It was a subtle gesture, from one teammate to another, one person to another.
Michael Zordich emerged from the gathering of players that had formed on the field to personally embrace Michael Mauti as he was being carted off the field. The two simply exchanged a firm handshake and a few words, but the message was clear — the fifth-year senior wasn’t in this battle alone.
Mauti left Penn State’s game against Indiana after injuring his left knee midway through the first quarter, bringing about a piercing moment of silence among his teammates and the 90,385 in attendance. The team came together as the linebacker, whose status for the team’s final game against Wisconsin on Saturday remains uncertain, was being attended to and teammates said after the game they wanted to show Mauti they would stay united in his absence.
“We got to rally around him,” fellow senior Gerald Hodges said. “When it comes down to it, we all have to lift each other up.”
Players said the event, as opposed to deflating them, inspired them to play together in his honor. The Nittany Lions forced a punt following the injury, and quickly ran down the field for a 91-yard scoring drive to jumpstart the team’s 45-22 victory.
Mauti suffered a season-ending ACL injury to the same knee in week four of last season and was moving with the help of crutches when he returned to the sideline in the second half.
Zordich said the initial sight of Mauti going down was painful considering how much his good friend has meant to the team.
“You just hate to see anybody get injured, but especially a guy like him that has put so much into the program and helped everybody,” Zordich said. “He’s a huge reason why we’re all here right now. Obviously, it hurts to see him go down, but that’s an understatement.”
After the game, coach Bill O’Brien said the linebacker could return for the final game of the season, but he was unaware of the exact severity of the injury.
O’Brien reflected on how lucky he feels to have been to coach a player like Mauti.
“I’ve coached the greatest, I’ve coached a hall of fame quarterback, hall of fame receivers, and great players,” O’Brien said. “He’s one of the most special players that I’ve been around.”
The linebacker is widely seen as the leader of the Lions’ team and heading into the game he led the team in tackles, forced fumbles and interceptions.
Defensive tackle Jordan Hill was noticeably shaken when discussing the prospect of Mauti not being able to suit up for his last collegiate game. Yet, he said Mauti would expect the team to bring its best game even without his presence.
“It’s huge, but we can’t hang our heads,” Hill said. “We have to go out there and play for him, because he’s our leader and he’s not going to want us to go out there and lay an egg. That’s not his character. That’s not how he is, and that’s not how we are.”
Cornerback Stephon Morris said the team’s last game will be devoted to their teammate.
"This game next week, even though it's senior day, it's Mauti,” Morris said. “We're going to play it for him."