News-Sentinel Staff Writer
Thirteen-year-old Marquell stands a few feet back, quietly watching in awe as Reagan Mauia tells the story of how he came to be an NFL player.
Though not related by blood, Marquell is proud of the man he calls his uncle. His classmates must think it's cool that his "uncle" is on the Miami Dolphins?
"They don't believe me," Marquell says.
There was a time when Mauia wouldn't have believed it, either.
But here he stands at Delta College, returning to his former school a bit of a local hero, spending time at the Stockton campus to work out with his old coaches before heading to Florida for his first-ever NFL training camp.
To look at the 23-year-old NFL rookie and remember him from his days at Tokay High, Delta and the University of Hawaii, you might not recognize him.
The 350-pound boulder of a lineman he once was is now a fit 270-pound fullback. And the wild, bushy hair that used to burst out of the back of his helmet has been shorn, replaced by a closely cropped layer of dark brown stubble. He wears a thin, long-sleeved athletic shirt with gym shorts, and his diamond-studded earrings are the only thing flashy about him.
When asked about some of the more trying times in his life, he politely suggests a change in subject, but he speaks with a mix of candor and humility that's increasingly rare in today's professional athletes.
Perhaps it's because of the challenges he's faced on his path to the NFL. Or the maturity that fatherhood brought when his son, also named Reagan, was born three years ago. Or maybe it's as simple as "the two H's."
"I live by the two H's," Mauia explains. "Stay humble and stay hungry."
In the jungle
The son of an elementary school teacher mother and a father who worked the forklift at a cannery for StarKist Tuna, Mauia grew up poor in a backwoods jungle of American Samoa.
Mauia had no idea his family lived in poverty.
"I didn't know I was poor until I went to school and saw what other kids were wearing," said Mauia, the third youngest of six children. "We were at the bottom."
Despite a lack of income, Mauia enjoyed his childhood, living among waterfalls and horsing around with his older brothers.
"My childhood was a happy one," he said.
That wasn't always the case, however, as his three older brothers often gave him a tough time. Mauia recalls an incident when he was 6, his older brother carried him up to the rocks at the top of a waterfall, telling him the only way he'd get home was to jump into the pool of water below and swim his way back.
"I remember standing up there," recalled Mauia, pounding his chest to illustrate his fast-beating heart. "He left me by myself. I just started wailing in the water and splashed my way back. I told him never to do that again."
Mauia says the rough treatment from his brothers only made him tougher. And to this day, he always thanks his brothers for not going easy on him.
"I probably would have been a wimp," he said, before backing off the thought. "Probably not."
Things didn't get much easier for Mauia when the family moved to a poor neighborhood in East Oakland, where his father took another warehouse job.
"You come from one jungle to a whole different jungle," he said.
As a Samoan family in a largely African American community, Mauia says they were as different to their neighbors as their neighbors were to them, a difference that often led to fights with the neighborhood kids.
"We had to survive," he said.
And, as hard as it is to believe, Mauia was a self-described scrawny little kid, weighing under 100 pounds in sixth grade. That all changed when he found weights in back of an Oakland housing project.
"I just started lifting on my own and never stopped," said Mauia, who between lifting and puberty had grown to 263 pounds by the time his family moved to Stockton just before high school.
Big man on campus
When Reagan Mauia walked onto the Tokay High football field for the first time, he asked varsity coach Jeff Tracy if he was in the right place. When Mauia told the coach he wasn't a junior, but a freshman, Tracy pointed to the freshmen team at the opposite end of the field. Mauia stopped at the junior varsity field first, and when he again revealed his freshman status, he completed his long walk to the freshmen field.
"The freshmen coach said, 'No son, the varsity field is back that way.'"
"He was a creature, man," said Tracy of Mauia, noting that he would have put him on the varsity team if not for his own personal rule that players must be 15 to play at that level. "He had a lot to learn, but he learned real fast."
Having never played football before, Mauia knew little more about the sport than quarterback and wide receiver. But with his size and athleticism, there was no way he was going to ride the bench as part of the freshmen team, plugged in as a right guard on the offensive line and a nose guard on defense.
"I'd line up and ask my tackle, 'Who do I hit?'" Mauia said. "He'd tell me which number, and when the ball moved I'd knock them down."
But Mauia wasn't satisfied with being a mere brut on the field.
"He was a student of the game," Tracy said. "He didn't just want his natural ability to lead him. He wanted to learn all the fine details of the game."
His work ethic translated to the weight room as well, learning lifting techniques from John Hunt, the first person he ever met on the Tokay campus.
"He was bench-pressing 220 pounds as a freshman and 330 pounds by his sophomore year," said Hunt, a counselor and track and field coach at Tokay.
When the track and field season came around, Hunt convinced Mauia to go out for the shot put and discus. Mauia didn't like the sport at first, but he was a natural, eventually setting the school record in the discus with a mark of 172 feet, 6 inches.
