children after an arrest. When he was 12, Lorenzo organized a sort of business with Taiwan and Sakia to supplement what little income 16-year-old Tashia brought in. They went from door to door in their apartment complex and beyond, offering to ferry household garbage to an inconveniently located dumpster.

“We’d go in a group, and some people would see our struggle and give us like $50 dollars to take out the trash,” he says. “Some people would give us $2. That went on from our building to other apartments.

“My brother was so foolish he would just throw it in the bushes, then we all started doing it and we got caught. Eventually we had to walk it to the dumpster again.”

When the coffers were bone dry they would split up and go door-to-door; elementary schoolers, unsupervised and hustling for cash. Lorenzo would then take the money, walk to the grocery story and buy potatoes and chicken, hot dogs, or lamb chop.

“It was scary. Somebody might snatch you up, but you had to take risks to bring in some kind of money,” Mauldin says. “I think I did that like three times when I was really hungry. You might call it a business, but we just needed to eat.”

* * *

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Mauldin tells his story today with an eerie sense of ease, as if he doesn’t fully grasp the abnormality of his childhood. He walks with a distinguished calm, his face constantly wearing a half-smile. He is, by most accounts, a candidate for the third round of the 2015 NFL draft after two seasons as a starter, compiling 16.5 sacks and 26 tackles for loss between his junior and senior seasons, earning second-team all-conference honors (American Athletic in ’13, ACC in ’14) both years. His isn’t the first tale of extreme poverty in the backstories of the men who make up the NFL, and won’t be the last.

He’d like for his story to be relayed not to satisfy lurid curiosities, or as an attention grab or pity plea, but as a message to children around the country who grew up in similar circumstances. The promise: You have power over your circumstances, no matter how dire. Someone, somewhere, wants to help you.

For Mauldin, the first and foremost of these individuals was Monique Gooden. A theater actor who stood an imposing 6-feet tall with size-12 shoes, she had heard of the plight of the greater Atlanta foster care system. A state employee had relayed tales of children sleeping in the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services offices while waiting for placement. Gooden was 26 when she took in a 13-year-old Lorenzo and 12-year-old Taiwan; their mother had been sentenced to five years for aggravated assault.

In the Mauldin boys, Gooden had bit off more than she could chew. Split from their siblings, Lorenzo and Taiwan arrived in tattered clothes, carrying trash bags full of their belongings.

And they were violent.

“They came from a world of fighting,” Gooden says. “Just listening to the stories they told, their mother and her partner fought all the time, so when they came to my house that’s all they did.”

They brawled with one another, and Lorenzo fought schoolmates on the street and in the classroom hallways. He saw the smallest slight as an opportunity to throw hands.

“Someone would say something to him that he wouldn’t like, and he was very hyper-sensitive to that,” Gooden says. “He wouldn’t take direction, or you telling him what to do. Kids would be playing around, and it was an automatic fight. [So] he had a hand in him moving house to house, because of his attitude.”

Gooden sought clinical assistance from the adoption agency but received little help. She tried to get Mauldin interested in basketball, but he was mediocre. At her urging, he went out for rec league football in eighth grade as a wide receiver, and he dominated.

But Lorenzo was still acting out. The mood swings that led to the punches were brought on by bad news about his mother and father, or worse, no news at all. Six months into their stay with Gooden, the boys’ behavior had become so grievous that Gooden called the Division of Family and Children Services (DEFACS) to fix the situation. The decision was to split the boys up. Lorenzo had already received a formal warning from the state. Taiwan stayed with Gooden while Lorenzo was moved to a boys’ group home.

“I loved him and I still do, but DEFACS had to remove him,” Gooden says.

During his years in foster homes, Mauldin had encountered varying degrees of discipline and care. Some foster parents pocketed the bulk of the $400-plus per month per child and left him and his brother wearing the same clothes every day, Mauldin says, before a counselor would recognize the abuse and put them in a new home. Other families in the Atlanta area embraced them, doted on them, and even participated in activities at their school.

“We stayed with all kinds of people. Jamaicans. Black. White. We stayed with a white family that came to school events, that was so awkward,” Mauldin says. “I felt comfortable with it all, but I didn’t really trust these people.”

In the group home, there were fewer variables. Meals were at a certain time, and the kitchen was locked most of the day. You shared a room with several other boys, and your name was written on everything. There was a strict curfew after school. Mauldin attended Maynard Jackson High School with his siblings scattered across the region, and football found him again.

Mauldin was in the midst of a growth spurt in 10th grade when coaches started to recruit him as a linebacker. He grew so in love with success on the football field that it became the only thing an authority figure could hold over him. Fights with boys in the group home brought day-long stints in juvenile correction as a scare tactic. Ashamed, he’d bow his head for the entire patrol car ride to jail, then sit alone in a cell and think about his parents.

