Even when he’s sitting down, Michael Mauti is in motion.
His knees pump vigorously as if he’s about to start running in place. His eyes dart around the room as he leans back in his chair, then forward again as he talks.
Yet he chooses his words carefully, speaking in a calm, measured tone. Oftentimes, his eyes will go wide when he wants to emphasize certain words. He never raises his voice. Sometimes, he’s tuned so low it’s tough to hear him from a few feet away.
Mauti would probably rather not be doing media interviews, but the state of things has made this a necessary evil for the fifth-year senior linebacker who’d prefer let his play on the football field speak in place of words.
In the past 11 months, Mauti has had to rely on his words unlike any other time in his life. Penn State’s leading tackler went from being a quiet, unquestioned leader to a harsh-talking student representative nearly overnight.
When a scandal and the ensuing fallout threatened to tear apart his team, all Mauti could fight back with were his words.
His dad, Rich, had played for the Nittany Lions and went on to his own successful run in the NFL. His brother, Patrick, was a junior on the Nittany Lions. The youngest Mauti was just the new kid — Pat’s little brother — in the No. 42 jersey.
He introduced himself eight games into the season. With Michigan in town and threatening to take a two-possession lead at Beaver Stadium, Mauti flew down the field on kickoff coverage in the first quarter and exploded into Michigan return man Sam McGuffie.
The football popped free, and although the Wolverines recovered it, a psychological blow had been dealt. The packed stadium was rocking and the Penn State sideline drew sudden inspiration from Mauti’s jackhammer hit.
The Nittany Lions then rattled off 39 unanswered points to secure a 46-17 win.
“I remember wanting to make something happen in that game,” Mauti said. “I kind of got out of my lane at one point and then he really didn’t see me coming back and I just threw my body into him and the ball came loose. It was one of those exciting plays. That’s what you look for on kickoff team.”
It took a hit of that caliber to spark a young Mauti’s love of the game.
Although Rich Mauti played seven seasons in the NFL, he wouldn’t let his sons step on a football field until they were in seventh grade. In Michael’s case, he didn’t start playing until eighth grade.
It didn’t take long for the youngest Mauti to be put off by football.
“He comes home, he throws his bookbag down in the kitchen and he’s like, ‘I hate football. I don’t want to play anymore,’” Patrick Mauti, who was then a sophomore in high school, recalled. “Our mom said, ‘No, this is not going to happen. Stick out the season and if you don’t like it and you want to quit, that’s fine.’”
So Mauti, the smallest kid on the team, let the season play out. Soon, an unwilling participant became the fiercest of competitors on the freshman team at Mandeville (La.) High School.
He started the season as a quarterback but soon found himself making plays on kickoff coverage.
“One of the first games, he’s running down on kickoff coverage, he goes and just totally smacks the kid that’s returning the kick and ends up breaking the kid’s nose,” Patrick Mauti said. “From that point on, he has loved football with a passion and he just lives it and breathes it.”
It’s not that Mauti intends to injure opponents. He plays within the rules. But he won’t deny that football is a violent game and being the player to initiate contact is Mauti’s specialty.
If an opponent remembers Mauti’s number after a hit and has second thoughts about touching the football for the rest of the game, Mauti’s made a huge impact by his own standards.
“The feeling of the hit. The feeling of delivering a blow, it’s just — There’s something about it,” Mauti said.
Mauti had torn an anterior cruciate ligament before, so he knew pretty quickly when his left leg buckled during the first quarter of the 2011 Eastern Illinois game that his left leg was shot before he even hit the ground.
“You kind of get an idea of what that feels like when that thing goes,” Mauti, who had missed his entire sophomore season after tearing the ACL in his right knee during training camp, said. “But, It’s something that I try to put out of my mind because it’s really kind of a haunting memory.”
After sutting out the entire 2009 season concentrating on rehabilitating his right knee, Mauti came back with a vengeance in 2010. He finished fifth on the team with 57 tackles.
An expanded on-field role would have to wait, however, following the early season injury to his left knee last season.
“It was very difficult emotionally,” Rich Mauti said of his son’s second knee injury. “I think, quite honestly, that it happened to him once before was probably helpful to some degree. It was devastating when he went through it, because he knew what he had to do to get through it and he had to miss another season.”
Mauti got luckier the second time around. When he was injured in 2009, he contracted a nasty case of strep throat. He lost nearly 30 pounds and couldn’t eat normally for weeks. Last fall, Mauti was able to stay relatively healthy except for the knee injury. He was able to concentrate on healing after his surgery and took a better approach to his rehab having gone through it just months before.
