Tuesday, September 2, 2014
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Fourth and Long: An Exclusive Excerpt

OCTOBER 6, 2012:

NORTHWESTERN AT PENN STATE

The Northwestern–Penn State game was compelling—even before they kicked off. The Wildcats’ goal was to stop their four-year slide and prove, yet again, that they could play with the Big Boys. At 5-0, with three victories over BCS conference teams, they were making a strong case, but they still didn’t get the kind of respect they deserved.

When I asked Northwestern’s head coach, Pat Fitzgerald, "You’re no longer everyone’s favorite homecoming opponent, are you?" he said, "Oh, we still are. But now we’ll ruin your homecoming."

Sure enough, Penn State had scheduled Northwestern for homecoming weekend. Could the Wildcats come through on Fitzgerald’s promise and ruin the Lions’ day?

Tough call. Penn State had won three straight to return to a respectable 3-2.

Only then were they willing to admit that "after those two losses, we were terrified that everything people said would happen to us—that our program would all fall apart—might come true," Zordich told me. "It was a possibility—and that’s what kept us going."

"Short and sweet," Mauti said, "we knew we’d better win, or we’d look like the world’s biggest blowhards. After saying all that stuff on ESPN, we had established ourselves as the spokesmen. If we’re going to be up front when it’s good, we’d have to get up there and represent when it’s bad. That’s a big double-edged sword."

Yes, they were riding a three-game winning streak, but they knew "those teams weren’t the best teams," Zordich said. "We couldn’t stop there and still make our point."

The Lions’ oft-stated belief that if they could just win a few, they’d get on a roll, would be tested on the season’s sixth Saturday. A loss to Northwestern, however, with Ohio State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin still on the docket, would almost certainly doom Penn State to an indifferent 6-6 season, or worse.

The fans of both teams would be watching intently—in person and on TV—but this was a players’ game.

Former walk-on quarterback Matt McGloin entered the game leading the Big Ten in passing, and he looked good from the start, giving his team an early 10–0 lead. But Penn State dropped another punt—echoes of the opener against Ohio University. Kain Colter, who set Northwestern’s school record of 704 total yards against Indiana the week before, quickly converted Penn State’s mistake into a touchdown, 10–7.

Near the end of the first half, Penn State moved the ball to Northwestern’s 34-yard line, but not close enough to dare a field goal attempt with their shaky kicker, backup-turned-starter Sam Ficken, who had gone 1 for 5 against Virginia four weeks earlier. So, on fourth and four, O’Brien went for it, but on a broken play, McGloin chucked an ill-advised pitch-pass to Zordich, who couldn’t gather the low toss.

The cameras showed O’Brien throw his head back in disbelief, Jordan Hill drop his face in his hands, and Zordich, his palms up, look back at McGloin: Really?

Northwestern—a program built on calculated risks—went to the air, gaining a dubious pass-interference call. An injury brought O’Brien onto the field, ranting at the refs. Pat Fitzgerald walked out, too, put his arm around the ref, and said with a grin, "I know he coached Tommy Brady and the Pats, but you don’t have to listen to his NFL bullshit."

That got O’Brien—who had great respect for Fitzgerald, and vice versa—even hotter. "Screw you, Fitz!" Or words to that effect.

The TV cameras showed the shouting match, and it blew up accordingly. But to the guys on the field, it was just some good, old-fashioned trash-talking between former linebackers, whom they knew had great mutual admiration. The coaches themselves described it as a couple Irish Catholic guys from Chicago and Boston engaged in a little jawing, like pigs in mud.

"I loved it!" said Mauti, who heard it all. "That’s football. That’s a couple linebackers. You know they loved it, too."

Immediately after, Fitzgerald was walking on his team’s sideline, through his players. He knew his team and proved it when he said with a grin, to no one in particular, "I shoulda just kicked his ass," leaving a wave of players laughing in his wake.

"Those guys were getting into it," Colter recalled, laughing. "We know the respect they have, but it got us all fired up, and we loved it."

With thirty seconds left in the half, the Wildcats got their touchdown, their 14–10 lead, and their opponent—who had never trailed at half-time all season—on the verge of collapse. Pull this off, and Northwestern would be 6-0—a record even the national press couldn’t ignore. Talk of their magical 1995 season would surface again.

