Lorenzo Mauldin and his Jets journey: Tears, chills and cold reality

Jets linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin expects to make his 2018 debut on Friday against the Giants. Alan Schaefer/Icon Sportswire

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Oh, what a night.

More than three years later, Lorenzo Mauldin still can't find the right words to describe the night he was drafted by the New York Jets. Surrounded by family and friends, the linebacker was overcome with emotion and sobbed on a conference call with the New York media. His wasn't the typical journey to the draft.

He had spent his childhood in the Atlanta foster-care system, bouncing from home to home -- at least a dozen. He lost count. He wore shoes that were held together with duct tape and his suitcase was a plastic garbage bag. He was angry at the world and lashed out when other kids taunted him because he sometimes wore the same clothes for days at a time.

Mauldin wasn't dreaming of the NFL as a kid; he just wanted to make it to adulthood. On May 1, 2015, his life changed with a call from the Jets. They had drafted him in the third round, 82nd overall. He almost fainted.

"I had a dream about it two weeks ago, me being drafted again with the Jets," he said Sunday after practice. "It felt good. It felt great. I woke up with chills on my body. That was a great morning."

It's too bad the reality hasn't lived up to the dream.

Because of injuries, Mauldin has played in 26 of 48 games, adding a dark chapter to his storybook career. He reported to training camp with the goal of regaining the trust of his coaches, but injured his hamstring and has missed the first two preseason games. He's healthy enough to play Friday night against the New York Giants, which makes this the biggest week of his professional life. His roster spot isn't secure, and he knows it.

"At the end of the day, my job isn't solidified," he said. "Now I have to play like it's my last game -- literally."

By Monday, Mauldin's excitement appeared gone. After practice, he fired off a tweet (since deleted) that said, "Praying for better days. I'm ready for what's going to happen so it's not a surprise." He didn't get many reps in practice, perhaps leaving him resigned to his fate. A few hours later, in another tweet, he claimed he wasn't referring to his status with the team.

After a promising rookie season, when he recorded four sacks as a situational pass-rusher, Mauldin's career was ascending. Then came the slide: A hamstring injury that sidelined him for the final five games of the 2016 season and back surgery that caused him to miss the entire 2017 season. He hasn't played a football game of any kind since Nov. 27, 2016.

It's been so long that coach Todd Bowles, who predicted before the 2016 season Mauldin would be a "major player" for them, has no idea what to expect.

"We haven't seen him play," said Bowles, sounding as if he were discussing a stranger. "You have to play in games. We have people in the trainer's room that haven't played that you have to see. I understand you're hurt -- that's part of it -- but we need to see him."

Asked how Mauldin can help, if healthy, Bowles shrugged his shoulders.

"It remains to be seen," he said. "You'll see it when I see it."

In the football world, that's what you call a lukewarm endorsement.

Mauldin understands the business. Even though he's back to 100 percent and believes he's demonstrating his pass-rushing talent on the practice field, he knows it doesn't mean much unless he can take it to the game. As he likes to say, "Your pads talk more than your mouth." The good news is that his position -- rush linebacker -- is the most unsettled on defense. Josh Martin is the front-runner, but it's there for the taking.

"I feel like I have to show them that me being on the field is a good move for us," Mauldin said. "I have to play fast, like I usually do. Now that I'm 100 percent, I can play like I did in college and like I did my first year here. We'll be under the big lights, and I don't have any time to mess up and I don't have any room to make errors. I feel like I can turn it on when the lights come on."

Mauldin has one game, maybe two, to salvage a career that once seemed unattainable. That he made it this far is pure inspiration. He doesn't want it to end on a downer, but it sounds like he's bracing for it.

"I came from tough circumstances," he said. "You hear a lot of feel-good stories about it, but I never thought it would actually be me. I'm working my hardest to stay in this position that I put myself in. I'm speechless when it comes to the feeling of being on an NFL team. It's surreal. I don't want it to end."