Lorenzo Mauldin stood over the casket, tears streaming down his face.
His friend Chris, a fellow high school sophomore, had been walking to school in Atlanta when he was fatally shot in a drive-by.
Latest Jets stories
It was yet another loss for Mauldin in an existence full of tragedy. And the burgeoning football star, who was 16 at the time, didn't want his own life to be viewed as another cautionary tale. Instead, he wanted to be an example.
But years ago, he never could have imagined that his life would take him here -- from the poverty and drugs surrounding him in east Atlanta to a university campus in Louisville and now Florham Park, New Jersey.
Long before the Jets took the 6-4, 259-pound outside linebacker in the third round of the NFL Draft this month, Mauldin was a foster-care child desperate for guidance and direction.
"He really broke down and started telling me how his life was and what he wanted to do with his life," said Donna Cunningham, the weekend supervisor at Mauldin's last foster home, Families First's Cherokee Boys Group Home in Atlanta's Grant Park area.
Cunningham, about half his size but tough in her own right, stood beside Mauldin at the funeral home that day. He had grown fond of calling her "Auntie," and she protected him as best she could. And as she tried to comfort him at the wake that day, she got a better glimpse into his soul.
"He wanted to be a football player," Cunningham said. "And I just told him, you've got to make your life up to do the right thing. If there's something you want, you have to work for it. And that's what he did."
Mauldin, now 22, is quick to point out that he's not a statistic. But he's faced many obstacles: a mother and father in and out of jail, and him having to shuttle between "12 or 13" foster homes (reports that he spent time in 16 foster homes are "overexaggerated," he said).
But his involvement in football and dance at Maynard Holbrook Jackson High School in Atlanta helped transform him from an angry, untrusting boy into a confident athlete. He also became the first in his family to graduate from college this past December, he said.
"It's a blessing just to be that kid that everyone doubted back then," said Mauldin, who hopes to be a key figure in Jets coach Todd Bowles' defense.
The NFL learning curve is his next obstacle. But as he's done his entire life, he's meeting the challenge head on. And he's determined to break through yet another barrier.
A SAFE PLACE
Mauldin was 15 and entering the second semester of ninth grade when he arrived at the Cherokee Boys Group Home. It would be the final stop on a long list of foster homes, and the adjustment was difficult. He was one of seven boys, ages 15-17, sharing bedrooms. And he was angry at the world.
Today, Mauldin is humble and kindhearted, and he's well aware that he's become a symbol of hope. But he doesn't want your pity, nor does he need it. He's too busy counting his blessings to fret about disappointments he has endured. But there have been plenty.
Growing up, Mauldin said, his mother, Akima Lauderdale, was gone for long stretches of time. Law enforcement would retrieve him and his four siblings from school after their mother had been arrested and they'd be placed in the custody of the state.
Sometimes, though, they spent weeks alone in their apartment while their mother was in custody. And Mauldin, the second oldest, felt it was his responsibility to take care of all of them -- even at the age of 10. He went around the neighborhood, offering to transport people's trash to a distant dumpster for cash.
His contributions helped supplement what little money older sister Tashia managed to scrape together.
Building trust was an ongoing process. And with each new place Mauldin went, the process began anew.
"It was a big transition for him. Because his whole life, all he did was fight," said Vincent Burt, who was the guardian at the Cherokee foster home.
He calls Lorenzo "the son I never had."
Mauldin slowly let his walls down. But old habits die hard.
"I didn't know his situation, but I knew he was angry every day," Jackson High School defensive line coach Maurice Hart said.
Hart recalled the time Mauldin blew up at him during practice his junior year because he didn't want to switch from linebacker, a position he had thrived in, to defensive end.
"He had issues toward the males,'' Hart said. "And it wasn't just on the field, it was inside the school. He never had a male ask him or tell him to do something. It was rough."
There were days Hart pushed him so hard that Mauldin wanted to quit in the middle of football drills. But in time, Hart taught his pupil everything he knew.
"After that, I knew he needed that love and that person to care for him," said Hart, whom Mauldin refers to as "Pops." "And once he noticed that I was giving him that, he humbled himself . . . He knew I was here not to fight or argue with him, but I was there to help him."
The transformation was anything but easy.
"Most people would say, 'Don't bite the hand that feeds you.' I didn't believe in none of that," Mauldin said. "If it wasn't my mother, if it wasn't my father or my siblings trying to help me, then I didn't want your help."
Years of abandonment had taught him to never let his guard down and to expect the unexpected. He doesn't recall how old he was when he and his family relocated to Georgia, but he remembers being surrounded by poverty, drugs and prostitution in East Atlanta.
With his father, Lorenzo Mauldin III, in California and in and out of jail, the family struggled. His mother sold drugs to support herself and her kids, Mauldin said.
On July 31, 1999 -- when he was 6 years old -- his mother was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 20 years in prison, according to Georgia Department of Corrections records. Lauderdale was released early but violated her parole and was sentenced to five years for aggravated assault in 2006. She was released in January 2011 but was sent back to prison after being convicted of possession with intent to distribute cocaine, among other charges.
