BERKELEY — He stood wearily on the flattened and chilled Memorial Stadium grass, Mom scribbled in black ink on his giant right wristband, Dad scribbled on his left.
Up north, his father is gravely ill. Down south, his reputation has been seriously wounded. He's 18, his eyes filled with impending grief and growing pains.
"When I'm on the field, I can put everything aside," said Rey Maualuga softly.
Which is exactly why the USC linebacker didn't belong there.
Less than two weeks ago, Maualuga was arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor battery after witnesses said he punched out a man at a party near campus.
A few days later, Maualuga played against Stanford. Then, on Saturday, he starred against Cal, calling the signals for a unit that held the Golden Bears without a touchdown until the final two minutes, leading the Trojans to a 35-10 victory.
That's 32 consecutive wins for top-ranked USC ... but two consecutive blown opportunities for Coach Pete Carroll.
By not suspending Maualuga for even one full game, Carroll is sending the message that his players are invincible not only on the field, but everywhere.
By allowing Maualuga to return to play so soon after leaving the police station, Carroll is administering the first real injection of doubt, however slight, into the backbone of the nation's smartest and best-run football program.
What if USC's linebacking corps had not been riddled with injuries, would the true freshman still not miss a game?
What if the Trojans weren't trying to win a record third consecutive national title, would the kid have been punished worse?
After quietly handling, or allowing the school to handle, a handful of previous incidents involving players who have come under legal scrutiny since he arrived in 2001, why would Carroll seemingly back off now?
"He has been punished, he is being punished, there are things he has to do for this program through next year," Carroll said Saturday.
"We're not just going to give him a quick spanking for everyone else's benefit. This is a long-term project to make sure he understands what happened."
Whatever happened, by his mere presence on the field, the words that Maualuga allegedly uttered on the night of the incident only become bolder.
According to witnesses, in the early morning hours of a Halloween party, with no apparent motivation, Maualuga walked up and punched his alleged victim twice, knocking him down.
When the victim's companion threatened to call police, Maualuga allegedly shouted, "I own the police" before running away.
In the two weeks since then, it's as if he owns the university.
He has not only escaped any perception of punishment, he has become a star.
It was immediately announced that he was demoted to the scout team, but then he showed up on the field in the second half against Stanford and said he was unaware of any such punishment.
"The coaches never told me anything about not playing in the first half, they just told me to be ready to go," Maualuga said.
Then, when Thomas Williams left the game because of a sprained knee midway through the first quarter Saturday, Maualuga took his place, playing the middle with his usual fierce recklessness the rest of the game.
Make no mistake. He is going to be a star. He has Lofa Tatupu's number, and Junior Seau's instincts, running all over the field in the finest Trojan linebacker tradition, with six tackles, one sack and an interception off a tipped ball.
Surrounded by another true freshman, Brian Cushing, and sophomore Keith Rivers, Maualuga nonetheless led a unit that held Cal to its lowest point total since Coach Jeff Tedford came here four years ago.
"Rey is someone you are going to be talking about for a long time," said nose tackle Sedrick Ellis. "He's a hitter, and he does it at full speed, all the time."
Asked about Maualuga, teammate Frostee Rucker needed only three words.
"Oh ... my ... gosh," he said.
What was needed to be said by someone in the USC family, though, was three other words.
Sit him down.
Just for a game, one game, sending a message that, even though they may play like professionals, the Trojans are still about college, about education, specifically the lesson of accountability.
"We aren't going to make some statement for everyone else, we don't care what anyone else thinks," Carroll said. "This is about us, about our family, and what we think is right."
The leader of such an unbeaten and unchallenged family can say that. But there is a reason the Trojans have become so bulletproof, and it rests with the way Carroll has smartly and deftly managed a high-profile program that could easily implode in this media capital.
Unlike other top college football teams, nobody has ever accused Carroll's Trojans of being out of control. Why would he risk that perception now?
Maualuga is obviously enduring tough personal trials. He has twice recently visited his ailing father, Talatonu, in Eureka, Calif., and said he is sadly waiting for another phone call requesting him to return.
He has a tattoo on his left biceps that his father approved, Samoan tribal designs that represent family, pride and strength. The last several years, those same values have been consistently evident in his football team.
Suspending Rey Maualuga for a game would have only reinforced them.
\o7Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.