The great thing about college football--about college sports, really--is that you get to grow up with the players.
When I was a freshman, Michael Mauti was a freshman. As I found my way at Penn State, Michael Mauti found his way at Penn State. That's why, if I didn't write about Michael Mauti, I would be writing about Nate Stupar or maybe Derek Moye, though, of course, I was never going to write about anyone else. The point is this: it was on a vastly different scale, obviously, and I'd be delusional to think otherwise, but in Mauti's development, his triumphs, his setbacks, I--and surely, many others--found an avatar for our own lives. There have been other star players, but in an age--like any--where we try our damnedest to deify the greats, there are few as staggeringly mortal as Mauti.
Mauti will always be a fan favorite--a cult hero to those of us who willingly drink the Blue and White Kool-Aid, but it's easy to forget, in our appreciation of Mauti the man, that if it weren't for the injuries, which he fought through harder than anyone would have a right to ask, he might have gone down as one of the all-time greats of Linebacker U.
But no, Mauti had to suffer indignities that no one, least of all he, deserved. Tear your ACL once, and you've suffered a bad break. Watch it happen twice, and feel snakebitten. But when you miss a full season, two-thirds, of another, and then the last game of a storied career, all because of knee injuries, the last the product of a low, dirty block by an Indiana running back in the final moments of a blowout win, and you might as well be cursed.
The first robbed all of us of an opportunity to see a Mauti-Sean Lee-Navorro Bowman linebacking corps in 2009, which might have gone down as one of the best in college history. The second prevented a leader from taking the field when his team needed him most, as he watched from the sideline, clipboard in hand, while Tom Bradley tried to do the impossible and focus on football. And the latter, the most painful--if not for Mauti then certainly for us, and for his teammates, who responded by honoring Mauti the only way they could, by showing how he was reflected in each of them. Hodges donned his 42. So did everyone else. It was the emotional crescendo of a taxing, powerful season, and it wouldn't have happened if not for Michael Mauti.
I mean that in the most literal sense. There might not have been a Penn State football team in 2012 to go out and win one for him if he, and Matt McGloin and Michael Zordich hadn't done something spectacular in holding together a team that was bursting apart at the seams, at keeping together a roster that threatened to splinter out in so many directions. We lost some players, and some good ones too, but there was no mass exodus, and that's thanks to Mauti. And during all those missed games, the last one all the same as the first two injuries, Mauti took the opportunity to be another coach from the sidelines, a cheerleader, a personal hype man for the teammates he loved so very, very much. Michael Mauti was singularly devoted to doing everything in his power to furthering the story--the story we know--of Penn State football, and for that, even if he never made a single tackle, he'd have gone down as one of the greats.
But of course, all this, and we haven't even talked about how damn good he was at playing football. Mauti--like Stupar--made his name as a freshman with heady, instinctive play, and by being really great at special teams, and from some devastatingly hard hits; he was someone destined, even then, to be a star. That he'd only play one full season among the next four remains painfully unfair, but whenever he made it onto the field, Michael Mauti made his presence felt. And so in 2012, as the spiritual leader of a team of catharsis, he was at his best, earning much deserved all-Big Ten and all-America honors, and favorable comparisons to Heisman finalist Manti Te'o. And perhaps the defining moment of his senior campaign, his 99-yard interception return against Illinois, in some way reflects his entire career.
Michael Mauti came so close to pulling off something unbelievable, but couldn't make it to the end. And somehow, that only adds to the memory, the mystique, the aura. Bill O'Brien would later say that he should have handed the ball to Mauti on the one-yard line, and let him run it in. In retrospect, I'm glad he didn't. Mauti deserved the touchdown, to be sure, but that was just one more reminder that he was no superhero. He was mortal. He was one of us.
Anyway, Mike, pop open a beer now. There's no one to stop you, and you've earne it.