"Every year they get better and better," Zordich said. With Penn State going into the second half down 14–10, "we knew we had to give them everything we’ve got."

To open the second half, McGloin handed off to Zach Zwinak six times and passed to him once on a drive that regained the lead, 17–14. But the Wildcats countered with a smooth 11-play drive—requiring only one third-down conversion—then returned a Penn State punt 75 yards for another touchdown, to take a 28–17 lead right before the fourth quarter.

"I honestly felt that was the best game we played all season," Colter said. "We had great focus, great fundamentals. Very solid."

"We really thought we were going to beat them," defensive end Quentin Williams said. "We really did."

The guys on the other side recognized the threat for what it was. "You could easily see how our team could have said, ‘That’s it. We’re done,’ " Mauti said.

"When you’re in those situations," McGloin told me, "if you’re nervous and don’t believe that you’re gonna come back and win the game, how do you expect everyone else to respond? I never thought we were going to lose that game. It didn’t feel like we were down by eleven. That’s what this team’s all about: keep scratching and clawing to the end."

When McGloin walked into the huddle, with the ball on Penn State’s

18, and his team down 28–17, he looked at his teammates and said, "I love moments like this. This is what makes teams great. We wouldn’t have it any other way."

Then he proved it, leading his troops on one of their biggest drives of the season, an 18-play masterpiece featuring 7 runs and 2 catches by Zach Zwinak, and 8 for 9 passing by McGloin. They converted four third downs, and when they finally failed on third and goal from the 4, O’Brien went for it.

McGloin responded by hitting Allen Robinson for the touchdown. O’Brien then decided to go for two. Zordich converted to close Northwestern’s lead to 28–25.

"Then our D just ate ’em up," Zordich said.

"It got loud," Mauti said.

"Then it got LOUD loud!" Zordich said.

"You get up after a big play," Mauti said, "and you point to the crowd, and the response is so immediate, it’s like being a conductor. It’s so loud, your whole body goes numb. It’s like a drug. So intoxicating."

"That is the best drug you could ever find," Zordich said. "When you’re on offense, it’s the opposite. You need to get the play in, and they know that, so they’re quiet. But as soon as you run the play, they go, ‘Whoooo!’ And you can hear them."

And that’s what happened next. After Northwestern bombed the punt down to Penn State’s 14-yard line, the Lions went on a 15-play drive that took 5:38 off the clock.

"You could feel the tension building on every play," Mauti said.

On fourth and two from Northwestern’s 19-yard line, down 28-25, O’Brien didn’t hesitate to go for it. This thrilled the crowd, which was accustomed to watching the previous staff run quarterback sneaks on third and five.

McGloin didn’t see what he wanted, however, and started scrambling. Wide receiver Brandon Moseby-Felder recognized the situation, slipped behind his man, and got open for the first down and then some, getting down to the 6-yard line.

"Great instinct play," Zordich said.

On third and goal from the five, McGloin faked the toss, rolled to the right, then ran full speed to the right corner of the end zone, culminating in a leap that was as ungraceful as it was unnecessary, just inside the right end-zone pylon. "Hey, it got the job done," he told me with a grin.

Touchdown. With 2:37 left, Penn State had finally re-taken the lead, 32–28.

"Our defense comes back out, and it’s crazy as hell again!" Mauti said. With Kain Colter at the controls, however, you could not count the Cardiac ’Cats out. But on fourth down, his pass fell incomplete. Penn State’s ball.

O’Brien knew if they didn’t get another first down, they would give the Wildcats one more shot. On third down, the call went to Zordich, who got around the defensive end on the left side. Then Moseby-Felder made "a great block on the safety and sprung me open," said Zordich, who bolted down the left sideline. "When you’re running with the ball, you can hear the crowd get louder, yard by yard, and that just gets you going faster."

The Wildcats collided with him near the end zone, and the refs signaled a touchdown. But upon review, they moved the ball back to the 3. O’Brien ran the same play again, and Zordich bounced his way into the end zone. Northwestern’s 11-point lead had been reversed: 39–28, Penn State.

