FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) The tears were an emotional punctuation to a journey Lorenzo Mauldin had been dreaming about for years.
From foster home to foster home, he knew the odds were stacked against him as a kid. The doubters, though, motivated him along the way - from an uncertain future to the NFL as a third-round pick of the New York Jets.
''Don't use your situation as a crutch,'' Mauldin said in the Jets' locker room Friday. ''I won't call it a `circumstance' because it's not a circumstance. I mean, you were born into it. Keep grinding and do what you've got to do and don't let anybody say you can't because you can.''
When he got on the phone with reporters last week shortly after he was drafted, he couldn't hold back. He joyfully cried while describing 22 years of struggles and, ultimately, success.
''To be honest, I'm still speechless,'' Mauldin said, ''because it's crazy.''
It has certainly been, at many points, a heartbreaking path for the pass-rushing linebacker from Louisville. Both of his parents were in jail when he was just a baby, and he estimates he was in and out of about 12 or 13 foster homes, separated most times from his siblings, in the Atlanta area. It was a tumultuous existence for a young boy who sorely needed guidance and a purpose.
That's when football saved him.
''I'm here to say that I'm not a statistic,'' Mauldin said, ''and I'm going to overcome it.''
He started playing at Maynard Jackson High School and blossomed as a defensive end after starting out as a linebacker. Mauldin found something he was good at - really good.
''My junior year is when it started to come to me,'' Mauldin recalled.
His playing improved to the point where big-name schools were interested. He chose to go to South Carolina, but the Gamecocks over-signed their recruiting class so Mauldin decided to go elsewhere. He went to play for then-coach Charlie Strong at Louisville and his football abilities really took off.
In four seasons, he had 20 1/2 sacks and forced four fumbles while attracting the attention of NFL scouts. But, Mauldin's past made him wary of people. He had trust issues, and refused to open up to his teammates or coaches.
''I just wouldn't let anybody in,'' Mauldin said. ''Most people would say, `Don't bite the hand that feeds you.' I didn't believe in none of that. If it wasn't my mother or wasn't my father or my siblings, then I didn't want your help. I got hurt in college and it humbled me because I had people come to the hospital and ask me if I was OK.
''After that, everything went uphill from there.''
He gradually developed bonds with some of the people around him, trusting that they would be there for him - on and off the football field.
''Being through the hard times, I'm proud of myself to actually be able to say I stuck it out and was able to succeed in life,'' he said.
Mauldin became the first member of his family to graduate from college, trading in his football uniform for a cap and gown to receive his degree last December. It was a triumphant moment for Mauldin, one he knows might help his younger siblings and cousins as they form their own paths in life.
''I just want to be an example to them,'' he said, ''where they can say, `Oh, well, he did it, so I can do it, too.'''
About five months later, Mauldin was again making his family proud. But not before a few anxious hours.
The first two rounds of the NFL draft came and went without his name being called. Eighteen picks into the third round - No. 82 overall - the Jets went on the clock.
''I had a friend who told me, `Your phone's ringing!''' a smiling Mauldin said. ''I was kind of scared to answer it. I had just realized that my dream was coming true. Someone's calling me and I'm getting picked in the third round.''
It was the Jets, who liked Mauldin's pass-rushing skills as an outside linebacker, something the team was looking for entering the draft. New York was also well aware of the hardships Mauldin endured.
''Anytime you go through those types of situations, that helps shape who you are as a man and they make you grow and make you hungrier,'' Jets coach Todd Bowles said.
Mauldin remains hungry and still thinks about where he came from - and those who never thought he'd amount to much.
''There are always going to be doubters and guys that say, `Well, we didn't want this guy. We wanted someone else,''' Mauldin said. ''I'm just going to prove to everyone. I've been doing it my entire life.''
AP NFL websites: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL