John Bacon’s new book, "Fourth and Long," was released Tuesday, Sept. 3. A few weeks ago an excerpt from the book was released and then reported on extensively. The excerpt details former Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti’s recollection of a sideline "incident." As the story goes, defensive captain Drew Astorino grabbed the sideline headset and yelled up to then-quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno to "get that mother------ out of this game right now" (that mother------ being former Penn State quarterback Rob Bolden).
Astorino is not quoted directly in the book, and he has not previously commented publicly on the book or on this particular incident. He hasn’t read the book, either.
Although Bacon wrote that this occurred during the Nebraska game, Astorino told me he was "almost positive" that it was the Illinois game. Bacon did call Astorino to clarify whether it was the Illinois game or the Nebraska game, but the two were never able to get in touch with one another.
When I read the excerpt out loud to Astorino and asked if it was consistent with his memory of what happened, he laughed. "Yeah, it’s pretty consistent," he said. "I want to kind of make it clear that I in no way had any say or any control over who played, or who was the starter. I didn’t have a voice, nor should I have had a voice. But at the same time, it had gone from whispers to people openly talking about it...to boos on the field, and it kind of boiled over for me. To this day I can’t understand why Rob was playing."
The 2011 season was a weird, confusing time in terms of quarterbacks for Penn State football. On one hand you had Bolden, a four star recruit who became the first true freshman to start at quarterback under Joe Paterno. On the other hand you had walk-on Matt McGloin. The two were sharing playing time throughout the 2011 season, and the starter changed week to week. The team didn’t even know who would start. For Astorino, it was obvious who should have been starting. "It was just so apparent to every single guy, not only on the defensive side of the ball, but also the offensive side, that [Matt] was our guy," he said. "This was our guy all season."
By late October the Nittany Lions had only one loss to Alabama, the number one ranked team in the country. The team knew they could continue to win with McGloin under center. "I don’t want to speak for the entire team, but I was a captain," Astorino said. "The majority, if not most of the team, wanted Matt to start. We didn’t say anything for awhile."
The captains (defensive and offensive) did eventually speak up. "We met privately with Jay and asked him to ‘please play McGloin,’" Astorino said. "Because, I mean, we were having a great season at the time, and I think it was pretty evident to not only us, but to everybody else in the stands and watching on TV, that Rob just wasn’t getting the job done. And Matt was."
Astorino could not recall exactly how Jay responded to the meeting. However, at the practice following their meeting Jay indicated that Bolden would start on Saturday. "Usually the starting quarterback would go out on the last half of practice, and that would mean he was starting," he said. "And he put Rob in."
McGloin was visibly upset, but Astorino could not remember if McGloin walked off the field or left practice. Astorino remembered that Jay then announced that he would have started McGloin, but he wouldn't now, because he couldn’t reward McGloin’s behavior. "Basically for disciplinary reasons, because he left the field or something like that," Astorino said. "I don’t [remember] 100% of the facts. I’ve played in a million games, I don’t remember everything. I’m 100% [sure] that we met with Jay and we asked him to play Matt and start Matt."
Come Saturday, Bolden started, and emotions were running high. By the time Astorino grabbed the headset, he and his teammates had had enough. "We’re in the race for the Big Ten title and it was like, ‘we have a guy who can do it,’" he said. "And it just seemed blatant to every single person. And I obviously lost my cool, but do I regret something like that? Absolutely not. I cared about the football team and my teammates and what we did on the field more than anything. So if I had to do something like that as a captain, as a senior, as a leader, I was going to do it."
Bacon wrote, At halftime, knowing Jay Paterno would be running down from the press box to the locker room, the players made a full sprint for the locker room. "Lots of guys were looking for a fight," recalled Zordich. "They'd been waiting for this." Jay Paterno played right into their hands, storming into the defensive meeting room, yelling, "You mother------s! You think you can get on the headset and talk to me like that?!"
"I think that’s almost taken out of context a little bit," Astorino said. "I don’t necessarily know if everybody was looking for a fight, like a fist fight. Jay came into our room, said his choice words, and a lot of the defense didn’t like it. We’re holding a good Illinois team to so many points, and we have our offensive coach yelling at us? It just didn’t make sense, you know? So yeah, people were upset, people were ready to go. It did not get ugly, but it got pretty close."
Astorino also said that while this situation may have escalated more than other arguments on the field, arguments are not uncommon in football. "I think throughout the course of the game, and I’m sure many coaches would tell you this, you’ve got coaches fighting, you’ve got players fighting...I mean, it’s madness," he said. "Everyone’s in it for the same goal. Everybody’s in it to win. You’ve got 100 guys in the locker room who are trying to do their best. So in football, stuff happens."
Although fights or disagreements are not uncommon in football, when the media gets ahold of a situation, they tend to dramatize it. According to Astorino, no one dwelled on this fight for too long.
"I know all the coaches come at the end of the day and shake your hand, ‘congratulations,’ and I’m sure Jay did that," Astorino said. "Because he normally did it, and I can’t remember if he did or not, but I would imagine that he did."
According to Mauti, Jay was "an example of everything a coach should not be." Astorino doesn’t disagree with Mauti about that. "Mike Mauti is a passionate guy, and if you get the chance he’s going to tell you how it is, and I respect him for doing that," he said. "I’m not going to go into detail, but a lot of practice situations...and I’m not over on the offensive side of the ball, so I don’t know a lot about what they did, and I didn’t really care about what they did. I cared about what we did. But the way [Jay] acted sometimes...what I’m saying is, if you say Mike Mauti’s a liar because he said that, you’re a liar."
Astorino wanted it to be clear that his feelings about Jay do not reflect his feelings about Joe Paterno. "They’re two opposite and separate entities in my mind," he said. "I went to Penn State to play under Joe, and it was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world. So whatever I say about Jay, and however I feel about Jay, means no disrespect to Joe at all. Because I respect that man probably more than I respect anybody."
Mauti and Astorino are very close friends, and Astorino commended Mauti’s honesty. "It’s kind of tough," Astorino said. "You’re asking Mauti questions like this, but you don’t want to hear the truth. It was a season, especially at the end, that nobody can understand. You can’t write a book about it, because the book would be too long. I think Mike kind of led by example, ‘listen, let’s just tell it the way it was and the way it happened,’ and what’s bad about that?"
In an Aug. 26 article published by the York Daily Record, Frank Bodani wrote that Mauti said he "followed the script of keeping negative Penn State football thoughts and comments out of public view." Astorino’s reaction to this was something along the lines of "duh."
"In my personal opinion, no matter who you’re under, if you’re in a school, or if you’re in a job, or if you’re on a team, that’s a responsibility of everybody: [maintaining] the image of a team, [maintaining] the image of whoever you’re playing with," Astorino said. "So do the Alabama coaches say everything about Nick Saban? No, because they want to [maintain] an image. I don’t necessarily think that’s anything special, I just think that’s the way it should be. That particular comment, I don’t take it as we were trying to really hide things and protect Joe, I just think that’s how you run an organization."
Astorino isn’t dwelling on the way the media or the public is reacting to this story. And despite the tough road that he and his teammates faced, he wouldn’t change his experience. That is a sentiment he’s made clear to me before. "They can say whatever they want about my decision to do that, or about what happened in the locker room," he said. "But I’ll say this to the day I die: what happened, the whole situation, if I was a 16 year old kid choosing [a school], knowing what we went through, I’d do it all over again. Because that’s how much I wanted to play at Penn State, that’s how much I care about Penn State, and that’s how much Penn State means to me still, even through all of that stuff. I’m wearing a Penn State hat no matter where I go, because I want people to know that I’m a part of it."
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