He was progressing in football, too, earning the San Joaquin Athletic Association's Defensive Player of the Year honors his junior season. His impact on the defensive end was so great that Tracy switched his whole defensive scheme to better use his star player. It seemed to help Mauia that his older brother, Tuitafega, had transferred from Bear Creek and played middle linebacker for Tokay that season.
"That made me feel at home," Mauia said.
Mauia's senior year was a bit more rocky. Halfway into the football season, Mauia was ruled athletically ineligible when it was discovered he and some teammates had been drinking at a party.
"He made some choices and got himself into some situations, but it was hard to be disappointed with him because he felt he let the team down," said Hunt, whose parents took Mauia in his senior year when Mauia's parents had to relocate to South Stockton. "He was never elitist or cocky. He was truly humble and sorry for any bad decisions he made."
Changing of the guard
During his senior season at Tokay, a 300-pound Mauia ran a 4.8-second 40-yard dash, an incredible combination of size and speed. Still, none of the bigger colleges were interested in a 6-foot lineman with a short wingspan.
Mauia signed a scholarship to play for Sacramento State, but he quickly backed out.
"I would have been a Hornet, but I didn't think it was the thing for me to do," he said. "I knew I could do better, but I wasn't going to stop playing ball."
Mauia decided to play at Delta College, where he wanted to improve his skills in the hope that a big school would come calling. After earning all-league honors as a freshman at Delta, he redshirted his sophomore year after the birth of his son.
"I worked two jobs and went to school," Mauia said. "Just trying to help out."
During that time, Mauia continued to receive several scholarship offers from smaller schools. Knowing that Jesus Reyes, Delta's wide receivers coach, knew someone at the University of Hawaii, Mauia asked him for a favor.
"I got up the courage to ask Reyes to make a phone call for me," Mauia said. "Just to get my name in the door."
When Reyes did, Mauia was asked to send the school some game film. He gathered all the tape he could find from Tokay and Delta, sending an overnight package to Hawaii. The very next day, Hawaii head coach June Jones was on the phone.
"I couldn't believe it was him," Mauia said. "He told me, 'If you're willing to walk on, we're willing to have you.'"
Mauia walked onto the team as a nose guard with Jones' word that if he worked hard enough, he would eventually earn a scholarship. In the first 10 games of his junior season, he made one start and one tackle.
But during the following week of practice, everything changed for Mauia. In preparation for Wisconsin, Hawaii's scout offense needed a running back. Jokingly, Mauia offered his services.
When the coaches took him seriously, he lined up for the first play.
"I laid out our starting linebacker," said Mauia, inserted into the team's backfield that weekend.
At 350 pounds, Mauia made a quick impression, rushing for 56 yards on 10 carries, including a 10-yard touchdown trot up the middle in Hawaii's regular-season finale against San Diego State.
If Mauia was going to reach the NFL, he knew this was his only chance to do so. But in order to make that a realistic goal, he had to lose significant weight. Drastically changing his diet — which began with cutting out trips to Jack in the Box — he was down to 315 pounds by the time spring ball came around. By fall, he was down to 290.
"Coach Jones told me I had a chance (to make the NFL)," Mauia said. "I just had to think speed and agility."
Mauia spent hours learning blocking schemes and studying one-on-one with coaches on his way to a standout senior season, but just like college, no one was calling. No team was interested in seeing a 290-pound running back at the NFL combines, which was how Mauia was listed.
Mauia's saving grace was an invitation to the Hula Bowl, an all-star showcase for college seniors. It was here that Mauia technically played fullback for the first time. While most players were looking to impress the NFL scouts, Mauia had more pertinent issues.
"I wasn't worried about (the scouts)," he said. "I was worried about learning to play fullback."
He apparently played the position well enough, as numerous scouts approached him.
Said Mauia: "Scouts would come up to me and ask, 'Where'd you play? We don't have you listed as a fullback.'"
The Miami Dolphins were the only team Mauia visited, and as it turned out, he was one of four Samoans selected by the Dolphins on draft day, a group no referred to by the local media as the "Polynesian Wrecking Crew."
A proud papa
As Mauia concludes the tale of how he reached the NFL, his father, Pili Mauia, appears.
Standing at a mere 5-foot-6, it's clear Pili Mauia is not the source of his son's size. He looks at his son with a proud grin, a Miami Dolphins hat atop a tuft of shaggy, black and gray hair. Samoan is Pili's first language and he speaks little English, so his son chimes in.
"He always wears that hat," Reagan Mauia says. "He doesn't have to, but he always does."
After watching his father work blue-collar jobs his entire life, Reagan Mauia can now provide for his family in ways they could never have imagined back in American Samoa. He says he's looking at buying his parents a home in the area.
"The 209 is still going to be my area code when I find a home," Mauia says. "I'm definitely sticking around."
For now, Reagan will settle for a Miami apartment during the season, while his son stays in the Stockton area with the family.
And just like he plans to stick around the 209, he's intent on sticking around in the NFL for awhile, too, despite saying that the NFL stands for "Not For Long."
"I got the best advice from (Dolphins veteran) Zach Thomas," Mauia said. "He just told me to stay healthy."
After what he's overcome to get to the NFL, that doesn't sound too difficult.