Michael Mauti felt no pain when his left knee buckled last Sept. 24 during the Eastern Michigan game. At least, no physical pain.
The Penn State linebacker instinctively knew that he had torn his ACL, though he didn't want to believe it. As he sat on the trainer's table with a towel on his head, he thought about another season lost to injury, another long road to recovery looming ahead.
"It was a tough time for me," Mauti told ESPN.com. "It was frustrating, because it was more unexpected than anything."
Mauti missed the 2009 season when he tore his right ACL in preseason practice, and injuries slowed him down in 2010. He came into 2011 finally feeling fully healthy and looking forward to a big season. Instead, his left knee, one that had never given him any trouble before, betrayed him.
"When the doctor got in there for the surgery, he said there was just a weakness there," Mauti said. "He told me I'd be better off by having it fixed."
That was small solace to a player whose promising career keeps getting stalled by injuries. But Mauti has never been one to believe in self pity, and his coaches made sure he didn't wallow after the latest setback.
Soon after his surgery, Mauti took on a new role. Then-defensive coordinator Tom Bradley put him in charge of signaling in calls from the sideline during practice.
"I was out there standing right next to him every day at practice doing those signals," Mauti said. "That definitely kept me plugged in. I had no choice but to get out there and do whatever I could to help my team win."
Mauti also delivered a moving speech on behalf of the current Penn State players at Joe Paterno's memorial. He hopes to have a more active role with this year's team.
Mauti says his knee feels great right now, and he's planning to start cutting and doing agility exercises in the next week or so. But his previous rehab taught him that he needs to take things slow and build the muscles in his leg before trying to do too much. So he'll be very limited still for Penn State's spring practices.
"There's no rush, really," he said. "I'm thinking when we get into May and June, there will be pretty much no restrictions on anything."
Mauti has shown what he can do when healthy. In 2010, he finished fifth on the team with 67 tackles despite some nagging injuries. He was off to a strong start last season, recording 13 tackles against Alabama and grabbing a key interception at Temple the week before his torn ACL.
With him back in the fold, the Nittany Lions could have one of the strongest linebacking corps in the Big Ten and the country in 2012. Gerald Hodges had a breakout campaign in 2011, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors, and Glenn Carson also returns at middle linebacker after his first full season of starting.
"I really think the sky's the limit for us," Mauti said.
They will have to learn a new defensive system for the first time in their careers, and new coordinator Ted Roof will have all new terminology. But Mauti is confident that he and his teammates can pick it up quickly, because he says the style is not too different and that the defensive veterans "have pretty good football IQs and know what they're doing."
Mauti will mostly be watching and observing this spring. But by the fall, he expects to be back on the field making an impact. And maybe he'll finally catch a break with his health and end his career with a bang.
"This is my last go-round here, so I'm taking every day and making the most out of it," he said. "I only get one more shot at this thing. I'm really excited about where Penn State is going, and I'm happy to be a part of the transition. I just want to help us win some games."