MANDEVILLE — This is the weekend Michael Mauti has been looking forward to since he first put on a football uniform — maybe even before.
And if it’s happening a year, maybe two, later than the former Penn State linebacker figured, well, life seldom goes as planned, especially considering the turmoil surrounding the Nittany Lions in the past two seasons.
“You can’t always control what happens to you,” said Mauti, who’ll be watching this week’s NFL draft with his family in Mandeville — including his father, ex-Saints receiver Rich Mauti. “And it’s been a roller coaster for me. I’m hoping to go early as possible. But I’m going to be happy and excited to have a chance to make a team, no matter who it is.”
Mauti has had three surgeries for torn ACLs — twice on his right knee, once on the left. That has dropped him to a seventh-round/free-agent evaluation by NFLDraftScout.com; he was considered a likely second-round pick going into the season.
Because the final injury occurred in his next to last game, Mauti was unable to work out for scouts at either the NFL Scouting Combine or Penn State’s pro day. The only teams he has visited are the Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers.
But with the help of older brother Patrick, a former Nittany Lions wide receiver, Mauti put together a video of recent workouts at Kurt Hester’s Xcel Sports Performance in Madisonville showing him doing short sprints, pulling sleds, jumping, lifting and balancing on the slack bow.
Mauti also sent handwritten notes to all 32 NFL general managers, sharing with them his desire to play in the league.
“In Michael’s mind, nothing can stand in his way,” Rich Mauti said. “He’s committed to reaching his dream, and he’s going to do whatever he’s got to do to get there.”
That has meant working out with Hester and Jason DeMello at Xcel along with physical therapist Greg Zelden of Covington. All have known Michael since he was in junior high.
And Hester, who has several NFLers among his clients, said Mauti is doing extraordinarily well, even if he’s unlikely to be 100 percent when training camps open in late July.
“We’ve had guys from the Vikings in here who tell us that Michael is far ahead of where Adrian Peterson was this time last year,” he said. “That’s a combination of genetics and Michael’s work ethic. Some people are blessed with the capacity to heal more than most normal human beings.”
Plus, Hester added, if there’s a silver lining to all of this, rehabbing a torn ACL for the third time gives Mauti the advantage of experience.
“Michael knows how to tolerate his pain, which is the key to breaking up the scar tissue,” he said. “Some athletes don’t have that tolerance, and it slows their getting back the full range of motion.”
“This has gone a lot smoother than the first two times,” he said.
It’s about time something when smoothly. In 2010, Mauti overcame his first knee injury, which cost him the 2009 season, to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors. He was a preseason All-American heading into what likely would have been his final collegiate season.
But four games in, Mauti suffered his second torn ACL. A few weeks after that, the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke, which cost longtime coach Joe Paterno his job. Paterno died of lung cancer in January 2012, and Mauti represented the players from this decade eulogizing Paterno at his funeral.
Last summer, the NCAA delivered wide-ranging sanctions on the program. Mauti, as much as anyone, became the team representative to the public and the leader in the locker room.
“I think it just fell on all of the seniors who decided to stay,” he said. “It was like the administration was nowhere to be found, and the national media was breathing down our neck and tearing us apart. The public needed to know what Joe and the program really stood for.”
Mauti made the all-Big Ten team again, and the Lions finished 8-4. In Penn State’s final game, the seniors all wore No. 42 on their helmets in his honor.
That leadership — plus his ability, especially as an instinctual player — should get Mauti drafted higher than projections, Hester said.
Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman called Mauti “an incredible guy” during the combine, adding, “Talk about someone who has faced so much adversity, and he’s been able to rebound from it. He just has an incredible heart and incredible passion.”
But neither an NFL heritage nor the admiration of league decision-makers counts for much in the unsentimental world of player evaluation, where a history of injuries raises red flags higher than character problems.
And Mauti knows it.
“I got to play for Joe Paterno at ‘Linebacker U,’ ” he said. “I hoped to start for two years, and I got to start for three. And I’ve still got a chance to play at the next level. I feel pretty good about where I am.”