UNIVERSITY PARK - If you needed another reminder about how life sometimes isn't fair, that example was on full display as senior linebacker Michael Mauti disappeared into the Beaver Stadium tunnel Saturday afternoon with an apparent knee injury that will likely end his Penn State football career.
Just like that, the greatest leader in the program's history was being whisked away on the dreaded green cart after enduring the third significant knee injury since arriving here in 2008.
Bill O'Brien said he wouldn't have a definitive diagnosis at least until today, but the emotions stirred indicated we've seen Mauti in a blue and white uniform for the final time.
O'Brien held his composure, but defensive coordinator Ted Roof had tears in his eyes.
"[From] day one, meeting one, he's meant so much to me personally," Roof said after the Lions' 45-22 win over Indiana. "I love that kid."
Mauti 's legacy had been cemented long before Saturday. Not only has he stood out on the field, he is the player credited most with keeping the Lions together after the rash NCAA sanctions allowed for any player to transfer immediately without losing eligibility.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmusnki
Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti puts his hands to his head while being carted off the field.
It was Mauti and Michael Zordich - both seniors, both sons of former Lions, both with NFL futures - who stood in front of the team before preseason practice and pledged solidarity.
More than anyone, Mauti, who also spoke for the current players at Joe Paterno's memorial service, was comfortable as the face of the team and the player in the center of the pre-game warmups.
"A lot of people couldn't do what he did," senior center Matt Stankiewitch said. "He helped keep the team together. We're fortunate to have seniors who are leaders at each position, but Mike is a big key to that."
O'Brien considers Mauti worthy of exclusive company.
"All I can say is in your career, I've been as fortunate to be around some very special players," O'Brien said, a bit haltingly. "I've been fortunate to coach the greatest - a Hall of Fame quarterback [Tom Brady], great receivers, great players and he's one of the most special. Just a fantastic kid."
Which is the reason Beaver Stadium fell silent when Mauti went down midway through the first quarter after a chop block in which he was hit low by Indiana's D'Angelo Roberts at the same time he was already being blocked. No penalty was called.
"If he's engaged up top, it's something that should be called, and I'd consider it a cheap shot," Zordich said. "It happens a lot, but either way, we've just got to keep going."
When Mauti was injured, the entire team left the bench to salute him before he departed the field.
"He's the kind of guy that deserves that respect," Zordich said.
"I love him like a brother," said fellow senior linebacker Gerald Hodges, who spent a moment on one knee in prayer after the injury.
As the cart pulled away, Zordich approached it by himself and spoke briefly to his close friend and roommate.
"You hate to see anybody get injured - especially a guy like him that's put so much into the program and is a huge, huge reason why we're all here," Zordich said.
Mauti re-joined his teammates in the fourth quarter and left the field on crutches. His parents were in tears in the end zone as the team sung the alma mater. Zordich said each of the Lions approached Mauti in the locker room to offer encouragement.
Missing the Senior Day game with Wisconsin is only part of the disappointment Mauti may face. After tearing up his right knee in 2009 and his left knee in the fourth game last year, this clearly could cloud at least the start of his NFL career if not all of it.
"We hope the best for him," Hodges said. "Of course, his spirits are down, but we're going to keep rallying around him. We lost a leader and when you lose a leader, you have to have other guys step up, including myself."
Hodges made 12 tackles and Mike Hull replaced Mauti and added 11 stops. Hull, though, wishes he'd have gotten the extra action for a different reason.
"I hate to see anyone get injured - opposing team or our team," Hull said. "I just can't believe it was him."
Neither, unfortunately, could anyone else.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or email@example.com.