"That got loud!" Zordich said. "I was excited and screaming and stuff, and it felt like the whole damn team was on top of me. I tried to make my way to the sideline—you’re excited about it, but then you think, ‘I can’t breathe! I’m gonna pass out!’ "

When the game ended, the players ran straight to the student section to sing the alma mater—which Mauti calls, without irony, "one of the best traditions we’ve started this year."

If the NCAA can erase thirteen years of victories with the stroke of a pen, why can’t a college team create a tradition in weeks?

Mauti’s father, Rich, stood with the lettermen right behind the team, singing the alma mater. He put his arm around Coach Butler and said, "Hey John, it doesn’t get any better than this." But Butler didn’t respond. When Rich turned to look at him, he found out why: tears were rolling down Butler’s face.

"And that’s why I love this place," Zordich said. "Coach Butler, he’s only been here for a few months—and I think it just smacked him. The coaches, they care about this place, they love it. They care about us."

The players rang the victory bell endlessly—a few coaches did, too—then ran into the locker room.

"Man, we just ran a hundred plays on offense against a damn good team," Mike Farrell told me. "When we needed the ball back in the last quarter, the defense absolutely killed it. The whole team just laid it on the line, and that’s what it took.

"Man, everybody was running in and just jumping around—coaches, too! It wasn’t like you’re a player and you’re a coach and you’re a manager. It was just everybody jumping around. It was just about the guys in the room—like O-B had been preaching throughout the year through all the tough stuff: just us.

"This is the most fun I’ve ever had playing football, and a lot of guys in that room would tell you that."

Instead of limping to the locker room at 3-3 with more questions than answers, the resurgent Penn Staters were 4-2, on a four-game winning streak, and undefeated in the Big Ten.

NOVEMBER 17, 2012

INDIANA V. PENN STATE

The final score from State College read Penn State 45, Indiana 22. No great surprise there. The win gave the Lions a 7-4 overall record, and a 5-2 mark in the league. The Lions could still finish strong with a victory the next weekend over Wisconsin, which had already sealed an invitation to the conference title game thanks to the bans on both OSU and Penn State.

But the brief recap contained some more news: "Senior linebacker Mike Mauti left the game with an injury."

Rich Mauti had made it to every Penn State home game that fall, and the last two would be no exception. He and his wife, Nancy, had spent the week before the Indiana game at their home in Louisiana gathering all the ingredients to make jambalaya, crawfish étouffée, and alligator for the coaches’ regular family dinner Sunday night, to thank them for all they’d done for their son, their family, and their school. The Mautis arrived in State College on Friday with a car full of food and planned to stay the whole week with an old friend and classmate, Penn State women’s field hockey coach Charlene Morett. They would celebrate Thanksgiving at her home with their entire family, and the Zordiches, then stay for the seniors’ swansong against Wisconsin.

Rich and Nancy knew it would be a bit sad to see their youngest son leave the field for the last time, but they would not miss these two games for the world.

The Penn State seniors had the schedule on their minds, too, but they were experiencing it from a decidedly different vantage point. Preparing to play their eleventh game of the season, they knew something few outside of those in Columbus knew: no matter how well they played in their last two games, no matter how many wins they posted, they would not be going to a conference title game, or a bowl game.

This was it.

"I’ve had tears in my eyes before every game," Mauti told me that week. "I think about it before every game. To be grateful to be healthy, to be put in a position to be able to do what I love with people I love doing it with."

Paradoxically, because Mauti had felt that way all fall, he’d failed to register that their careers would end in less than two weeks. Their five-year odyssey had been reduced to days.

It hit his fellow seniors at odd moments: sitting in team meetings with the lights off and the overhead on, eating at the training table, lying in bed late at night. And when it hit them, it hit them hard.

The night before the Indiana game, a bunch of the seniors were sitting at the same table. "Guys were talking about it," Mauti recalled. " ‘It’s getting close. Time’s running out.’ Until I heard that, it hadn’t hit me: this is it! "Then Farrell says, ‘Man, last night I couldn’t sleep. We only have a week left!’

"When he said that—man, it smacked me in the face like a ton of bricks. It’s not just my final year. It’s my final week."

