Compton, California gained widespread notoriety in the late 1980s, becoming almost a byword for urban gang violence. The city, immediately south of Los Angeles, would be immortalized in the rap album and title track "Straight Outta Compton" by the group N.W.A. A motion picture featuring the city, based largely on the album and its rappers, came out in 2015.
Throughout the intervening decades, crime, though it still exists there, has been significantly reduced in Compton. When the "Straight Outta Compton" film was released five years ago, the city's young female mayor, Aja Brown, told National Public Radio, "There's so many opportunities, economically and socially... that this community is definitely poised for a huge revival. And so, when I think about Compton, I think about redemption."
Around the same time, she was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, "People think of Compton as a very dangerous place. It's a different city from 25 years ago."
A year after the film's release, Compton native Cassh Maluia straight up and left town, although his departure had nothing to do with violence. Neither was he in search of redemption when he arrived in Laramie, Wyoming, but what the young football recruit found was as different an environment as he'd ever known - snow-capped mountains, wide-open natural spaces, and a lot fewer people.
So, how did he adapt to such a stark, overnight change in culture?
"He dealt with it well," remembers Aaron Bohl, Maluia's position coach at the University of Wyoming last season. "He cares a lot about the team, so, he really made a new family here quickly. He really connected here, and that was good for him. He wanted a place where there wasn't much distraction from helping him on the football field.
"Laramie's definitely a different place, and Cassh is a very soft-spoken guy, but he did such a good job with freshmen or sophomores who'd come in from inner-city L.A. or Houston, Texas or some of these bigger cities. He knew what they were going through. That was my favorite thing about him as a teammate. He was always trying to coach the younger guys, too, which makes your job easier as a coach. He went out of his way to help."
Bohl, whose father is Wyoming's head football coach, joined the Cowboys' staff as a graduate assistant in 2017, Maluia's sophomore season in Laramie. Watching film of Maluia, Bohl recalls a play he made in his first game as a true freshman linebacker and special teams contributor, when he knocked a much bigger opponent on his backside while chasing down a ball carrier.
That combination of speed and explosiveness jumped off Bohl's screen. He then remembers meeting the undersized, raw athlete, who'd gained valuable playing experience a year earlier. What Maluia may have lacked in size (5-11, 230 at his most recent measuring) he overcame with instinctiveness and determination, as Bohl observed over the next few seasons.
"He always got better. He'd learn the defense, and he had a great balance of - we always say, there are two types of players we hate to coach: ones that don't do anything we say, and ones that do everything we say," Bohl explains. "Every once in a while, you have to take some liberty to make a play. As Cassh got older, he did such a good job of balancing those two... Cassh always wanted to know how he could improve. With that, he was really easy to coach."
Maluia's position coach at that point was Scotty Hazelton, who now serves as defensive coordinator for the Michigan State Spartans. Bohl credits Hazelton with instilling the necessary confidence in Maluia that helped him believe he just might have a chance to continue playing football beyond the college level.
"I think he had those goals all the way from the beginning," adds Bohl. "When you could really see it transform was his junior year. He just really treated his body well."
Another transformative moment occurred the summer before Maluia's junior year, when Laramie police pulled his car over and arrested the then-19-year-old with driving under the influence. It would prove the lone blot on his otherwise spotless record. The coaching staff decided to suspend Maluia for one game, Wyoming's second of that season, against Washington State.
"Because we knew that was going to mean the most to him, have the biggest impact on him, a kid from California playing a PAC-12 school," Bohl explains. "Cassh handled it really well. He owned up to everything. Everyone makes mistakes in their lives. He took his punishment, moved on. He was kid you could tell cared a lot about the team, but had some maturing to do. It was really fun to see him do that.
"One thing I am really proud of with Cassh is his grades. He was always in the C range, but as he matured, this last semester, while he was getting ready for Pro Day and everything, he has four 100-percents in his classes. Previous semester, he had a 3.6 or something. He took so much care in the classroom work, too. It was cool to see for a guy who obviously still had aspirations for the NFL."
If Maluia hopes to turn those aspirations into full-time reality, New England just might be the best place for him. Under Bill Belichick, the Patriots are not averse to keeping smaller linebackers and special-teams-focused players on their active roster - think Steve Beauharnais or, more recently, Elandon Roberts as primary examples.
"He runs fast, he's explosive, and tackles well. He'll work his butt off in whatever role it is," Bohl maintains. "Some guys aren't super fired up about special teams in college, but he didn't care. He said, 'I'm helping the team here.'"
Indeed, Maluia wouldn't be the first rookie to earn an NFL job initially on special teams, and he sounds eager for the chance to prove himself in that respect once he gets to New England.
Moments after the Patriots drafted Maluia, the young man Bohl describes as "one of the most respectful people in the world [with the] biggest heart" told reporters during his introductory conference call, "I like to describe my play as aggressive, hard-nosed, and I'll do whatever I can for the team. I feel like I can definitely contribute on special teams, and that was my plan to get noticed and play special teams.
"I feel like I've got the versatility of many positions. I'm willing to do whatever the coaches want me to do, just to go out there and contribute the best I can for the Patriots."
As Roberts proved, an undersized linebacker not only can find a role with the Patriots, but also grow in it. Roberts eventually became a co-captain and part-time fullback last season. With Roberts among New England's free agent losses at linebacker this offseason, might Maluia have a chance there as well?
"He needs to get better using his hands, pass-rushing moves," Bohl points out. "The nature of our defense, we don't blitz a lot, so, we didn't get to let him perfect that as much. I'm excited to see him do that a little more often [in New England]."
If Maluia's able to do all that consistently well, he just might find a new home in Foxborough, straight outta Laramie.