At a university that has been consumed by its image, this was not what you expected in one of its darkest hours.
Two guys in baggy cargo shorts. Both in hats, one facing forward and one facing backward. Both unshaven, having come from an early morning workout.
But on that July 25 morn, Michael Zordich and Michael Mauti were exactly what Penn State University, its football program, its fans and alumni needed.
With the program reeling from NCAA sanctions announced just two days earlier, Zordich and Mauti walked out with about 30 of their teammates and provided a two-minute pep talk that so many craved to hear.
It shouldn’t have surprised many that these two scraggly, yet eloquent, players would take the lead in a difficult situation.
They’re both second-generation Penn State players, whose fathers (Michael Zordich and Rich Mauti) went on to lengthy NFL careers.
Whether the sons go on to have professional careers or not, they’ve become something their fathers can be proud of — spokesmen and leaders for a program that was in dire need of a lift.
The whole idea for the players to make a statement was born in Coach Bill O’Brien’s office on the night after the sanctions were announced. The most hard hitting sanctions were no bowl games for four years, a reduction of 15 scholarships per season and a waiver allowing any player in the program to transfer to another Division I-A school without the penalty of having to sit out a season.
With such penalties, the forecast was doom and gloom with a mass exodus of players from the program.
This didn’t sit well with seniors Zordich and Mauti, who pitched the idea to O’Brien of the players making a statement. The first-year coach agreed.
“Nobody had really heard from us,” Zordich explained, during the team’s annual media day. “Everybody was hearing from the media and what the media was saying how everything was going to fall apart and how guys were leaving. Nobody had heard from the locker room. We were sitting in the locker room thinking, ‘We’re all staying. We don’t understand why everybody is freaking out.’
“We just knew we had to get out there.”
So out they came from the Lasch Building the next morning — two guys and their teammates who may have lacked in image, but were long on passion and substance.
“We want to let the nation know that we’re proud of who we are,” said fullback Zordich that morning. “We’re the true Penn Staters. We’re going to stick together through this. We’re going to see this thing through.”
“No sanction, no politician is ever going to take away what we’ve got here,” added linebacker Mauti. “None of that is ever going to tear us apart. Right now all we can do is put our heads down and we’re just going to work. That’s all we can do. We’re going to fight for Penn State and each other because this is what Penn State is about — fighting through adversity. We’re going to show up every Saturday and we’re going to raise hell.”
Those thoughts were among others in the short message, which resonated throughout Nittany Nation.
“I’ve received over 600 emails,” said Mauti. “I’ve been trying to get people back. It’s a crazy amount of response from our alumni, fan base, from everybody really.”
“I’ve been getting emails and letters,” added Zordich. “It’s been awesome. The amount of fans and people that care about this place is really incredible.
“You really learn to appreciate it when you’re put in a situation like this. Before, I did, I took it for granted. I didn’t realize how many people loved this place that much. It means a lot to have all of these people behind you.”
The fans and alumni weren’t the only ones with praise.
“I think Mike Zordich and Mike Mauti displayed great senior leadership and great Penn State character,” assistant coach Ron Vanderlinden said. “They rallied the troops, brought them together and made that statement. That is exactly who Mike Zordich and Mike Mauti are.”
Aside from their fathers, one might not expect there to be much of a bond between the two.
They hail from far different parts of the country — Zordich, from Canfield, Ohio, and Mauti, from Mandeville, La. They’re also on opposite sides of the football — Zordich trying to block and run over Mauti, while Mauti trying to beat Zordich or slam him to the ground.
But, there was a quick connection.
“(He’s) one of my best friends on the team,” Zordich said. “We met on a visit when we were juniors. We’ve known each other for awhile now and we’ve been through a lot. We know what we’re doing together with this and we’re going to be all right.”
And it’s that aura of confidence that has helped since the turmoil has swirled.
Teammates say that Mauti and Zordich are the kind of leaders they need — confident, passionate and feisty.
“Every team needs leaders like that, especially handling a situation like that,” junior linebacker Glenn Carson said. “It was exactly what we needed. I think they’ve been doing all the rights things to get this season going and help us get rolling.”
“It’s great to have people like them on the team,” said redshirt freshman tight end Kyle Carter. “They really reinforce the fact that we’re staying and really just made us back the whole concept of staying and the new Penn State. Ever since they put together that little interview to let everybody know that we’re all staying, I think that really set the whole mindset of everybody.”
“It gets everyone else in that same mind frame,” added junior tight end Garry Gilliam. “When it comes to gameday, that’s the kind of mind frame you need to be in.”
Mauti and Zordich say there are other leaders — quarterback Matt McGloin is one — that have that same passion. Still, the two friends embrace the opportunity to speak for their teammates and to their fans.
“We care about Penn State and everything, but most importantly we care about the guys we are playing with, these guys we’ve been working out with year-end and year-out,” Zordich said.
“It really has been something that’s very cool to see,” Mauti said. “It makes me proud to have this opportunity to be a spokesman. ... This situation is unprecedented. Really, to have the senior leadership that we’ve had that has helped tremendously. I don’t think we would be where we’re at without our seniors. ”
And two of them, surrounded by those teammates, have provided a positive image that will last much longer than two minutes one July morn.
“We didn’t really write anything out,” Zordich said. “We just kind of went out and said what we were feeling. It ended up working out great.”