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January 17, 2013Michael Mauti doesn't want to talk specifics about the knee injury right now.
The immediate aftermath certainly wasn't the right time, just a day after a hit left him writhing on his back in the first quarter of the Nittany Lions' home game against Indiana on Nov. 17. When he spoke to reporters a week later, moments after a thrilling 24-21 overtime win against Wisconsin to close out the 2012 season against Wisconsin, he didn't want to get into the specifics, either.
Even in now, a full two months since Hoosiers' running back D'Angelo Roberts leveled devastating blow straight into the back of Mauti's left knee, the same that had suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament just a year prior, the former Nittany Lion has no desire to explain the extent of his injury.
So he doesn't.
Rather than dwelling on the past - a history that now includes two torn ACL injuries and another knee injury that remains unspecified - Mauti focuses on the future. Speaking with Mauti at length this week about capping his career at Penn State and the next step, it's clear he is now wholly invested in a future that he is determined to include playing in the National Football League.
BWI: Especially after the autograph signings you held following the season, did you have a chance to connect with fans that you hadn't had before? Do you have a sense now of what you mean to the Penn State fan base?
Mauti: "I mean, that was one of the craziest parts about it. It was so crazy being in that situation, sitting there and listening to all the people tell me their stories and how much we as a team impacted them and how much we inspired them.
"All along, we had that in the back of our minds. We knew back in the summer. That's part of the reason why we did that and made that statement because we knew we had an opportunity. We could see the positive side of what we could do, what this season would mean and the position that we had, which was to bring it all together and bring the community together.
"Really, doing all those signings, that was really the only way I could get out and thank everybody for supporting us all year long and standing behind us. Those people that said they would never come to a Penn State game again until they saw us out there when we made our statement, and some people that just never missed a game after that, really, we just wanted to let everybody know that we wanted to thank them for standing strong behind us.
"It was really hard to wrap your head around at first, but we really did see it back in July when we made that statement. I don't think we really understood the true power of what we did until now. And maybe even a couple of years from now, we won't see it, but, I think I have a better understanding of it now given everyone's reaction and the way people have really responded to it."
BWI: You did so much for some many people as an inspiration, but was their response from them to you equally inspiring to you?
Mauti: "Yeah, absolutely it's inspiring. It is humbling to know that you have that many people watching me and looking up to you and tell you that you inspire them with what you're doing on a daily basis. But, those are the people that, when we'd get tired during the week, those are the people that kept us motivated and kept us going all year.
"The thousands of emails that I kept getting on a daily basis throughout the season, that was what was able to keep us going. I mean, we started our season, really back last January. Toward the end of the year, usually you feel that monkey on your back a little bit, but it never really happened because all of those people were behind us and kept encouraging us. It was really special."
BWI: Obviously the 8-4 season didn't start the way you'd hoped, but did you feel like you got everything out of your senior year that you wanted?
Mauti: "We really looked at our schedule back in July and felt like we could win every game on our schedule. There was really no doubt about it. Really, the games that still get me, personally, are the first two games. We could have done without those, but it did make our story something that you could say was just another test for us and the way we came together week three and pulled it together.
"I mean, there's nothing I would change now other than, obviously, I feel like we could have been sitting here 11-1. I really felt like that was what our record should have been, but at the same time, we played the games and what's done is done.
"Those games are in the past now, so you can't do anything about them. But, I think we knew going in, whatever the outcome, whatever our record was, we were going to do something special for Penn State with our time here and I think that was did. It was just a matter of how great we wanted it to be.
"I think there was really no better way to end it than the way we did, the way those guys played against Wisconsin with an overtime win. I wouldn't have changed it."
BWI: Could you imagine your relationships and the bonds that were built over the past 12 months being as special as they are now had you not been through so much adversity?
Mauti: "No, there's really no way we would have gotten that close because, really it started last November and the stuff we went through then. That was really the hardest time, speaking for myself, because it was the initial shock. No one knew anything and we were sitting there watching it on TV just like everybody else. We were sitting there, our whole foundation was just crumbling underneath our feet. Everything that we were taught for four years. And the seniors, that class was really the guys who got it the worst because they had their senior years ruined because of what happened.
"We had to hold this team together without a coach. Coach Bradley did the best job he could, but that was a great senior class and we had a lot of leadership with them, those guys really taught us a lot. But, our senior class really saw the way they handled it and wanted to do our best to carry it forward.
"It really started in January. But, then in July, adversity, if you're all going through the same thing and you're all trying to make the most of it, you knew since we had the transfer rule, we knew everybody was 100 percent in, 100 percent sold out for our mission. Because at any point, anyone could leave. So, we knew on a daily basis, when you're working out, if you're not working hard, you almost feel guilty because you're not giving your best for all those other guys.
