- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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On July 25, Penn State seniors Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich gave a now-famous, impassioned speech about staying loyal to the program in the wake of harsh NCAA sanctions. Only later did it sink in for them what they'd done.
"A couple of days after that, I said to Zordich, 'Listen, we'd better win some games and back this up,'" Mauti told ESPN.com "'Or else we're going to look like idiots.'"
That's no longer a concern. Not only has Penn State (3-2) won three straight games heading into this week's showdown against No. 24 Northwestern, but Mauti is looking like one of the best defensive players in America.
The fifth-year senior linebacker ranks fourth in the Big Ten in tackles (48), is tied for second in interceptions (2) and shares the league lead with two fumbles forced. He has already been named Big Ten defensive player of the week twice.
"If you were naming the Big Ten linebacker of the year right now, it would be Michael, no doubt," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
Mauti had perhaps his finest game last week at Illinois. His hustle on punt coverage helped force a turnover, and he later intercepted two passes, including one at the Illini goal line on the first half's final play that he ran back 99 yards, falling just short of a touchdown. He was named the Walter Camp Football Foundation national defensive player of the week for those efforts.
Mauti said his teammates have given him grief about not scoring on that interception return, but they all recognize what he has meant to the Nittany Lions this season. Unwittingly or not, Mauti became the face of the program this summer with his outspoken comments, and he has lived up to that by becoming the team's best player and emotional leader.
"He's one of the most energetic players I've ever seen," Penn State offensive lineman John Urschel said. "He's running around making plays. He's jumping around everywhere for four quarters. Guys get pumped up at the start of the game. He's like that every single play for the entire game."
Mauti might have reached his emotional peak in last week's 35-7 win at Illinois. He had made no secret of his disdain for Illini coach Tim Beckman's Penn State poaching efforts this summer, and couldn't wait to exact some revenge. Cornerback Stephon Morris described Mauti as a "crazy person" who was banging his head against lockers before last week's game began.
"No, I never banged my head against a locker," Mauti said. "I bang my head against enough people on the field. My head doesn't need any more trauma. But we were fired up before the game."
Mauti squirms when people talk about his leadership. He's a guy who'd rather just play football and not talk much about it. Circumstances have dictated otherwise.
He appears to have been destined to play for Penn State, like his father, Rich, did in the 1970s and his older brother, Patrick, did from 2005-08. But though Mauti begged to play football as a kid, his parents did not let him take up the sport until he went out for his eighth-grade team. The immediate results were not auspicious.
"He hated it," said Rich Mauti, who now is a real estate executive in Louisiana. "He came home, threw his backpack on the floor and said, 'I hate football. I want to quit.'"
But early on in his first season of playing, Michael stuck an opposing return man on kickoff coverage. As soon as his son popped up from that hit, Rich recognized a familiar sight: Michael had just fallen in love with football. He began playing it with the same passion and emotion with which he had attacked every other sport growing up.
That love story would suffer some major setbacks at Penn State. Whenever he was on the field, Mauti played like one of the top linebackers in the Big Ten. But a torn ACL in his right knee in August 2009 wiped out that season. Last season, just as he was starting to produce at a high level, he tore the ACL in his left knee in the Lions' fifth game.
Those injuries were excruciating for someone who enjoyed playing the game so much, whose desire to excel was exemplified when he peppered Bill O'Brien with questions about the team's strength program after the new coach's first meeting with the players in January. And then came this summer's sanctions, when the NCAA tried to tear down Penn State and told Lions players they could transfer without penalty. Mauti couldn't just stand by and watch it happen, which is why he stepped out of character to speak out.
"We were exceptionally proud of him, because we know that's the last place he wanted to be," Rich Mauti said. "He's not one of those guys who wants to be out in the media and shoot his mouth off. He was thrown into that position, and we're so proud of the way he's handled it, knowing it was so uncomfortable for him."
Mauti has been described as playing like a man on a mission this season. He agrees with that assessment. He's acutely aware that he only has seven games left in his college career, and his injury history has taught him that nothing is guaranteed beyond this moment.
"You only have a set number of days, and I feel like I know that better than most people," he said. "Just being able to play and being healthy, I'm having so much fun with everything I'm doing. Given everything we've been through as a team, it's been one hell of an experience, in a good way."
Mauti feels like he's playing for something bigger than just himself or this season. He and his teammates are playing for the entire Penn State community, to show the world that the Nittany Lions are about a whole lot more than just the Sandusky scandal.
That's quite a burden to take on. But so far, Mauti looks pretty smart for trying.