Mauti, sitting at the end of the table that night, started staring off into space. The longer he thought about it, the more his eyes welled up. After about five minutes, he got up and said, "I’m sorry, guys," and left without another word. He walked down the stairs, by himself, and "just lost it. It was the first time I full out let it all go."

"I was at the table," Zordich said. "I saw it. And I knew. I just laughed, because I was doing the same damn thing an hour before.

"And that’s the beauty of it all: Everybody cares. Everybody cares."

Unlike the others at the table, however, Mauti and Jordan Hill knew their football careers would not end in November. Barring serious injury in their final two games, both would be drafted, possibly in the first three rounds. For Hill, that was expected. He had been one of the few true stars returning that season, and so long as he could stay healthy—not a guarantee for a man whose knees kept him out of pads during practice—he would get a good contract and be in a position to take care of his mom and ailing father.

For Mauti, however, it was a bit surprising. After having had both knees operated on—an MCL and an ACL—he’d started his senior year as damaged goods, unlikely to be taken seriously by NFL teams, who were literally running a meat market. But with two games to go, O’Brien’s NFL scouting friends had told him Mauti had proved he could still play linebacker at the highest level and would likely be a second-round pick. That portended a big payday, and a good run in the league.

All Hill and Mauti had to do was get through eight more days in good health.

But that’s not what they were thinking about when they took the field that Saturday at noon, a sunny day in the low fifties—not bad for November 17. Perfect football weather.

Quite a few dreams seemed in jeopardy when Indiana took an early 10–7 lead. If Penn State lost to the Hoosiers, beating the Badgers the following week would only be that much harder, and an uninspiring 6-6 record their likely punishment.

Still in the first quarter, Indiana moved the ball into Penn State territory, heading toward the student section—the end where the Lions’ defense had made its most memorable stands. When the Indiana runner headed toward Mauti’s side, he stepped up to engage the lineman. He was about to disengage to pursue the runner when a smaller player from Indiana’s backfield, not accustomed to blocking, threw his body into Mauti’s right leg, which had been planted in the grass.

"I’ll attribute it to bad football," Mauti told me, dismissing intent. "Terrible technique."

Mauti crumpled to the grass and laid on his back, twisting and turning and holding his helmet. Thanks to his history with both knees, he had no illusions about what had just happened.

His best friend figured it out almost as quickly. When Penn State’s defense was on the field, Zordich always sat on one of the Gatorade jugs by the phones. That’s where he was when the announcer said, "A Nittany Lion is down on the field." Like everyone else, Zordich knew that happened all the time, and the player usually walked off under his own power.

"But for some reason," he said, "this time, I popped up. ‘Who is it?’ "

"Mauti," someone said.

"What’s he holding?"

"His head."

"Right then, I knew what it was."

By this time, the entire team—offense and defense—had drifted out to the field.

"Then we see the cart come out for him," John Urschel told me, "and then we know." With that, Urschel turned quiet and dropped his head, red-eyed.

The coaches knew, too, but they also knew they had to play a football game. They swept everyone back to the sidelines—but not Zordich, who went out to meet the green Gator, which hauled players off to the locker room. Mauti’s head was down, with his helmet still on, but he looked up when Zordich approached him.

"Don’t worry, man," Zordich told him, and clasped hands. "We got this."

Which, between these friends, didn’t mean the game, but Mauti’s grueling rehab. Zordich was promising him they would go through it together, and Mauti understood immediately.

Kirk Diehl knew the drill too well. He made it to the locker room door in time to meet the Gator. "I was thinking, ‘God, we just did this a year ago.’ Mike looked at me and said, ‘Well, are you ready to do this again?’

"That’s when it dawned on me that he remembered me helping him into the shower last year. When I handed him the towel this time, he said, ‘You’ve always been there for me.’

"And I said, ‘No, you’ve always been there for me.’ " Recalling this, Diehl started crying again.

Mauti remembered, too. "He’s got tears going down his face. He said, ‘You don’t understand the kind of effect you had on me. You got me through this year, you’re the reason I’m still here, the reason I’m able to get up in the morning and go to work.’ "

Anyone who had lived in Happy Valley that year—from professors to pastors—knew exactly what Diehl was talking about.

