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Column: Mauti's ending changes

He stood with his arm around his fellow seniors as they posed for pictures after the game. He kept the emotions off his face, for the most part, but swallowed hard every now and then. A few yards away, his mother stood watching, wiping tears from her face.

Penn State's seniors will play for Michael Mauti in next week's season finale.

A few minutes later, he turned and faced the south goalposts, now joining his entire team, and sang his school's alma mater. He swayed gently back and forth to the music, careful not to put too much weight on his left leg, and didn't mouth too many of the words. Every few seconds or so, the emotions would flood to his face, and he'd swallow and choke them back down again.

This was not the way it was supposed to end for Michael Mauti, who might not go down as the greatest linebacker to play for a school that has counted so many great linebackers, but surely as the one with the fiercest spirit, the most determined resolve. It was not supposed to end in the middle of the field in the first quarter of his next-to-last game, with yet another knee injury.

But then, this wasn't the way it was supposed to end for any of the Penn State seniors. They will conclude their careers, and one of the most memorable and, in many ways, remarkable seasons in the program's history, not in a sunny New Year's Day bowl venue but in Beaver Stadium next Saturday against Wisconsin. Their senior season wasn't supposed to end with sanctions and postseason bans and their teammates transferring and the officials in Lincoln making inexplicable calls.

No, Mauti's last game was going to be bittersweet any way you sliced it. But now it seems as though his last game has already been played, and he will once again be relegated, as he has for so much of his college career, to spectator.

It isn't fair, not for the guy who fought so hard to keep this team together this summer, then pushed it forward each and every day since, to leave the field for the final time on a cart, as he did in the final minutes of the first quarter after being hit with a devastating and probably illegal chop block.

"I was hoping to finish out the whole entire year with him, and then for him to go down like that, it brings a tear to your eye," said Mauti's partner in mayhem, fellow senior linebacker Gerald Hodges. "It's emotional for each and every one of us. He's our leader."

That word -- leader -- doesn't really do it justice, though. Somewhere along the line, Mauti became something more than a player on this team. He became a walking, talking symbol of its united, defiant spirit. Many of Penn State's players will go to their graves not understanding why they were the ones punished for the crimes and missteps and negligence of others. They had two options: Feel sorry for themselves, or use the emotions to galvanize the group.

Mauti, who took the first chance he got to march in front of microphones and cameras and swear that "one man sure as hell wasn't going to destroy" the program he and so many others had poured so much into, made sure his team selected the second option, and hasn't let up since.

"Mike Mauti means everything to this team," safety Jacob Fagnano said. "He's the face of the team. He sets the example every day. On and off the field, in the locker room and at practice. You can't replace a guy like Michael Mauti on the team, and that's what type of person he is."

College football is a brutal game, filled with violent collisions and twisting bodies and wear and tear that sends players to the training room or the hospital each week. Everyone gets hurt -- it's the serious injuries you pray you'll never suffer, but when they arrive -- and they always do -- all you can do is let time and rest do their work and hope you can get back to your old form eventually.

It is also a game filled with players who barely qualify for the term "student-athlete" and prima donnas who can't get their egos in line with their abilities and fans and coaches and media -- and, yes, administrators -- who have misplaced or misguided priorities. Like so many other good things, it has its warts.

But the guys like Mauti, who are all too rare, are what make you love it. They inspire you with their play and, when the circumstances call for it, as they did this summer, with their words and deeds and their attitude. The game breeds winners and it breeds losers, and it also breeds, every once in a while, the kind of leader who would excel in a board room or a defensive huddle. If you're paying attention, these players make you feel their desire and their love for the game and their teammates, and if you feel those things, you cannot help but feel the devastation when fate, in the form of a twisted ligament, robs them of even a single play.

All you can do is hope that time and rest is enough, and let those players know you feel as much for them in their dark moments as you did while they were in the limelight. This is what the Nittany Lions and their fans now face. As much as it hurts them, they now get to pay back the player -- the leader -- who gave them so much.

"It is what it is," said Mauti's friend and fellow senior Michael Zordich. "And we're going to be there to support him no matter what."

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