Whenever an NFL team looks at rookie prospects they might be interested in drafting, there are "red flags" that can derail the interest. They can be mental red flags – a player simply isn't intelligent enough to pick up a complicated NFL system. They can be off-the-field issues that lower a player's stock. They can be physical in terms of injuries and durability questions.
To watch game film of Vikings rookie Michael Mauti, one would think that he would be a second- or third-round prospect. He was a tackling machine with a natural instinct for the ball. But he lasted until the seventh round when the Vikings stepped up and took a chance on him.
Why? He has an injury red flag that is enormous. He has had three ACL surgeries during his football career – two on his left knee and one on his right – injuries that ended his last two seasons at PSU. When the Vikings drafted him, he was less than six months removed from his third ACL surgery. Even the most optimistic war room generals thought it would be long shot for Mauti to be ready for the 2013 season, much less flying around the practice field from the first day of training camp.
Mauti wasn't sure if anyone would be willing to take such a risk, but he is trying to prove that, injury red flags or not, his passion for the game of football can override the grueling process of rehabilitation.
"I knew there were some teams that weren't even going to put me on their draft board," Mauti said. "You couldn't really blame them because I've had three knee surgeries. That's a pretty big red flag when teams are drafting players. But the Vikings took a shot on me and have given me an opportunity. That's all I can ask. Anything I can do to help this team, that's what I'm looking to do."
Although Adrian Peterson has re-set the bar for what is deemed as acceptable time to fully recover from a devastating knee injury, Mauti shares that same intensity to approaching the rehab of his injured knee. He set a goal of being ready for the start of training camp and wasn't going to view failure as option. Whether he defied the odds or not, he's been on the field as scheduled and as planned and wasn't going to let the obstacles in front of him bring him down during the process.
"I went into the rehab process preparing to be ready for training camp," Mauti said. "That was my goal. Unfortunately, I've been through that process before and knew how to handle it and what it would take. I know how to rehab and it's all about what you're willing to put into it. I think the condition I'm in now is a reflection on the rehab and a reflection on the training staff we have here. Eric Sugarman and those guys on his staff are the best and they've worked hard to get me to the point I am now."
Sugarman shared in the mutual admiration society. From the time Mauti arrived at Winter Park, he was a willing student for what Sugarman and the training staff had prepared for him and was driven to get his knee in playing shape, which impressed Sugarman and his staff.
"He is such a great kid," Sugarman said. "He's been a pleasure to work with because it's clear that he loves the game and has a passion for it. From the time we got him at the facility, he's been working hard to get back on the field and you can see the results of that work on the practice field."
As much as the physical grind of rehab can be, it is just as mentally taxing on a player. Often isolated from your teammates, the grueling process is something players do largely on their own. Mauti's previous experience taught him how to prepare himself both physically and mentally for the months of work that lay ahead of him from last November to late July.
"It's never easy because you are separated away from the rest of the guys when you're rehabbing an injury," Mauti said. "You spend most of your time with the trainers and not your teammates. At times, it's as much mental as it is physical. You really have to work to stay positive because there are times when you really get down and ask ‘Why me?' You can get down on yourself and feel sorry for yourself, but having been through the process before I knew how to get through it both mentally and physically."
One of Mauti's strongest supporters has been head coach Leslie Frazier. He watched a lot of game tape on the linebacker and saw the talent he had, but he also had some reservations of drafting a player some teams viewed as damaged goods. He has been just as impressed as Sugarman and his staff at how dramatically Mauti has shown improvement from the time he began settling in at Winter Park in May.
"Michael has really come along," Frazier said. "We were concerned with the knee injury and how soon it would take him to get back on the field and be productive. It seems like every day he's gaining more and more confidence in his knee. His knee is moving more freely now, so that's encouraging. He has all the leadership skills you look for and all the physical talent you like, but coming off a second ACL surgery (on his left knee) is no easy task for a football player. But he's making dramatic improvement and we're much more positive now than we were when we opened camp."
Whether Mauti can defy the odds is still to be seen. Few people thought he would be this far along this fast and some no longer view him as a long shot to make the final roster. He's come a long way since last November and still has a long road in front of him, but he's doing the one thing he loves – competing to continue his football career. Training camp isn't a grind for Mauti, it's a Godsend.
"It's been great," Mauti said. "I'm just enjoying running around playing football again. This is a dream for me, so I'm trying to make the most out of every day and see what happens. My goal is just to earn a spot on the team and help the Vikings win. Any way I can do that, whether it's on defense or special teams, it doesn't matter to me. I just want to keep playing football."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Mauti appreciates the chance to compete again
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