The emotional highlight of Week 6 in the NFL undeniably came Thursday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, when Saints linebacker and special teamer Michael Mauti re-created one of the greatest moments in franchise history with his first-quarter block of a Falcons punt in a 31–21 New Orleans win. The play was eerily similar to the memorable punt block by former Saints special teamer Steve Gleason in the team’s historic first game back in the Superdome in 2006, after the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. But Mauti topped even Gleason, recovering his own block and returning it four yards for a Saints touchdown and a 14–0 lead.
Gleason, diagnosed with ALS in 2011, happened to be in attendance to witness Mauti’s game-changing play Thursday night, where he received the George Halas Award for overcoming adversity from the Pro Football Writers Association in a pre-game ceremony. In a bizarre twist, Mauti, a third-year NFL veteran and former Penn State star, grew up in the New Orleans area and was in the Superdome as a high schooler that night in September 2006 when Gleason galvanized the entire state of Louisiana with his punt block against the same Falcons. Mauti said he considers Gleason one of his heroes and an inspiration.
Mauti, whose father, Rich Mauti, was a standout special teams player for the Saints from 1977–83, was released by the Vikings at the end of the preseason and signed with his hometown Saints in September. He didn’t want to leave Minnesota, but by the time I spoke with him by phone on Monday afternoon to re-live his big play once more, he was loving the unforeseen circumstances of his new life in New Orleans.
Don Banks: Give me a sense of what your last four days have been like, with so much going on with what surrounded that play, that moment, that night. What impact has it all had?
Michael Mauti: Anybody who didn’t know that I was down here in New Orleans, I think figured it out pretty quickly after Thursday. The fact that it happened in a Thursday night game and everybody was watching and there wasn’t much other football going on, I think that was a contributing factor in all the attention it has gotten. But it definitely was a busy weekend, even though I was trying to get some rest. But I’ll take it. It’s been one heck of a weekend.
DB: What about life has changed for you since that play, and what has the response from people in New Orleans been like? Have you gotten to experience anything that you never would have had you not blocked that punt? New Orleans loves its heroes.
MM: It has added a certain sense of legitimacy with my position, being down here in my hometown. On Friday, the mayor [Donald J. Villere] of Mandeville [a New Orleans suburb] shows up at my house and gives me a key to the city, gives me my own day and a proclamation for Michael Mauti Day. He gave me a plaque and said that any day I block a punt from now on will be Michael Mauti Day again in Mandeville.
And then that night, Friday night, I ended up going to my old high school, Mandeville High, and giving the football team a little pre-game speech and they were all fired up. If I don’t make that play Thursday night, nobody would have been paying attention. Friday would have just been a day where I got back to my career, my day job.
DB: When you look back at the confluence of events on Thursday night, with Steve Gleason being there to be honored, the Falcons being the opponent again, all the similarities of those two plays nine years apart, does it makes you think something was at work here, with you being in position to make that play? Any profound thoughts about it in the days since?
MM: You know what, I’m not somebody that believes that just happened. I think over the course of time I’ve realized there’s got to be some sort of higher power at work here. All the similarities and given all the factors involved, with the backstory behind this whole thing. Especially with Steve, and given the fact I was there to see his punt block nine years ago and now he was there to see mine.
But it was just me on the good end of a blown protection there, and I had a good scheme to rush, and it just worked out. Nine times out of 10 it may not work, but that one time, it worked perfectly. So you just never know.
DB: How many times out of 50 would you get a punt block attempt to work? So many things have to go just right to get one.
MM: Yeah, I think sometimes things can’t be explained, but I know it was just special to be a part of, and like I said, it almost feels like things were meant to go a certain way. I know this, it definitely felt right, having my family there, being at home, and the circumstances of having Steve there. It doesn’t get any sweeter than that.
DB: To be linked now in that moment with Steve Gleason, somebody you’ve said you admired greatly and is so important to your hometown, is that what ultimately makes this memory and that moment as special as it was, being identified with him and all he stands for?
MM: Without a doubt. I think that’s the reason this thing has gained a lot of traction with so many people. And given how similar the rushes looked, the pictures of it are almost identical. It’s just crazy the similarity. If there’s any place to do it, it’s New Orleans, where you have a city that loves its football like the fans do here, with one play from their history and the emotions that tied into that, people are going to remember that for a long time.
I mean, it’s something where I still remember the feeling I had when Gleason blocked that punt. That feeling, I can remember it like it was yesterday, so I know how a fan feels from that perspective, and that’s something that sticks with you a long time.
DB: Is there anything quite the adrenaline rush or the momentum swing in football like the punt block, especially one recovered for a touchdown? It just changes the dynamic and the atmosphere in a stadium so suddenly, reversing everything literally and figuratively.
MM: In all of my career, I’ve had some interceptions in college, but of any play I’ve ever made, that’s definitely been the ultimate adrenaline rush for me. I can’t imagine it getting any better than that, especially on special teams. If you’re a kickoff returner and you take one to the house it must be similar. But as a core special teamer like myself, that has to be the peak experience you can have. It’s fair to say I’ve never felt anything like that on a football field.
DB: In Saints country, they’re calling your play “MautiGras.” Of course they are. That was there for the coining all along, because it goes together so perfectly. So it just happens that your last name would fit perfectly into the oldest, most well-known New Orleans tradition in history, right?
MM: You know, this is somewhere I’ve been dreaming about being since I first put on the uniform when I was 13 years old. My dad played here, and it’s just one of those things where it’s almost like this was part of the plan all along. I’m just blessed to be in this position, and sometimes it makes you think there’s got to definitely be a higher power at work here. At the end of the day, it’s a special moment and a special game.
DB: You were released by Minnesota on Sept. 5, the final cuts of the preseason, and while you were sad to leave the Vikings, do you think now that you were supposed to be a Saint at some point in your career?
MM: I guess so. If you had told me in training camp that I’d be sitting down here in New Orleans, I would have told you you were crazy. But maybe in my case, it was all part of the plan.
DB: Your dad actually blocked a punt as a Saint at Miami in 1980, but being the 1–15 “Aints” of that season, they still lost the game. But now not only do you have that in common with Steve Gleason, but your father and you are linked in Saints history as well. Does that make Thursday night all the more special?
MM: Absolutely, for sure. I mean, not a lot of people get to experience playing in the NFL, following in the family business and doing what your dad did, and having success at it. I’m just truly blessed to be in this situation, and hopefully this kind of propels us into a little bit of a run here as a team and we can look back and say that Thursday night game was a catapult for us. We’ll see how that goes.
DB: Glad you brought that up. What could this win do for this team? You’re 2–4, and a lot of people have already tried to mentally write off the Saints this season in the NFC South, with Carolina at 5–0 and Atlanta 5–1. But that win at least changed the math a little bit and keeps you alive, getting that second win. What’s the potential for this victory to mean something in time?
MM: We got a lot of young guys on this team and it gives them a little taste of success, winning that game. For us it all comes down to limiting our mistakes and creating turnovers and not turning the ball over. It all sounds real simple but in the games we’ve lost those have been some of the factors that have contributed. And when we do win we’re taking care of the ball, and that’s putting us on the winning side of the equation. At the same time, it’s a game of going on runs, so hopefully we can kind of ride the wave here and get things going.
DB: So no commercial offers coming your way after Thursday night? Are you anyone’s new pitchman in New Orleans?
MM: [Laughs] Not as of yet. I think I’ve got to have a couple more of those plays before I get commercial offers.