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Former USC linebackers Maualuga, Rivers reunited in Cincinnati

Keith Rivers broke his jaw as an NFL rookie. Rey Maualuga slipped to the second round of the draft.

CINCINNATI -- Keith Rivers broke his jaw as an NFL rookie. Rey Maualuga slipped to the second round of the draft. The two linebackers with a shared background are forming a tandem with the Cincinnati Bengals, looking to get beyond their recent hurts.

Rivers was the Bengals' first-round pick out of Southern California last season, but had his season cut short when he broke his jaw on a block by Pittsburgh's Hines Ward. Maualuga (mah-uh-LOO'-guh), who played with Rivers at Southern Cal, dropped to the second round of the draft last April before the Bengals took him with the 38th overall pick.

At USC, Rivers lost only five games, Maualuga six. Now they're trying to resurrect a team that has had only one winning season in the last 18 years and went 4-11-1 last year.

Both of them have gotten beyond their disappointments to look at what's ahead.

"It's not a great feeling, but you've got to move on and go on from that," Rivers said. "If you have a chip on your shoulder, it's a negative energy. I have to focus on me getting better, as opposed to me being hurt and focusing on myself."

Rivers missed the first 10 days of training camp in a holdout last year. He started the season opener and was the second-leading tackler through the first six games. His season ended when Ward hit him with a high block on Oct. 19, breaking his jaw.

The linebacker lost 20 pounds while his jaw was wired shut. He has regained all the weight and fully recovered from the injury. He's been eager to play for months.

"It didn't add to the flame burning in his belly, it just made it hotter," linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald said.

Rivers didn't miss a meeting after he had the surgery and went on the injured reserve list, a sign of his dedication to get better even though he couldn't play.

"It's tough due to the fact you're not out there on the field going through the reps, but it was good to stay in the loop," Rivers said. "Some of the defenses that are put in are going to be put in the next year, and you have a familiarity with them and you know what to expect when they come in."

Since April, Rivers has been trying to help his former college teammate make the transition. He has served as a translator at times, helping Maualuga get accustomed to the Bengals' terms for certain formations and plays.

It was surprising that the two wound up in Cincinnati. The Bengals took offensive tackle Andre Smith with the sixth overall pick, and figured Maualuga would be gone before they got a chance to make their choice in the second round. Instead, he was still available, and the Bengals took him without hesitation.

Maualuga has already become a popular figure in Cincinnati. He has participated in several charity events. The team's gift shop is selling not only his jersey, but also shirts showing him with an intense expression.

"I didn't want people to think I wasn't excited to be here because I dropped to the second round," Maualuga said. "I wanted to let everyone know that I love it here, and I wanted the fans to know I'm honored to be a Bengal. Anything I can do aside from playing football -- whether it's going to the Ronald McDonald House or rebuilding a playground -- anything I'm asked to do, I'll do it."

Among the things he's been asked to do is change positions, moving from the middle linebacker spot where he excelled at USC to an outside spot. The Bengals think he can use his strength and aggressiveness best when lined up outside.

"We're still very excited about Rey," coach Marvin Lewis said. "I think (he'll) contribute on special teams and everything. We'll find way to carve out areas to get Rey out on the field as much as we can."

Even though he has gotten over his draft-day slip, Maualuga said he'll remember that the other teams passed him up in the first round.

"Definitely, there will be a chip on my shoulder in training camp and in the season," he said. "But the draft's over with. I never thought in a million years I'd be here. I'm just glad and happy."

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