Lauderdale, whose latest prison sentence began June 23, 2014, is at Pulaski State Prison for women in Hawkinsville, Georgia. Her latest possible release date is July 31, 2023.
Mauldin has seen his mother only a few times since she attended his high school graduation. But the two remain close to this day, Mauldin said.
Don't think harshly of Lauderdale, Burt said. "All she knew was the streets," he said. "I don't want no bad picture painted of his mother. He loves her without condition."
Football saved Mauldin. But so did dance.
On the stage, under the spotlight, Mauldin felt free. He was confident and secure in his manhood and his place in the world.
Dance became another avenue for his expression. And Tiffany Mingo, Jackson High's director of dance studies, made sure to include him in as many pieces as possible, including modern dance, West African dance and hip-hop.
"He was never in tights and ballet slippers. I never did that to him," she said, laughing. "But he knows ballet positions and everything. He learned it all and he had a good time."
Mauldin said some of his football coaches cautioned him not to dance because "it was a feminine thing." But he saw it differently. "I actually wanted to be in her class," Mauldin said. "Dancing was another thing for me, besides football, that kind of meditated everything."
Mingo recalled the time Mauldin performed with his math teacher, Tasha Allen, during the school's "Dancing with the Staff" fundraising competition. Wearing white masks and black outfits, the two danced to the 1982 hip-hop song "Planet Rock."
"Do you know that Lorenzo and Ms. Allen won the competition?" said Mingo, who also is Burt's cousin. "They were poppin' and lockin' . . . The video will blow your mind."
The same agility and focus Mauldin showed on the dance floor was demonstrated on the football field. By the end of his junior year, he said he had 21 college offers. But he was determined to play for South Carolina, the first university to recruit him.
He committed to the Gamecocks' program in April 2010.
On signing day, more than 15 people surrounded Mauldin as he sat on the auditorium stage wearing a South Carolina baseball cap -- his mother included. With her in tow, Mauldin "was like a 3-year-old eating an ice cream cone right here at this school," Hart said.
But life dealt Mauldin another disappointment. Shortly before the next national signing day, Feb. 2, 2011, South Carolina notified Jackson football coach Eric Williams, via a faxed letter, that Mauldin's scholarship was no longer available.
"What South Carolina was doing is, they were waiting on [Jadeveon] Clowney," said Charlie Strong, who would become Mauldin's coach at Louisville.
The Gamecocks added Clowney, the No. 1 defensive player in the nation and a native of South Carolina, to their Class of 2011. Clowney went on to be the No. 1 pick of the 2014 NFL Draft.
Mauldin had come so close to fulfilling his dream of playing for the Gamecocks. But his life soon would take him in another direction.
At the time, Mauldin felt he had "been shoved away" by the Gamecocks, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But like many recruits, he still had yet to meet the minimum test score on either the SAT or ACT. If he didn't eventually meet the testing requirements, Mauldin figured he could attend prep school and hope South Carolina still would be interested. But while mulling his options, he took a visit to Louisville. And that changed everything.
He fell in love with the campus and the coaching staff, and Mauldin signed a letter of intent to play for Strong.
STAR AT LOUISVILLE
Mauldin stands out for his shoulder-length dreadlocks with dyed ends. He sported a deep red hue in college to match his Louisville pride, but now the ends are yellowish-orange. But he's known best for the fast, frenetic pace at which he plays.
"I'm going to make plays," Mauldin said matter-of-factly after Day 1 of Jets rookie minicamp earlier this month. "That's just what I do."
It had not taken Strong long to see that for himself.
"You know that he's not afraid," said Strong, who left to coach Texas after the 2013 season. "From start to finish, you would just see him chase the football all over the place. Sometimes I had to slow him down in practice because he would go so hard."
Mauldin became a full-time starting defensive end as a junior in 2013, finishing second on the team in tackles for loss (12) and sacks (91/2) and earning second-team All-ACC honors. After Bobby Petrino took over the program in 2014, Mauldin was moved to stand-up outside linebacker in the Cardinals' new 3-4 scheme. He again was among the team leaders in several categories.
MORE THAN A GAME
It took years of sacrifice and focus for Mauldin to get to a place of inner peace and happiness. But it also took the love and support of an extended network of strangers who, in time, became family.
"He has so many people in his corner cheering for him because they want to see it happen," Strong said. "They know who he is, they know how important this is for him. But they just know what a good-spirited young man he is.
"You want so bad for him to be successful because some people would have given up. You knew that he was someone who would never give in or give up. And that's what I loved . . . "
Mauldin's supporters stretch from his birthplace of Sacramento, California, to Austin, Texas; Atlanta, New Jersey and cities in between. And when asked about Mauldin, they offer the same refrain.
"Ya'll are gonna love him," Hart said with a thick Southern twang. "You're going to love that kid."