“Just being in juvie… I wouldn’t want to know what a real jail is like,” he says. “I had to find some way to get myself out of that. I was thinking about joining gangs. Football was a mediation for me.”

* * *

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Brief incarcerations, though meaningful, did nothing to broaden his horizons. He finished high school in the group home and graduated. He thought he was headed to the University of South Carolina to play for Steve Spurrier, but then he became the poster child for “oversigning” (when a program offers more scholarships than it has). The day before signing day, seven months after committing to play for the Gamecocks, Mauldin was notified via fax to his high school that there was no longer a scholarship for him. He eventually arrived at Louisville, alone and untrusting.

Clint Hurtt, who helped recruit Mauldin to Louisville, felt right away that Mauldin was closed off.

“He had a tough time with hard coaching,” Hurtt told ESPN. “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.”

In one of the first practices in May, Mauldin went into contact with his head down and didn’t get up. He lay motionless for a spell, and required an ambulance to nearby Jewish Hospital. Chris Morgan, the team chaplain, followed the ambulance in his Honda, then greeted the freshman in a hospital bed.

Morgan said, “Do you want me to call someone?”

Mauldin paused. “I don’t really have anybody you can call.”

Morgan wrote his name and number on a post-it note and stuck it on the cover of a bible in the room.

“Now you have somebody to call.”

Someone, somewhere, wants to help you.

Later, most of the Louisville coaching staff, including then-head coach Charlie Strong, walked into the room one by one to check up on the freshman. That part of Mauldin that couldn’t trust authority, men especially, began to crumble. He grew receptive to coaching. He accepted a position change to offense, then back to defense where he stayed. Almost immediately, he began volunteering his time to the community more than any other Louisville football player before or since.

“I think as he started to trust people and be vulnerable to people, he opened up,” Morgan says. “He volunteered to visit hospitals, retirement homes, inner-city community centers, middle schools, high schools, group homes. He relates to everyone.”

He was clocking three visits a week, but the school still had a constant backlog of requests for Mauldin appearances. He logged so many community service hours in four years that the school stopped keeping track. And Mauldin stopped involving administration, taking younger teammates to hospitals without the direction or instruction of Louisville staff.

Among his favorite visits? In summer 2013 he spoke at a group home high school graduation (The Home of the Innocents).

“I remember people doing things like that for us when we were in a foster home; a fraternity, a fireman, doctors, lawyers. People telling us to keep pushing,” Mauldin says. “But I never had a football player come in and talk to us. I want to be a change in somebody’s life.

“Foster children right now are suffering. They’re mentally strung out. I want to be able to start a group home or a scholarship fund. There are a lot of savage people who don’t want to help these kids. And there are kids in these situations that have mental and physical talent, and I want to help them through the door.”

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

* * *

Mauldin’s worldview is shaped by these savage actors whose names he has forgotten over the years—boys he felt he needed to fight and foster parents with ulterior motives. For better or worse, he doesn’t count his parents among them. He has a relationship with his father, who is now free, sober, and employed as a drug and alcohol counselor in northern California. He hasn’t seen him since high school graduation, but they talk regularly.

“I guess when you’re in jail for so long it does something to you and it’s an opportunity to get your mind right,” he says.

Mauldin and his siblings at Lorenzo's Louisville graduation: Taiwan (far left), Sakia (front left), Miracle (front right) and Tashia (behind Miracle). (Photo courtesy Lorenzo Mauldin)

Mauldin and his siblings at Lorenzo's Louisville graduation: Taiwan (far left), Sakia (front left), Miracle (front right) and Tashia (behind Miracle). (Photo courtesy Lorenzo Mauldin)

But it’s been two years since he has seen his mother. She was sent back to prison last June and missed her son’s senior season. Four years ago, she was released in time to attend her son’s signing day ceremony, only to be jailed months later. He considers her lifestyle a product of their poverty.

“Yeah, my mom sold drugs,” he says. “She had five children to take care of and she had to find a way to bring in money. She would keep it away from us, from our home. If we ever tried them, I think she would kill us faster than the drugs would.

“What was amazing was that she never got caught selling the drugs. She would get drunk and fight people to show that she was the kingpin, so she’d beat people up. After a while they just kept her in.”

The most vivid memories of his childhood were being in middle school classrooms and having the police round up him and his siblings. At first he’d whisper to them, “What’d you do?” Then he realized they’d done nothing as soon as the officer uttered, “Your mother…”

Onto the next stranger.

Hearing the story from Mauldin’s mouth has a jarring effect. The words make sense, and the narrative comes together, but it remains difficult to reconcile the soft-spoken, grinning hulk with 22 years of tumult.

Fifteen minutes are up.

“I just tell them what I’ve been through and how I worked so hard to get where I am now,” Mauldin says. “I tell them, it was a difficult time. And it didn’t break me.”

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