EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Michael Mauti watched April’s NFL draft for three days, unsure where, or if, he would get the chance to continue his football career at the next level.
Six rounds went by and Mauti, the Penn State linebacker who was on the Butkus Award watch list at the start of the season for the top linebacker in college football, and Mauti didn’t get the call he was hoping for. If he needed reminding of why he was still around in the seventh round, all Mauti had to do was look at his knees.
Those knees are the only reason he was there for the Minnesota Vikings at pick No. 213, the first of three seventh-round picks by Minnesota.
“I really tried to go into this draft without expectations just because I understand my situation medically,” Mauti said. “(The draft) got more and more difficult as time went on, but I couldn’t be happier to get picked by such a great organization.”
Mauti’s on-field performance doesn’t come with much questioning and he’s been described as a leader.
The one thing that let Mauti down in his career at Penn State was his own knees. First it was his right anterior cruciate ligament in 2009, a torn ACL. Then his left ACL gave out in 2011. Each time Mauti returned to the field for the Nittany Lions. Then last year his season ended when his left ACL tore again in November, ending his senior season after 11 games in which he had 95 tackles, two sacks, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
“I got high-low and there was nothing I can do about that one,” Mauti said.
Mauti, son of former NFL receiver Rich Mauti, was only an observer at last weekend’s rookie minicamp for the Vikings. He’s less than seven months from his latest surgery and still in rehab, making his chances at an immediate impact in Minnesota unlikely.
But Mauti knows what he’s up against in his recovery and his NFL destination is a curious one.
The Vikings know how to deal with ACLs. Running back Adrian Peterson is the shining example, returning from knee surgery nine months later and going on to win the MVP last year. Yet, there was also the return of linebacker Chad Greenway, who has twice torn ACLs. The latest for Greenway was as a rookie in 2006. He was back on the field starting every game in 2007 and hasn’t missed a game in six seasons.
“I know our medical staff with (head athletic trainer) Eric Sugarman and how we’ve had success rehabbing guys coming off ACLs have been very high,” Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman said. “I would match our medical staff and our rehab program against anyone in the NFL. I think we are the best at it. The results speak for itself from Chad Greenway to when we had (linebacker) Heath Farwell to Adrian Peterson; that all comes from our medical staff and they know what they’re doing and they know how to rehab those guys to get them on the field as quickly as they can.
“We’ve had great results, so we had no hesitation because the repairs (for Mauti) were actually very good and now it’s just our job to rehab that player and get him on the field as quickly as we can.”
Mauti said the Vikings’ experience in handling similar situations gives him confidence. He said he’s talked with Sugarman and the course of his rehab under Minnesota’s guidance doesn’t differ much.
“It’s just a matter of different philosophies and different things,” Mauti said.
The Vikings felt confidence in their evaluation of Mauti from a medical perspective. Mauti was checked out at the Combine — he called the experience, “32 doctors poke and pull on you” — and Spielman made sure from his medical team there were no further concerns.
“We were very strict on him at the Combine,” Spielman said. “I asked (Sugarman) 8,000 times because he’s a heck of a football player and has a great attitude, great leadership, ‘Is this guy healthy?’ What he’ll do is, he’ll come in. We feel we’re going to start rehabbing him. He should be ready to go by training camp. But he was just too good of a football player, too good of a character, too good of a leader to pass up. He’s very intense and he’ll definitely be great competition at that Mike linebacker position.”
Mauti sent a letter to all 32 teams in December to assure them he had the right mindset to come back from the injury again and he would be ready to compete in the NFL. Mauti said going through the rehab a third time has been smoother because he knows what to expect, and where and when to push himself.
His mindset might be his biggest aid in his recovery.
“I think a lot of it is mentally, how you focus your mental energy, healing yourself and getting good rest and all the little things that add up over the span of eight months,” Mauti said. “Really what I learned it’s not what you do in your rehab therapy, it’s how you do it. If you attack it and you have that mindset. I’ve gotten a little bit better as I’ve gone through it a couple times.”
And just maybe he can be the latest success story for the Vikings.