NEW ORLEANS — You can’t blame Lorenzo Mauldin if he had just a trace of bitterness.
For Mauldin, a sophomore defensive end for Louisville (10-2), which faces Florida in Wednesday’s Sugar Bowl, life certainly has been no bed of roses. From the outside looking in, it has been mostly thorns.
But Mauldin has a pleasant disposition, even on the football field at times.
“I was angry in the beginning,” he said. “I didn’t have anybody to talk to me to keep my head up, so I kind of did it on my own. I found out my anger won’t get me anywhere, so I manned up and just said it’s me against the world, so I gotta do what I gotta do.”
As their parents spent years in prison while battling drug addition, Mauldin and his four siblings have lived most of their lives in foster and group homes. He usually has been with his younger brother while the three other siblings were in other foster homes.
That meant little stability: Mauldin would spend months in one place only to be moved to another. By the time he graduated from Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson High School, Mauldin had lived in 16 foster or group homes.
Mauldin, the second-oldest, said his siblings are the reason he harbors no bitterness. He said he stays focused on the present and dreams about the future.
“I really just think of them,” he said. “I just visualize their faces when I’m down in the dumps and when I’m on the field and I haven’t done anything right. So I just think, ‘I’m really working for them.’ They keep a smile on my face when it comes to football.”
Mauldin keeps a smile on the faces of Louisville head coach Charlie Strong and defensive line coach Clint Hurtt. Mauldin, who essentially missed three games with a knee injury, leads the team with 6.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks while sharing time with Deiontrez Mount, a fellow sophomore.
With a quick first step, Mauldin relishes making big plays, but he has just 22 tackles this season.
“He has to become a better first- and second-down player and get better at the mental aspects of the game,” Hurtt said.
Mauldin said he is a young player with a lot to learn and that his main goal for next season is to play much better, although he obviously has not played poorly this season.
He was selected Big East Defensive Player of the Week in a 27-25 victory against South Florida in October. He had six tackles — three for losses — two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Just when it seemed he was on his way to big things, it appeared it all could be taken from him. In the next game, against Cincinnati, Mauldin was injured in the first half with what was thought to be a torn ACL. He admitted he was scared, his dreams of going to the NFL and taking care of his siblings possibly dashed.
“It turned out to be a high MCL sprain,” he said. “And I was able to come back in three weeks, which was quicker than I was supposed to come back.”
That he is at Louisville is the result of another setback. He committed to South Carolina but, on signing day, the Gamecocks faxed him a letter saying they didn’t have a scholarship for him.
It wasn’t certain he’d be academically eligible. But he took SAT/ACT courses at Georgia State and got a passing score. Strong stayed behind him all the way, telling him he would pass. He then graduated from high school — one of the last times he saw his mother, who since has been released from prison.
“I saw her when I graduated from high school, then once during my freshman year,” he said. “Right now, I really don’t know where she is, but I plan to see her after the bowl game.”
Playing in the Sugar Bowl — in a BCS game — has Mauldin feeling “like I’m on top of football heaven.”
“It feels great because we weren’t getting much attention from the media, and now we are,” he said. “And if we win this game, they say we will be ranked in the top 10 in the polls to start next season. So I believe everybody on this team will fight as hard as they can to win this game.”