Q+A: Rey Maualuga

Q+A: Ret Maualuga

The menace in the middle of the Cincinnati Bengals defense flexes his Samoan work.

Watching an NFL game, you can distinguish players by the number and name on the back of each jersey. But with flowing hair that sticks out of his tiger-striped helmet and Polynesian tattoos that flow down the exposed parts of his body, Rey Maualuga of the Cincinnati Bengals stands out while patrolling the middle of the team’s defense. Like a uniform, the ink identifies his other clan while paying homage to the warrior spirit that’s present in his bloodline.

The team’s current goals are: go undefeated at home, win the AFC North, and, eventually, become world champions. Maualuga’s personal goal is one of redemption for a poor performance in last season’s playoff game against the Texans, which he partially blames himself for losing. While all eyes in Cincinnati are on Maualuga this season, an even larger audience is going to follow the middle linebacker, as HBO’s Hard Knocks will once again be dissecting the Bengals camp. Though some say that the cameras are a distraction, Maualuga thinks that the docuseries makes everybody in the organization step it up during the vital weeks leading up to the regular season.

INKED: What do you think about the possibility that the NFL might extend the regular season to get more games in?

REY MAUALUGA: People are saying they don’t want to do four games of preseason, but that’s the opportunity for the guys who are on the border of making a team to go out and play. The season is already long as it is.

Would you trade two preseason games for one more regular season game?

No. To have just two preseason games would cram a bunch of players into playing just a certain amount of snaps, and then not everybody would have a fair chance. I think four games is perfect. Certain people get cut after the first game through the fourth. If there are only two games, then people are not getting the attention and the chance to try out.

Has the concussion thing gone too far, or do you think the front office is doing a decent job of monitoring the situation?

I know it’s safety first, and they work with the players and the organization—which is a good thing—but I think I speak on behalf of a lot of players when I say that some of the fun has been taken out of football, the sort of smashmouth, doing everything balls out, going crazy parts of the game. You don’t see those vicious hits that make [ESPN’s] Top 10 anymore. Now people are so afraid of doing something the wrong way and getting fined for it. A couple of years ago putting your helmet down or hitting the quarterback was fine. Now you do it and, boom, $10,000 comes out of your paycheck.

You just re-signed with the Bengals for another two years, which garnered some mixed reactions from the fans. Was it important for you to stay in Cincinnati?

Yes and no. Despite my four years here, it really hasn’t gone the way I planned it out to be, as far as how I wanted to perform. I wanted to accomplish more as a linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals. So it was a difficult decision. Does the team want me? Does the city of Cincinnati want me? Am I going to be happy here? All that came down to two things: I didn’t want to go out like that, and my daughter lives here. It would’ve been hard if I’d woken up, say, in Arizona, and my daughter is thousands of miles away.

When you say you didn’t want to leave Cincinnati without redeeming yourself, are you talking about the wild card game last season in which fans and media put much of the blame on you?

You’re always remembered for the last thing you did. I know I can’t erase how I performed, especially the last game, our playoff game against Houston. I was giving everything I had but I played like crap! Basically I wanted to come back and sort of repaint the picture that I’ve been longing to paint. Things weren’t great, and I want to come back for unfinished business.

How much of the vitriol on the internet did you see?

Everyone is looking at social media these days.

Even ballplayers?

If someone says they don’t look at Twitter and Facebook to see what everyone is saying, they are lying. Every player does before they walk into our team meetings and after they walk away from the team meetings and go to individual meetings—they are all on their phones to see if they got any messages. Everyone always is up on what’s going on in this world.

Do the hateful comments get to you in a way they wouldn’t have before social media?

Personally I was already mad at myself for my performance in the Houston game. I was fucked up all off-season.

Every year, there are 31 teams stewing for months about how they didn’t win the Super Bowl—that’s a cruel business to be in.

The Ravens can go and party, go to Vegas and take their shirts off and stuff, and everything will be fine because they just won the Super Bowl. If you didn’t win and want to go out to let off steam or have a good time, you’ll hear at the place or on social media, “You lost it for your team in the play-off game—why are you out partying?”

Another thing people don’t seem to be sympathetic about is when a guy who has long hair, like you, gets brought down by it.

It’s part of the game. In one of our games Pacman Jones yanked down Torrey Smith from his dreads; Troy Polamalu got an interception and he got tackled by his hair; mine’s been pulled here and there from trying to get off a block or being at the bottom of a pile and getting tangled with somebody else. It comes with the territory. It’s not like you fight the guy who tugged you or anything.

What hurts more: Getting tattooed or having an opponent grab a fistful of your hair?

Tattoos trump that.

When did you start getting tattooed?

I started getting inked my senior year of high school. I think The Rock had just gotten his sleeve and I told my dad, “Hey, I’m going on spring break, is it cool if I get tattooed?” because he was a minister and none of my family had tattoos. It was more to get his permission because I didn’t want to come back and get knocked out by him.

