Mike Mauti, the Odysseus of Penn State Football, has One Ex-Teammate Who can Sympathize
Very little time was needed for John Urschel, one of the most thoughtful members of this Penn State football team, to turn to literature to describe Michael Mauti.
“He reminds me of Odysseus,” began Urschel, a 4.0 student in, naturally, mathematics. “They try to travel back home after the fighting — that was covered in the Iliad, I believe — and the whole time while they’re trying to make it back, they face these troubles and these setbacks and they’re sent astray. But all the while he’s determined and focused to get back home, to stay the course. And no matter what comes in their way, no matter the Cyclops, the Sirens, he stays dedicated to get back to his family.
“I see a lot of parallels between Mauti and him and the way Mauti keeps fighting to come back, because at the end of the day, he’s a football player. I have no doubt that if he wants to, he’ll be back and he’ll be playing on Sundays if he really wants to do it because he’s that type of guy.”
It is time to look ahead after Mauti left Saturday’s 45-22 victory against Indiana with a left knee injury. Coach Bill O’Brien did not have an official diagnosis after the game. Mauti, the senior linebacker, kept his helmet on and buried his hands in his facemask while being carted off the field in the first quarter, only to return in the second half in street clothes and with crutches.
More still, it is time to look ahead because the tears running down Nancy Mauti’s face in the waning moments of what is likely her son’s final game are too damn hard to watch while her husband, who played in this stadium before his youngest son committed to Joe Paterno in his office more than 30 years later, didn’t lift his arm off her shoulder.
Perhaps, then, it is reason enough to not look ahead just yet. The swiftness with which we move today is, too often, disconcerting. We’re fickle by habit, falling in love with the new and observing through myopic lenses. That logic does not aptly fit a man like Mauti, who is very much why this football program is intact amid severe NCAA sanctions.
A decision on petitioning the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility could loom. Mauti had said in the preseason that he would not pursue another year, but that was before this latest setback. What his NFL Draft stock could be in 15 months versus now might impact that decision. Maybe not. Those are discussions for another day.
There have been football coaches who have talked about their fallen leaders with moist eyes like defensive coordinator Ted Roof and O’Brien did in the media room on Saturday. The rare part is that these are men who have known Mauti for only the 11 months since they were hired in January after a scandal-ridden end to 2011. It was Mauti, whose junior season was cut short by nine games following a second ACL injury, who galvanized the university community in July after the NCAA handed down the sanctions by being at a forefront of a mass-commitment to the program when transferring was an option. It was he who lashed out at the NCAA in Chicago during Big Ten Media Days this summer, calling out the hypocrisy of president Mark Emmert. It was Mauti, who, without notes, eulogized Paterno at a public on-campus memorial service just six months prior.
“I've coached the greatest,” O’Brien said, holding back tears. “I've coached a Hall of Fame quarterback, Hall of Fame receivers, great players, and he's one of the most special players I've been around.”
Few can truly have an inkling of what's going through Mauti's head in the coming days. If there’s anybody that can, it’s Jerome Hayes, the former Penn State defensive end who twice returned from a torn ACL during his career.
“God forbid, if it is another ACL I can only imagine,” said Hayes, who is scheduled to finish his Master’s Degree at St. Peter’s University in August. He took his Praxis exam Saturday with the hope of becoming a secondary education teacher while coaching in his hometown of Bayonne, N.J. He also recently retired from the Arena Football League’s Philadelphia Soul.
“In my case, at the time when I tore my second one, I knew going into my senior year I really have to push forward just to become a free agent. I got an opportunity to work out for several teams. He was able to bounce back from the first two ACLs and catapult back into one of the premier linebackers in the nation. I can’t even fathom where he and his family are at right now.”
Added Hayes: “It gives you kind of a foreshadowing of life. Life is gonna knock you down at some point. There’s gonna be certain situations where you’re gonna be down and out and you’re responsible for people around you. When you get out of football and you have a son, you have a wife and that bill shows up, now you have to put your best foot forward.
“That’s what this shows Mike. The adversity you feel when you look out there. You’re used to being the alpha male. You’re used to being one of the best, and you can’t do what everyone else — I was pretty good. I was really good, but Mike Mauti is a particular talent that doesn’t come along too far and in between. As good as Sean Lee was, as good as Paul Posluszny was, as good as Dan Connor was, Mike Mauti, barring those knee injuries, he would’ve went down as probably the best linebacker that has ever come out of Penn State. Coverage, rushing ability, stopping the run, he had it all.”
And yet, all he wanted in a final season sabotaged by sanctions was to prove the program had a pulse.
“If we’re proving anything it’s the fact Penn State is not going anywhere,” Mauti said last month after a 38-14 victory at Iowa. “You can do what you want to us. You can take away things from us. You can try to split us apart. It’s not gonna happen.”
Now, with its leader fallen, Penn State will have to show resolve once more. The history books tell us a prophecy foretold the peaceful passing of Odysseus. Those words resonated on a crisp, cloudless November afternoon. Penn State’s heart and soul, a casualty from the eleventh of a 12-game quest.
“Your death will come far from the sea, such a gentle passing,
when you are bowed down with a ripe old age,
and your people prospering around you.”