UCLA linebacker Reggie Carter sits in front of his locker on game day, his ears filling with lyrics and his eyes filling with tears. His teammates see the intensity build.
I gotta thank the Lord that you made me
There are no words that can express how I feel
Ya never kept a secret, always stayed real
And I appreciate how ya raised me
And all the extra love that you gave me
Carter tries to live every day as he was taught by his mother, but game days are when the Tupac Shakur song "Dear Mama" really lights a fuse.
"It's about the struggles he and his mama went through," Carter says. "It's the song for me."
From the time Carter was 2, Selena Adway raised him as a single parent, and she still rises at 3:30 a.m. to catch a bus to the first of her two steady jobs. Mornings, she provides in-home care for a man with cerebral palsy. Afternoons are spent at United Cerebral Palsy of Los Angeles. For months, Adway has been working every Saturday too instead of her usual every-other-Saturday schedule. It's the only way she could arrange to have game days off this fall to watch her Reggie.
Somewhere along the line, the son picked up his mother's work ethic. And also a plan for repaying her.
"I hear players who say they will sit out when they're offered $10 million," Carter says, incredulous. "I have never seen that kind of money. If I'm lucky enough to go [in the NFL draft] on the first day, sure I'll get a house, a car, some clean clothes. But I'm going to take care of my mother. That is what will make me happy."
Carter, who is 6 feet 1, 240 pounds, showed his pro potential last season, leading UCLA with 83 tackles, and standing out as one of the few players who didn't give up in an embarrassing 59-0 loss to Brigham Young. He recorded a school-record 20 tackles in that game.
"Reggie Carter is an old-fashioned football player," UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel says. "He doesn't look old-fashioned. He has the style and sense that personifies Los Angeles. But he loves the trenches. He's not looking to make big plays; he's looking to make every play."
Teammates gravitate to Carter's gregarious personality and outspoken nature and fall in line when he talks about his expectations for this season.
Despite a 4-8 record a year ago, he passionately predicts that the Bruins will contend for a championship in the Pacific 10 Conference.
"Defense wins championships," he explains, "and I expect us to have the conference's No. 1 defense."
Any opinion to the contrary is summarily dismissed. "He's strong-willed," Neuheisel says. "I think you better ask his mother about that."
Carter's talk-till-you-drop debating style is well known around the UCLA football team -- "I've seen him sometimes talk the coaching staff out of doing things," senior cornerback Alterraun Verner says.
Around home? Not so much.
"He likes to talk about all the times I whupped him," Adway says, laughing. "I think I can count on one hand the number of times I actually did."
She had other ways of getting her message across.
"When I was in eighth grade, I barely had a 2.0 grade-point average," says Carter, who is on schedule to graduate with a degree in sociology next spring. "Mama told me I couldn't go to football practice. I told her that I was going anyway. She said, 'Go, but I'll call the police and have them bring you right back here.'
"There was never a quarter at Crenshaw [High] where I wasn't on the honor roll."
Yes, Adway knows a thing or two about will. When she was pregnant with Reggie, she was told she might lose her baby or that he might have Down syndrome. But she kept the faith.
Carter was born at UCLA Medical Center in 1987, a short run from where he now practices. He was six weeks early, weighed only 4 pounds 13 ounces and required an extended hospital stay. But, Adway says, "I believed he'd be OK and I thank God. Nothing happens without Him."
Adway and Carter lived alone but were watched over by a neighborhood filled with aunts, uncles and grandparents all living around Sixth Street and Vernon.
"I'd come home from football practice at 7 p.m. and stop at every house to talk and eat," Carter says. "I'd walk in our house at 9:30 p.m. and Mama would ask me, 'Where have you been?'
"I had people drop me off at home and they'd say, 'Where do you live? I've dropped you off at three different houses on this street.' "
But Carter always knew home was where his mother was.
"She'd get up at 3:30 a.m., but before she left she would make me breakfast," Carter says. "Looking back, that was crazy. I'm 16, 17 years old. If I don't know how to get up and fix myself something to eat, there's something wrong with me. But she wanted to make sure I had something to eat."
Adway says she never worried about Carter in a neighborhood that gangs patrolled, trusting the lessons she imparted.
"I never got in with a bad crowd," Carter says. "I knew the guys who were bad. But it was better to know them than to not know them because they kind of watched your back."
Carter carries the reputation as a big hitter on the football field, but his aggression doesn't come from any kind of caged rage.
"My mama taught me growing up, never say the word 'hate,' " he says. "I'm 22 years old and I can't remember saying I hate someone. I have love for everyone."
On game days, though, he allows, "I have love for them, I just want to hit them real hard.
"I guess you can call that tough love. Call them love taps . . . hard ones."
Those "taps" are inspired by a familiar before-game beat.
"You'll see him pregame, listening to that song," free safety Rahim Moore says. "You'll see the tears in his eyes and you just know he's going to come ready.