What was your first piece?

It was my left arm sleeve from my shoulder blade to my elbow. My cousin said we could go to his best friend from growing up. The guy freehanded it, so I didn’t exactly know what I was going to get. He just grabbed a Sharpie and went on with it.

So you put all your trust in him.

I was just more happy and fascinated that I was going to get a tattoo than knowing what I was going to get.

Is there any symbolism with your heritage that was part of it?

Yeah, basically just the core values that we as kids grow up with. It’s more so the values of family first, respect your elders, your church, God, respect, and loyalty. They’re markings of the high chief being a warrior, and that warrior mentality translates over to when I go on the field and play football.

Does every mark within the tattoo carry a different meaning in your culture?

Not really. Every tattoo basically stands for the same things for every single person tattooed with a Samoan tribal design. It’s the details of the design that change between the different people and tattoo artists.

What prompts you to get more work done?

You know the saying tattoos are addicting? Once you get one you’re going to always go back and get another. I got to [USC] and then I saw everyone else that’s in Los Angeles is tattooed. Southern Cal has a large population of Polynesian people, and being able to be down there and seeing everybody with a lot of tattoos, it just made me want to get more.

Your back piece is intricate.

Thanks. In college they called me The Stingray, and my uncle was buddies with this guy named Josh Elsas who owned a tattoo shop, Island Tat. He came up from San Diego with these T-shirts that had a stingray in the back, and in the front it says “Rey Maualuga Stingray.” I was like, Oh shit, that’s pretty sweet. He said he could tat it for me. Before I get a tattoo I always pinch myself at the place I’m about to get tatted to see if it hurts. I was doing that to my back for a week while looking at the picture and I thought, This shit’s going to hurt. He came through, and it was probably the worst pain ever. I guess I was too comfortable with him where I would ask to take breaks, where with all the other artists I didn’t because I didn’t want them to go and tell people, “Rey was a pussy. He really didn’t take it like you’re taking it right now.” So it was a bad experience, but it turned out great.

So it’s a stingray …

I ask people what they think it is and not one person has ever got it correct.

Does that bother you that people can’t tell what your tattoo is?

No—right when I tell them it’s a stingray they see it.

We first saw your Samoa chest piece by SikkWidditink EBomb [@usomaniak360] on Instagram.

That’s the guy who did the majority of my tattoos. With the Samoa piece, too, I was pinching my chest and knew it was going to be hell. I didn’t know how it was going to pan out, because he said he was going to do Samoa but I didn’t know whether it was going to be shaded inside or what, and I just told him that I trusted him not to make my chest look crazy. He did it and I’m like, Wow, that shit is actually crazy. And he did it in three hours.

You also have some other ink that’s not Samoan.

I got my niece’s name on my hand, and I have my daughter’s name.

How does the script on your ribs factor in?

I saw a friend in L.A. and she had “Never regret anything because at one time it was exactly what you wanted” tattooed on her. At that time I was going through things. I had just gotten in trouble, I got a DUI my rookie year, and I think that phrase just explains a lot of things that I’ve done in my life. I wasn’t forced to do this or that—everything I’ve done was because of choice. Now I’m living life with no regrets. Everything that I’ve done, I’ve done because I wanted to.

To clarify, are you saying you don’t regret driving drunk?

I didn’t wake up and be like, “Hey, I’m going to get a DUI tonight.” No, I wanted to go out and drink, I wanted to have fun. That’s what I wanted, but obviously that choice became a consequence.

Have you ever gotten negative reactions to your tattoos?

Not from anyone other than my mom.

What did she say?

My mom hates my tattoos. I was just happy that my dad allowed me to get one my senior year in high school. After that my mom said, “That’s it, son, you’re not getting any more. Why are you doing that? You’re going to get old, it’s going to look ugly, your skin’s going to get wrinkled, it’s going to be on you for life.” You know, something a mom would say.

How do you deal with getting more pieces?

She hadn’t seen my latest work on my arm and my chest. When she came to Cincinnati to help me move I didn’t want to take my shirt off and walk around the house and catch her off guard. I told her, “You’re going to be mad, but I just got two more tattoos.” She obviously got mad. I was like, “Whatever, Mom, I’m old enough now, you can’t scold me. You’re either going to have to accept it or just don’t look at me.” … Then everything changed—we just started talking about something else.

What do you think about Jets head coach Rex Ryan’s Polynesian leg piece?

It is something I have talked to a lot of Polynesian people about. I was curious to see their take of having non-Polynesian people get tattoos that are sacred to our culture. My dad said he feels happy that other people want the tattoos that we have. He thinks we should feel special they want to share in our culture. But other people have said that it’s a disgrace, that if a person is not Samoan they should not be getting something like that. To me, it really doesn’t matter because it’s your body. I think people should be entitled to get whatever tattoo they want. But if they get a Polynesian tattoo they should do it to honor our culture, not just to exploit it; come with the intent to respect the culture and the history behind it.

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