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December 21, 2011This special feature story appears in the upcoming issue of Blue White Illustrated's magazine, which mails to our subscribers on Thursday.
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By Nate Bauer
Shortly after Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti suffered a non-contact injury to his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee earlier this season, a familiar friend called to lift his spirits.
Sean Lee, a former Nittany Lion All-Big Ten linebacker and now a budding star with the NFL's Dallas Cowboys, knew the right words for the devastating moment.
"He actually called me at halftime. I was in the locker room and I was talking to him and I've talked to him every week since then," Mauti said. "He called me and he starts listing off 10 or 12 names of guys that have two knees in the NFL, and he's just going off. He's like, this guy played two Super Bowls, this guy has been playing for 10 years. He said it's just another bump in the road.
"This is why I respect Sean so much. He's just one of the greatest dudes you'll ever meet."
Lee's words offered some small consolation, but Mauti was admittedly crushed.
Though he had suffered an ACL tear to his other knee before the start of the 2009 season, the year in-between showed flashes of his potential and a glimpse into what he'd expected to be his breakout season, this year. A unanimous preseason first-team All-Big Ten selection, Mauti entered his redshirt junior season fully prepared to back up the hype.
Through three games, he'd done exactly that, leading the team in tackles with 20, including a career-high 13 stops against then No. 1-ranked Alabama.
Then, on a meaningless play in the first quarter of the Lions' 34-6 rout of Eastern Michigan, Mauti was struck down yet again, simply overextending his leg in a "freak" play.
Said Mauti, "It didn't even really hurt but I knew what it was immediately. I just didn't want to really believe it because it was so painless."
More than 1,000 miles away, watching on TV from his home in Mandeville, Louisiana, his father, Rich Mauti, winced in knowing pain.
"It just sucks the air out of your gut," he said. "I've felt that feeling before when I've been hurt, but not nearly as bad as seeing Mike on the field and knowing where he was and how hard he worked to get there, the opportunities he had and how well he was playing,
"It was just crushing. It was crushing for my wife and I and then of course, we know how devastating it was for him."
Penn State team physician, Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli, did a quick test on the knee and gave Mauti the proverbial nod. Mauti said he had held out hope for a partial tear, mostly because the absence of pain was so striking in this instance.
Within days he was walking, and, as he described it, teammates were openly asking him if he'd be able to play again this season.
The answer, frustratingly, was no.
"I walked into the hospital, literally, which was what was so crazy to me," Mauti said. "Up until the last day, I'm like 'Doc, are you sure I need surgery?'
"I was joking around with him but he was like, 'Yeah, Mike, you'll be glad you did.'"
With little to no swelling around his knee, Mauti underwent surgery just eight days after the injury.
Still feeling down as he walked through the Lasch Building a few days after the surgery, Mauti ran into defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. Mauti said he didn't know it at the time, but the moment amounted to his turning point.
"Hey Mauts," Bradley said. "Don't think you're going to sit on your couch at home playing video games while we're out here practicing. You get out there and you stand by me out on the sidelines. I don't care if you have to bring your cart out there, you come stand by me."
Said Mauti, "All right man, I'll be out there."
Refusing to help his coach from his motorized cart, Mauti picked himself up and started standing next to Bradley during practices and eventually, games.
"I really felt like I had put so much into this team and the program and with this whole coaching thing, that's what helped me get out of that slump," Mauti said. "These are my boys that are playing. These are my best friends.
"That defense, I've been with every one of these guys for four years and no way am I going to just sit at home while they go play. No way. I had to be out there and do what I could to help them win. It wasn't about just me. I wasn't going to sit and mope about it."
Though, Mauti admitted, he did have his moments.
Sitting in his apartment after his surgery as his teammates traveled to Evanston, he said he was consumed by frustration.
Said Mauti, "Sitting at home, watching your own team play is the worst feeling in the whole world. I literally would go nuts. I was pacing in the house, going crazy, screaming at the TV. I said, 'I just can't do this anymore. I have to be out there. There's just no way.'
"For Scrap to at least have a job to do or just to stand by him and see what he's doing, for me, that meant the world to me."
Given the responsibility of sending the defensive signals to his teammates out on the field, Mauti avoided the loneliness that can often accompany a debilitating injury.
"It made it 100 percent better. It really was a turning point when I got a chance to get out there on the sidelines and they actually gave me the responsibility of doing the signals," he said. "That's when I was starting to feel good. I started having fun. We were jumping around and I was feeling good and I had a little bit more movement and we were winning. Everything was good."
Of course, it wouldn't stay that way.
The Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal that would ultimately displace the Nittany Lions' head coach, wide receivers coach, athletic director, and university president, put the team into the middle of the turmoil.
As one of the team's leaders, Mauti was compelled to take on even more of a leadership role. Making phone calls for four hours a day, organizing meetings with his teammates and making sure everyone was on the same page, Mauti made sure he kept the Lions together in their darkest hour.
For Rich, believing everything happens for a reason, he said he hopes struggles the leadership experience for his son eventually pay dividends moving forward.
"I think the experience, even the injury, has accentuated his leadership position and abilities because with adversity, you're either going to deal with it or run away. He stepped up in his personal side and he's really grown," he said. "It's been challenging for him and the rest of the players, but he's been a leader through this and I really believe there's a reason for him to be out on the field next year as a leader, to make this transition into the next era of Penn State football."
Acknowledging his own maturation through the injuries and turmoil, Mauti said he felt like everyone in the program has had to grow up.
"I came into this program as a 17 year old kid. I'm almost 22 now," he said. "You gotta grow up at some point, and through all the things that I've been through, if they don't make you a man or help you become one, then I don't know what will."