LOS ANGELES - To go hungry is to not forget.

Some try to bury that feeling, so they dare not speak of it.

Rey Maualuga doesn't want to forget. The Southern Cal linebacker doesn't want to muffle it. So he talks about it.

"Some people grow up and wake up the next day and not know what's going to happen," he said. "I had that feeling here and there. I'm pretty sure my mom and dad had that feeling. I'm pretty sure that the tears that came down their eyes weren't tears of happiness. They were tears of 'What am I going to do with these kids?' "

Maualuga, the all-American at the center of the defense that will face Penn State tomorrow in the Rose Bowl, bounced around as a child. He was born in Oklahoma, but soon after, his American Samoan family moved to Waipahu, Hawaii.

That was where his mother, Tina, and father, Talatonu, struggled. That was where Rey and his two younger brothers would eat the same meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner, save as much as they could, wrap it up, and eat the leftovers the next day. And that was where the Maualugas were kicked out of their tiny apartment and forced to live in the attic of a church.

"It was pretty bad," Maualuga said. "I mean, we weren't poor. We weren't dying on the streets. But, at the same time, things were hard. The lifestyles of my mom and dad weren't really good."

So, Maualuga remembers, he let it all out and harnessed it on the field. Now, some call the 6-foot-2, 260-pound senior the most feared player in college football. He has outlandish hair, tattooed arms, and a sometimes-cocky attitude. His bone-crunching tackles have become highlight specials.

"He's highly emotional," Southern Cal coach Pete Carroll said. "He's tightly wound."

Sometimes, that emotion has gotten Maualuga into trouble. In October 2005, he leveled another student at a Halloween party, was arrested, and had to undergo counseling. He admits now to too much partying and too much drinking. The passions are now reserved for football or for moments of joy.

Earlier this month, when he was awarded the Bednarik Award as the nation's top defensive player, Maualuga could hardly speak, he was so overcome with emotion.

"All my life, I was never given anything," Maualuga said. "I never had anything. That's why all these awards that I'm getting . . . I never had anything like that when I was a little kid.

"And I think I let all of that get to me, as far as not caring if I get in trouble, or this and that, or 'I don't care because I was never at a place [like USC] growing up. I never had this. I never had that.' I couldn't lose everything because it was just, well, I never had it in the first place."

Maualuga did have something, however, that was taken away. In 2005, his father's brain cancer was diagnosed. He had surgery the week before Rey was to begin his freshman season and died four months later - two days before USC lost to Texas in the national championship at the Rose Bowl.

"Rey had a very close-knit family unit, and it rocked them when his dad became sick," Carroll said. "Rey was the oldest and seemed to take responsibility, and having to do it from a distance was hard."

At that point, his parents had been living in Eureka, a seaport town in northern California. His father had moved the family there before Rey's sophomore year of high school to begin a Polynesian ministry.

It was his father who forced Rey to sign up for football a few years earlier.

"I think football has helped me in a lot of ways," Maualuga said. "To unleash things. To forget about my dad."

Maualuga still wears eye-black stickers that pay tribute to "DAD." And he never forgets the empty feeling inside.

Many experts expect Maualuga to be among the top 15 picks in April's NFL draft. His rare combination of speed and size makes it almost a sure bet that he and his family will not be hungry again anytime soon.

"I've come a long way," Maualuga said. "I'm not trying to be cocky here. My mom's come a long way, too, to help out. And hopefully one day I can make my mom proud and make her happy."

Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745 or jmclane@phillynews.com.