All Mike Mauti ever wanted to do was play football at Pennsylvania State University. His father Rich was a wide receiver under Joe Paterno, and his older brother Patrick followed in his father’s footsteps as a wide receiver from 2005 to 2009.
You could say Mauti was born to be a Nittany Lion, and it wouldn’t be that far-fetched.
After a standout career at Mandeville High School in Louisiana, Mauti became one of the most coveted linebacker recruits in the nation and ultimately got to live out his dream to play for Penn State, joining his brother in 2008. As a true freshman, Mauti saw limited playing time with a trio of future NFL linebackers ahead of him: NaVorro Bowman, Sean Lee and Josh Hull. But Mauti showed so much promise in the short time he was on the field that he became an instant fan favorite and heralded as the next great Penn State linebacker, taking the mantle from Bowman and Lee.
Then his dream got taken away. Mauti was voted the most improved player during spring practice and expected to supplant senior Josh Hull to join Bowman and Lee in the starting linebacker corps. Instead, he tore his ACL in the summer and had to miss the season.
Mauti returned after using a medical redshirt, all set to be the man on the defense with Lee, Bowman and Hull off to the NFL. You could see Mauti was still a step slow early, but he quickly rounded into form and showed he was still prepared to be the next dominant linebacker at Linebacker U.
In fact, he showed so much just one year after tearing his ACL that he entered his redshirt junior season on the Nagurski and Butkus Award watch lists. Then bam, four games into the season, he was lost yet again, tearing his other ACL. Last year, all he could do was watch as the program unraveled around him.
With two torn ACLs in three years and a program facing possible extinction, it would have been easy for Mauti to cut bait and move on. After all, all the promise Mauti had gone to State College with kept getting snatched away from him.
But instead of abandoning ship, Mauti rose to the occasion. He became the unquestioned leader, the biggest proponent of Penn State during dark times. He restated his commitment to the program, the one he had dreamed of playing for his whole life, and he challenged the NCAA and lambasted opposing coaches who were showing up on campus to try and poach players. He became the voice of the Penn State locker room, and he was as big a reason as any that the Penn State roster stayed mostly intact.
Inspired by his travails and the “us against the world” mentality, Mauti came out for his last go-round giving it his all. He had missed playing the game he loved so much that he insisted on not only taking his usual spot at linebacker, but also on special teams. Then, all he did was go out and dominate as the nation waited for Penn State to fold.
The Nittany Lions never did, not even after a two-game losing streak to start the season. Instead, under the tutelage and guidance of new coach Bill O’Brien and, most especially, due to the leadership and heart — not to mention the play — of Mike Mauti, the Nittany Lions showed the college football world what they were really made of.
And no Penn State player stood out more than Mauti. Every single Saturday, he was the best player on the field. Just as importantly, he was the heart and soul of a team that desperately needed it. For all the accolades and acclaim that Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o has deservedly gotten, Mauti matched him tackle for tackle, leadership display for leadership display.
Along with teammate Gerald Hodges, he was named a semifinalst for the Butkus Award again, well on his way to All-American status and certainly All-Big Ten honors. Then, in his second to last game playing for the only school he ever wanted play for, the football gods struck Mike Mauti down again.
In the first quarter against Indiana Saturday, Mauti sustained yet another knee injury and is out for what should have been a culmination for him on Senior Day against Wisconsin. While Penn State has not given details on the injury beyond that Mauti is done for the season, you can’t help but think it’s yet another ACL.
When it happened, it made me sick to my stomach, to the point where I almost welled up inside. Here is a student-athlete who is truly dedicated to his school and his team, a player who excelled on the field, in the locker room and in the classroom. He had done everything right, and yet the football gods struck him down yet again.
It’s the type of thing that makes you wonder why in the world this has to happen to a young man like Mike Mauti. For all the terrible things that have come Penn State’s way, Mauti was a shining example of the good of the university. He talked the talk and walked the walk, and did it humbly and admirably.
For his troubles, he was dealt yet another blow. A devout fanbase cannot help but wonder what this means for Mauti and his NFL future. No Penn State fan out there can think of anything but his third knee injury in five years.
Yet through it all, Mauti continues to show his character:
“After this week, I’m going to worry about me,” Mauti told ESPN.com. “Right now, it’s about getting these guys ready for Wisconsin.”
Mike Mauti is everything that is right with college football: selfless, loyal and exceptional. That’s what makes the wrath of the football gods so very, very wrong.
I wish him a speedy recovery and nothing but the best. If you truly care about college football, you should too.