In the locker room, Diehl and Mauti were soon joined by Mauti’s dad, Mauti’s girlfriend—and Zordich’s cousin—Julianna Marie Toscani, and longtime coach Fran Ganter, who still worked for the department. It didn’t take long for all of them to lose it.

"But I knew," Mauti said, "this day was not close to over."

Back on the field, after O’Brien had watched Mauti loaded onto the Gator and carted off, he realized he had a considerable challenge on his hands. "I felt terrible for the kid," he said, and would talk to him at half- time. "But at that point we weren’t playing very well. I looked back at the team and they were in a funk. They weren’t there."

"You could see the entire bench deflate," Spider Caldwell said. "Zordich was in a total fog. He was gone. I was so worried, our team seemed to go flat. Another loss wouldn’t have helped anything."

O’Brien agreed. He told me later, "Coming off a loss like that, the whole next week would have been that much tougher."

Before Mauti even made it to the locker room, O’Brien wisely gathered the squad. "That guy on the field, I know what he means to you, but we can’t do anything for him right now but play hard. So whatever your motivation is—play well for Mauti or just play for your team—we need to pick this shit up."

They listened and, as usual, followed their coach’s lead.

In less than nine minutes, McGloin hit Allen Robinson for a 53-yard touchdown, then hit him again for a 10-yard touchdown, then hit Zach Zwinak for a 16-yard touchdown. The Lions played possessed, turning a 10–7 second-quarter deficit into a 28–13 halftime lead.

But that’s not what the coaches and players remember about that day.

"The rest of the game, I was just in a daze," Zordich said. "I just wanted it to end. A lot of guys felt that way. I didn’t want to be on the field. We wanted to follow the cart, to be in the locker room."

They had their chance at halftime, when the players lined up to see Mauti in the training room.

"I was standing outside the door the whole time when all those guys were going in," Zordich said. "Coaches, players—everybody was crying. Everybody was crying. As much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t go in there. I would have lost it. If I’d’ve lost it, I probably wouldn’t have been able to go out for the second half."

Led by Jordan Hill, PennState’s defense held Indiana to 9 more points, while Zwinak, Zordich, and Ficken added 17, for a safe 45–22 victory, and a 7-4 record.

When the team returned to the locker room, everyone made a beeline for the training room, where they could talk as long as they liked.

"Sitting there, you’re in a state of just complete—I don’t want to say vulnerability—but you’re just completely broken," Mauti remembered. "Defenseless. All your walls, emotionally, physically, spiritually—they’re gone.

"I knew inevitably I was going to have to look Coach O’Brien in the eye. I knew that was going to be hard to do."

When O’Brien walked in, then stuck his hand out, Mauti saw his coach’s hand was shaking. O’Brien opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out, and tears started coming down.

"I was relatively composed until that point," Mauti said. "I don’t remember the exact way he put it—but his voice was shaking, and he said, ‘I’ve been around some special players, and you’re one of the best I’ve ever coached.’ We hugged. He was about to say something else, but he couldn’t take any more, and he walked out.

"He left and I’m thinking, ‘That’s my head coach—and he’s crying.’

"I was thinking about the last eight months, and how far we’ve come, from talking to him on the phone in January [after O’Brien had been named Paterno’s successor], to this. If you told me we’d be crying in each other’s arms in November, I’d have said . . ."

Mauti looked away, shaking his head, unable to finish the sentence.

Coach O’Brien called the Mautis on Sunday after the Indiana game to let them know that no one expected them to bring the food Sunday night for the staff’s weekly family dinner—or even show up. But the Mautis wouldn’t hear it.

After the Cajun cuisine was served to great acclaim, "Rich thanked us for making it a great season," strength coach Craig Fitzgerald recalled. "Bill said, ‘No no no. We thank you for your son. Without him, we never would have gotten here.’ "

Throughout the weekend, hours after the Indiana game, Mike Mauti’s phone blew up with calls and texts from teammates, former players— including Penn State legends like Paul Posluszny and Franco Harris for a half-hour talk—and even Peyton Manning, whose father, Archie, had played with Rich Mauti in New Orleans and remains a family friend.

After the senior Manning called Mike Mauti on Sunday, he texted him Monday morning: "Life’s a big shit sandwich. You either take a bite, or you starve. You’ve had some bad breaks, but life will be good. Keep the faith."