Then-defensive coordinator Tom Bradley wanted to keep his star linebacker involved with day-to-day operations. So Mauti became an extra coach, going so far as to call the majority of the defenses in the TicketCity Bowl after Bradley was promoted to interim head coach.
It helped having counsel from former Nittany Lions such as Jerome Hayes, Brennan Coakley and Sean Lee - who had been in Mauti’s situation, battling back from knee injuries.
“We really worked a lot harder on some things that we needed to do differently, balanced out my body a little more,” Mauti said of his second rehab. “It was a lot less stressful because I knew what I was doing was the right thing and for the right reasons. And as far as my body and the exercises, I had confidence in what I was doing.”
Back to playing
Mauti appeared in 11 games in 2010 and wouldn’t let a sprained ankle suffered against Iowa or a separated shoulder courtesy of Ohio State to keep him away from football.
“The idea is to be on the field,” Mauti said. “And really, you can’t do any good to your team on the sidelines. That’s kind of the way I’ve always felt about it.”
Mauti learned over a tumultuous summer that he could take on an even greater role for a squad desperately in need of vocal leader.
Voice of the Lions
The sanctions gave any Penn State player a free chance to transfer out of the program without giving up a year of eligibility. Some chose to do just that, and other college programs began contacting Penn State players, some even coming to campus on recruiting trips.
Mauti and Zordich took it personally. The duo made their way to Coach Bill O’Brien after the NCAA penalties were announced, and the next day made a statement outside of the team’s practice complex that Penn State players would stick together.
For the most part, the Nittany Lions have.
“This was the first time that this whole situation affected us personally,” Mauti said. “Before, it was like, everybody was talking about Penn State but it never really affected us. Now it’s like, ‘Well, you guys can’t go to this.’ We’re actually getting punished for this now. So that’s why we took it so personally.”
Mauti said he was honored to eulogize Joe Paterno at a memorial service following the longtime coach’s death in January. Speaking last in a line of players, each representing a decade Paterno in which coached, Mauti took to the lectern in the Bryce Jordan Center with no notes and spoke from the heart.
He told the story of his initial recruitment. Mauti’s family didn’t expect him to commit on the spot to Paterno, but that’s what happened. Mauti remembered Paterno giving him flack for getting kicked out of a drill for fighting as a freshman.
“‘Hey, your dad used to act like he was tough, too, trying to fight people all the time,’” Mauti said in his best high-pitched impression of Paterno.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in our family,” Patrick Mauti said. “We were very humbled. I think he did an outstanding job speaking from the heart.”
Nothing to lose
When the Northwestern coach dissects an opposing team’s defense, his eyes go to the linebackers first. Fitzgerald, himself a college football hall of famer who played the position, sees no weaknesses in Mauti’s game.
“Michael is terrific with his key reads,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s got great eyes. He’s very instinctual. He finds the football. He’s physical at the point of attack. He’s overcome two major injuries and to me I think that’s the hallmark of what makes him special.”
Mauti won’t dwell on his past. He won’t allow the fear of being injured to creep into his mind.
He won’t let the negative white noise, the criticism of his team or school by outside talking heads, distract him. Like he did this summer, when other coaches were on Penn State’s campus, looking to lure Nittany Lion players way, Mauti will give them an earful. He’ll do everything in his power to keep opposing coaches away.
If that means he has to talk, so be it. Mauti said he would rather hit someone between the sidelines.
“He would prefer not to be out in public, carrying the flag,” Rich Mauti said. “He loves the game, he loves to play the game and he loves to show it out on the field.”
He’ll do that today
He’ll throw himself into Northwestern players with explosive zeal. He’ll get up off the pile of players and high step his way back to the Penn State sideline.
Mimicking his big-hit celebration at his seat in the Lasch Football Building, Mauti bounces both of his legs simultaneously so his knees come up above the table where he’s sitting.
“Reconstructed knees are 30 percent stronger than what you had before,” Mauti says. “The way that I look at it is that these must’ve been defective or something and I just had to fix them. Once they’re good, they’re good.”
Mauti’s presence is heavily requested these days. He does this interview, then he’s got to get going.
“For me, I’ve got nothing to lose, man,” he says. “I’m just playing every play like it’s my last.
“For all I know it could be taken away on any play.
“So that’s really the way that I approach every game.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @traviswjohnson_.