To the Class of 2012: Thank You!
There was little time to sleep. Mike Mauti’s cell phone wouldn’t stop beeping — constant calls and text messages from friends and supporters as well as from coaches at other schools who wanted him to leave Penn State.
The NCAA sanctions had just crippled his football program less than two weeks before the start of preseason camp under a new coaching staff.
National news media immediately blared their opinions, some viewing the bowl-game and Big Ten-title bans and scholarship cuts as too harsh; many others saying they weren’t nearly enough in light of the Jerry Sandusky child-sex-abuse scandal.
Angered and shocked by that Monday morning announcement in late July, Penn State players who had gathered together threw trash cans, stormed out of the room, or simply sat in quiet disbelief.
Few could even talk about it, even after a quickly arranged team meeting.
Meanwhile, Mauti and his senior teammates realized their purpose and charged into action.
Guys such as Mike Zordich and Matt McGloin, Mike Farrell and Gerald Hodges, Jordan Hill and Stephon Morris. They quickly looked to everyone else on the team, questioned them, challenged them, led them.
“We wanted them to get the feeling that we put so much into this, we have so much experience together,” Mauti says. “Why go somewhere else and start over? We were not going to let this happen to a place like this — a place we had come to love and respect.”
There was only so much they could do.
And yet, in a sense, there was still everything.
So Mauti and Zordich led the mission, spending evenings in new head coach Bill O’Brien’s office talking over the future of the team, which meant strategizing on how to keep as much of its current roster intact.
Publicly, their actions culminated in creating a video that proclaimed solidarity to their university and to their team. Mauti and Zordich, ringed by teammates, spoke. But so much of the work that week and beyond went on behind closed doors.
• • •
Everything about Penn State football depended on how these players handled this season — and this season depended on keeping the team close.
Assistant coach Larry Johnson quickly called a dinner meeting with his defensive linemen. The seniors brainstormed with their coaches, moving from O’Brien’s office and to new strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald’s office.
They identified which players were most likely to consider transferring. They divided up call-lists of teammates and their parents and their high school coaches, to pitch to them the reasons for staying at Penn State.
At one point, Mauti learned of two teammates driving to Michigan State to check out the possibility of leaving. He jumped on his phone.
“‘My God, dude, you’re going to be a big part of this team,’ ” Mauti remembers saying.
“It was a younger guy, who’s playing a big role now. I won’t say who. But they were on the road and turned the car around and didn’t look back.”
At least for now.
Because they understood the possible ramifications of not being able to play for a Big Ten title or go to a bowl game and challenge for a national title for four years. They knew that any of them could transfer and disregard the usual one-year penalty of sitting out. They not only were suddenly able to do that last July and August, they can again at the end of the 2012 season and until preseason camp begins next summer.
And the anger turned white-hot when the entire Illinois’ coaching staff showed up in State College to recruit Penn State players this summer.
“It was crazy,” says defensive tackle Jordan Hill. “It was like recruiting on steroids.”
In turn, these seniors all had their reasons for staying at Penn State, deep- rooted beliefs that would drive them to convince their teammates to bond together.
It would be known as the way a team — and, perhaps, a program — was saved.
• • •
All it took was a spark, and it turns out they had the hottest kind in Mauti — the most opportune kind of player at a time like this. His father and older brother played at Penn State and he had committed to the Lions out of high school during a meeting in Joe Paterno’s office. He gave the team eulogy at Paterno’s funeral and acted as a de facto coach while recovering from two knee injuries.
Mauti’s father, Rich, could have been a driving force alone for the kid. He had played under Paterno before a lengthy NFL career.
“It was never an option for him to leave,” Rich Mauti says. “He went to Penn State for several reasons: the tradition and the education, what Joe built there, for being the best linebacking school in the country.
“When he went up there for a [recruiting] visit, Sean Lee took him around. It was those kinds of special kids he would be with. He knew what that was all about. He knew my experiences there.