"Couldn’t have said it any better," Mauti said.

Zordich nodded. "That’s what we’ve all been doing, all year."

But Mauti knew he had probably just played his last football game.

At four-thirty on a cold Tuesday morning, three hours before sunrise, the two Mauti men—father and son—headed out for the four-hour drive to Pittsburgh to find out.

Because Mike had been surrounded by people non-stop since he tore his ACL, "I was looking forward to that drive so much," he told me. "I so badly needed to be alone with my dad. One-on-one time with him is very precious. The older I get, the more I appreciate it."

Despite playing lacrosse and football at Penn State and special teams for the Saints, Rich Mauti never blew a knee. Yet, Mike knew, no one would understand what he was going through better than his dad.

"By the time I got in the car that morning," Mike said, "I’d already come to grips with the fact that I may not play again, ever. That’s when I started to look at what the future would look like without football. Football is all I’ve known. That was sobering.

"My dad was as spent as I was. And I think what killed him is the idea that this was the way it was going to end. At four-thirty in the morning, driving in pitch dark, there wasn’t a dull moment in that car, and not a dry eye for two-and-a-half hours. And that’s really when I just let out all my thoughts."

Mike told his father, "I’m okay with not playing again. I’ve done everything that I could." Mike was not thinking just about football, but everything his team had done for the program and Penn State itself. They had given everything they had.

"Since last November," he told his dad, "I made up my mind, this is what I wanted. This is what I was committing to, all year. I was so proud to be a part of it, and the people I did it with. The friendships that I’ve made—the seniors, the coaches—that’s what made it worth it."

"Your relationship with Z," Rich said, reffering to Zordich, "makes the last five years worth it."

"That really kinda hit me," Mike told me. "That is what it’s all about. That’s what lasts a lot longer than a title: the relationships."

When the Penn State players had the bells and whistles of big-time college football stripped away by the NCAA sanctions, they discovered something better: they believed deeply in the ideals of the student-athlete experience that the NCAA had always espoused—and by the end of the season, they had proven that they believed in them more than the NCAA itself.

When Mike Mauti, a likely second-round NFL draft pick, blew out a knee for the third time and faced a future without football, that’s when he fully realized the student-athlete experience was enough by itself. He did not need an NFL contract to justify his effort and experience.

"That’s when I got peace, is what I’d call it, when I finally got one-on- one time with my dad. I’ll never forget that car ride for the rest of my life."

By the time they arrived in Pittsburgh, Mike said, "Basically, I had hung my helmet up before I even walked into Dr. Bradley’s office. I think both of us did. But my hand was still hanging on to the mask, just in case."

While they waited for Dr. Bradley to come back with the MRI, the Mautis had already accepted that Mike’s football career might be over. But then Dr. Bradley came back and told them, "The MCL does not need to be operated on. It will heal itself, and the ACL is a standard reconstruction, with a cadaver’s ligament."

Mike and his dad just looked at each other, stunned.

"I said, ‘Whoa!’ " Mike recalled. "With that news, I took my helmet off the hook and brought it back with me. I wasn’t done.

"That’s all I really needed to hear. ACL rehab is a bitch—and I know exactly what it is. It’s just tedious. It takes time. Your whole quad shuts down and atrophies immediately. Your leg is literally like Jell-O. But, hey, the third time’s the charm. In a sick way, I’ve mastered this."

On the drive back to Penn State, Mike told his dad, "I can do this. I could be back in camp next year, by July. That’s doable. That’s salvageable."

They drove back in daylight, with their first good news in four days. When Mauti returned to the football building, he saw Jordan Hill working out, which inspired Mike to start working out himself.

"I just started cranking out sets of pull-ups. Then I go to another machine and start doing curls. And I’m feeling good, and the next thing you know I’m on the trampoline strengthening my quad, to help me get ready for the surgery. It felt so good doing it."

As was so often the case when Mauti talked, his next sentence could have applied to him, as intended, or the Penn State program, which was never far from his thoughts:

"Whoever’s trying to kill me isn’t getting the job done. But one day, I’m going to punch that fucker in the face."

Thanks again to John Bacon for providing the excerpt. Keep an eye on BSD for a full review of "Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football" next week.

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