"I think that's what made everybody work so hard. There's no way I would show up and give 80 percent effort. I just couldn't do it. It wasn't fair to the guys around me. You almost want to work more for them than for yourself. I think that was everyone's attitude. The relationships that I've had, it forces you to talk to everyone. It forces you to sit down and say, 'Hey, how are you feeling? What are you doing?'
"Guys that you wouldn't normally have talked to a lot, you end up sitting there talking to them and having conversations with them and becoming real close with them. With all those senior class guys, there's no way having not gone through that that we would have been as close as we are, because we really are great friends. Our seniors always showed up early. We're there at 1 o'clock and we just sit there, eat lunch and wait for meetings and do whatever."
BWI: Obviously Bill O'Brien was instrumental to you, and vice versa. It seemed less like coach-player than simply best friends, at times. Explain how you two became so close to one another.
Mauti: "At first, you have a new coach and there's just so much going on. Obviously, as a coach, you have the guys that you need to talk to, the senior leaders, so we talked early on and got to know each other a little bit. Even throughout the spring, you kind of have relations with him and you're talking back and forth.
"But, it really wasn't until we got through the summer. Really, when the summer hit. He had heard all of the things, I guess second hand, about what kind of guy I am. He's heard all this leadership stuff and back and forth, but I think once July hit and the sanctions, that's when he really found out who we were and what kind of people we were, just because we had to be. We were up in his office every day. That's where we really got close. We're on a plane going to Chicago, and that's where we really got to the point where we were like, 'OK.'
"We knew that he had sold out for him and we had to sell out for him. Just his personality, the way that he operates and the way he runs the program, he was honest with us every bit of the way. He put trust in us. He'd listen to things we said, recommendations that we had. Our rule originally when I texted him was, he said, 'No media.' We went up to him and said, 'Coach, you gotta get us in the media. You gotta let us talk.' He was like, 'OK, let's do this.'
"That's just the kind of trust that he had in us, and it just builds through experience through what we were going through. Just like with the players, we built relationships like that with all of our coaches because they were all in the same position with us. We were all really molded together. I just love playing for those guys. It was awesome."
BWI: Did you learn anything about him through it all that you didn't have a read when he first accepted the job?
Mauti: "I was completely terrified of him for a while. All I had seen of him was the famous clip of him going teapot on Tom Brady. I just thought I shouldn't get on this dude's bad side.
"That's kind of where it started and there's the ultimate respect there. It just kind of slowly built and then getting to where it ultimately is, he would say, text me anytime, call me anytime, text me anytime, come and see me anytime, and it was true. Everything he said it was completely true. There was no smoke and mirrors. It was so real, and I think that's what really made it easy. He's just a regular guy, we just kind of matured through everything we went through."
BWI: What was your take on his flirtation with the NFL? What were you thinking as that was going on?
Mauti: "After the season, I'm over at his house, and that's also the kind of relationship we had. Anytime, come over to the house, see what's on your mind, invites me in with the family and I'm really cordial with his wife, Colleen, who is awesome. They're just good people.
"After that, I knew it wasn't a one and done year, I don't think. I don't really know, I can't speak for him, but I knew he wanted to be at Penn State and I knew that he really does like it, just because of the guys. He always said these guys love to work, they love to practice, and they want to get better. He just loves being around football players that want to get better and want to learn about the game. So, I think for him, it's a good fit. He had to do what he had to do. I'm not sure what plays into the decision, he's a hot coach right now so a lot of people are going to want him, and it's a good story. But, just like all of the football players have loyalty to him, I think he's got a lot of loyalty to those guys in the locker room. I think that might have something to do with it."
BWI: It clearly took you by surprise when the team honored you the way it did at the end of the season, but have you been able to put all that in perspective yet? What did it mean to you?
Mauti: "Nobody really told me until I saw it in the locker room, but he told me the Sunday before that game, after the Indiana game, he told me Gerald wanted to wear my number and I just started tearing up and getting all emotional about it because that's the biggest sign of respect for anybody, any player, anywhere, to wear your teammate's number, there's just no higher respect than that.
"But, also, with the numbers on the helmet, knowing that was a move that the seniors decided to do, that's really the ultimate respect is the respect from the seniors and my teammates. I guess knowing that A) I wasn't dead and B) you really try to understand how much an impact that you have, it was very moving. I couldn't wrap my head around it. There was nothing that could do it justice. It was just an unbelievable measure and show of respect."
Check back Friday for the second part of our interview with Mauti.
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