“He would never, ever bail out on a commitment he made for his school and his team.”
Zordich’s father also starred at Penn State. Plus, the senior running back is the do- everything, behind-the-spotlight guy who helps make everything run. He loves the responsibility.
Then there’s Morris, who was given the chance to play at Penn State as a true freshman and had come so far. He went about improving his open-field tackling and ate up the promise of broader responsibilities in defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s new attacking defense.
Hill? He figured he’d still be learning from arguably the top defensive-line coach in the country in Johnson, if he stayed. But he also is playing for his father, who is recovering from ministrokes and battling diabetes and lives near Harrisburg, close enough to travel to see him play.
Hodges also is starring for one of the top position coaches in the nation in Ron Vanderlinden, and his commitment means so much more to him now. Seems like not so long ago he was switching from Rutgers to Penn State during his recruiting saga.
McGloin was indebted to Penn State on two fronts.
The Lions had wanted him in a way almost no one else did five years ago, as a Football Bowl Subdivision quarterback. Even better? Under a new regime he is being coached-up like never before. It is like he is now freed in the offense, pushed to succeed by O’Brien and staff.
Now, these seniors are the face of the program, more than any other group of players probably ever at Penn State.
Soon after making that team video, Mauti flew to Chicago for Big Ten media days and let the emotion pour out, even chastising the NCAA and those opposing coaches who turned aggressively on Penn State.
“It’s not even something we really thought about,” Mauti says of working so hard to be team saviors. “We just took it all so personally. We were in a position to help out, and selfishly we wanted to have a team and be good. We wanted to have our players.
“It’s about the people who built this place. If they were in our position and had the opportunity to protect Penn State, I know those guys would do the same things.”
It almost was as if they understood they’d be remembered more for escorting the fans and the university through this tumultuous season than for winning any number of games.
And motivation was easy to find. Take Hill, who saw both his roommates — tailback Silas Redd and wide receiver Justin Brown — transfer after the sanctions.
Morris called the day of the NCAA announcement, “probably one of the worst of my life.” The other Penn State seniors quickly got in his ear and made sure he knew how much he was wanted.
But, in another way, his decision wasn’t “even about football. I knew a degree wouldn’t mean as much somewhere else. It was as much about finishing my degree at Penn State as anything else.”
All at once, Morris was pulled, and calmed, by two forces.
On one end, it was his senior teammates, who were even more solid than he himself from the start: “If Mike Mauti and Zordich and Jordan Hill would have left, you would have seen this team fall apart,” Morris says.
On the other side, first- and second-year players were looking to him, such as freshman cornerback Da’Quan Davis, who, like Morris, is from Maryland.
Davis didn’t know what to think or do when the sanctions hit. He came to Morris and asked questions. And it was in those moments — a time of someone else’s wavering — where this senior best understood why he should stay. He would be needed to teach and to
provide an example. If not now, then when? “This university needs me,” Morris says. “I
figured that I don’t mind some adversity ... I don’t run from a challenge.”
• • •
For now, this is all about the present, the most unpredictable and toughest time. But it will grow into much more than this in the future. Because when the sanctions expire and
Penn State is back to recruiting full classes and maintaining 85 scholarships and going to bowl games and eligible again for titles, these seniors will take on a new meaning.
Fans will remember Mauti for more than just following Posluszny and Connor and Bowman and Lee into the NFL from Linebacker U.
They will replay that interception at Illinois, of all places, and how he somehow found the energy after playing defense on a 14-play drive to run 99 yards down the Illini sideline.
He and his teammates will become more than just former stars. They will be legends in a way like no others.
Mauti says he’s already received more than 1,500 e-mails from supporters. There’s not a day when he doesn’t receive something in his inbox thanking him.
“They understand their opportunity to be at Penn State is not created by them but by me and all of the former players who put on a uniform before them. He understands that,” Rich Mauti says. “He knows what Joe and the program did for me.
“He wants to leave the program in better shape than when he got there. He wants to do this for players who come in the future.”