RICH MAUTI WAS telling a Joe Paterno story, as so many former Nittany Lions are wont to do. It was, at once, touching and humorous, and it gave insight into why so many football-playing sons of fathers who were coached by Paterno wound up in Happy Valley as second-generation legacies. There are 26 such sets of players who have bridged the generational divide, with five current Lions on that list, including Mauti's son, junior linebacker Michael Mauti.
"I left Penn State needing six credits to graduate," recalled the elder Mauti, who lettered in 1975 and '76 as a wide receiver and went on to an 8-year career NFL career, the first seven of those seasons with the New Orleans Saints as a special-teams ace. "After I finished my first season in New Orleans, I went back up to Penn State to finish my degree requirements. But I got sidetracked and came back down to New Orleans, still not having finished. I didn't get my degree until 1989.
"My wife Nancy threw me a congratulatory party at that time. She sent Joe a note saying I had finally graduated, along with a blank VHS tape. She asked him, if he could find the time, to record a message. Joe sent the tape back to her saying how proud he was of me. They showed the tape halfway through the party. It blew me away. Joe also said I shouldn't be a stranger, to come back to Penn State for a visit. Michael hadn't been born yet; Nancy was 8 1/2 months pregnant with him.
"I came home and wrote Joe a letter, telling him how important he'd been in my life. I also wrote that my only regret was that he wouldn't still be there when my boys got old enough to play college ball.
"Joe still has that letter. But guess what? Both my sons did get a chance to play for him."
Rich and Nancy Mauti will be in Beaver Stadium for No. 23 Penn State's important intersectional game tomorrow against third-ranked Alabama, gratified to be links in a chain that dates back to 1966, Paterno's first year as head coach, or even further back, to 1950, when the 23-year-old JoePa arrived on campus as an assistant to Rip Engle.
"I can't even begin to describe what it meant to Nancy and me when Patrick and Michael ran out of the tunnel at Beaver Stadium together for the first time [against Coastal Carolina in the 2008 season opener], when Michael was a freshman," Rich said. "They ran to the end zone and did a chest bump. Nancy and I were crying, so proud that they were getting the chance to experience what I did when I played there."
Paterno's legend is such that you're almost inclined to believe that, during Rich's long-ago return to campus, he laid a hand upon Nancy's extended tummy and willed the unborn Michael to someday wear the blue and white. But the reality of how Michael, a preseason All-America, followed in his dad's footsteps is nearly as compelling as any fiction.
Born and raised in the New Orleans suburb of Mandeville, where Rich, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., had retired after his NFL career ended, Michael was a diehard Saints fan. By virtue of all the LSU supporters within his social circle, he was a somewhat less-intense follower of the Southeastern Conference school.
"It was pretty much every day," he said of the pressure put on him by classmates and local residents to take his talents to Tiger Stadium. "But I wanted to take a look at some other schools around the country. And I never got an offer from LSU, anyway. Obviously, I was interested. But going there really wasn't an option when I didn't get a scholarship offer."
For a time, Michael gave strong consideration to Florida and Oklahoma. Alabama also came into the picture, but late. In the end, though, destiny prevailed.
"Penn State was my last official visit," Michael said. "I spent some time with the players and coaches and that was it for me. It just felt right."
Michael's decision was like a silent prayer answered for Rich, who had not tried to influence Michael's college selection.
"I really didn't know where he was going to go until he made his choice, and it was his choice," Rich stressed. "I didn't want to put any undue pressure on him to do what he thought would please me. But deep down inside, I guess he felt that if he was going to play linebacker anywhere in the country, what better place than at 'Linebacker U?'
"But that wasn't the only factor. There were the academics, and the fact that Joe was still there. Michael just fell in the love with the place, like I did."
3 THINGS TO WATCH
* Alabama tailback Trent Richardson gouged the Nittany Lions for 144 rushing yards in 2010. If an improved Penn State defense can limit him to half that total, PSU's chances for an upset significantly improve.
* Starting linebacker Gerald Hodges has more incentive than most to play well. Hodges suffered a hairline fracture of his left leg on the opening kickoff against the Crimson Tide last year and missed the next four games.
* A year ago, Penn State lost the turnover battle in Tuscaloosa, 4-1, three of the miscues coming inside the Alabama 30-yard line. Ball security is of paramount importance for the Lions, who didn't have a turnover in last week's 41-7 spanking of Indiana State.
Who: No. 3 Alabama at No. 23 Penn State
When: Tomorrow, 3:30 p.m.
Where: Beaver Stadium, State College
TV: Channel 6. Radio: WNTP (990-AM), WPNV (1440-AM)
History: Alabama leads the series, 9-5, including last season's 24-3 victory in Tuscaloosa, a game in which the Nittany Lions turned the ball over four times, including three inside the Crimson Tide 30. The last time 'Bama came to Happy Valley, in 1989, the Tide won, 17-16, when 6-7 Thomas Rayam blocked a late chip-shot, 17-yard field-goal attempt by Ray Tarasi.
Coaches: Nick Saban, 44-11, fifth year at school, 135-53-1, 16 years overall; Joe Paterno, 402-135-3, 46th year
About Alabama: Scores can be misleading, and last week's 48-7 pounding of Kent State, Saban's alma mater, is Exhibit A. Saban grumbled about his team's five turnovers (four INTs and a fumble) and its relatively piddling, 183-yard rushing total, which did not include 28 yards in tackles behind the line of scrimmage . . . Don't laugh, but 'Bama has a freshman defensive back named Ha Ha Clinton-Dix . . . Saban is 3-3 in head-to-head meetings with Paterno, having gone 2-3 when he was at Michigan State (1995-98) . . . Tide's 5-8, 180-pound senior Marquis Maze had 253 all-purpose yards vs. Kent State, catching eight passes for 118 yards and a TD, and 96 punt-return yards.
About Penn State: Recalling how last year Alabama tailback Trent Richardson ran through the Lions' defense for 144 yards, seldom going down on first contact, DT Devon Still said, "We've got to focus on getting all 11 men to the football. We just have to focus more on gang-tackling like we did [in season-opening, 41-7 thumping of Indiana State]." . . . TE Andrew Szczerba, who sustained a head injury that Paterno didn't think team doctors "would classify as a concussion," has been cleared to play . . . Backup OT Mike Farrell, expected to sit out a couple of weeks with a sprained right knee, is now listed as "probable." The outlook is not as hopeful for WR Curtis Drake (left tibia), the former West Catholic High star, who is is listed as "doubtful" . . . Alabama poses a serious threat to the Lions' 23-game non-conference home winning streak . . . Redshirt freshman LB Mike Hull came off the bench to lead Lions with seven tackles vs. Indiana State.
Alabama 31, Penn State 17.