Of the 49 names on the Washington Redskins' active roster, none might be less familiar than Rich Mauti. Although their depth chart nominally lists Mauti as a third-string wide receiver, he has yet to catch a pass for them. Nor is he likely to. He has caught just 21 passes during his entire eight-year career; someday Art Monk will catch that many by halftime. So Mauti is a receiver in name only. But what he really is -- first, last and almost always since coming to the league as a free agent in 1977 -- is a special teams player.
This is Mauti's first season in Washington, where special teams have always been prized, where special teams players such as Dallas Hickman, Rusty Tillman, Pete Wysocki and Bill Malinchak have been exalted, sometimes eclipsing the fame of the starters. Before this, Mauti had spent seven years in New Orleans, where, rumor has it, the NFL once placed a professional football franchise. The Saints are not known for their special teams. The Saints are not known for much, other than losing. In their 18-year history, the Saints not only haven't made it to the playoffs; they haven't even had a winning season.
In a real sense then, Mauti has gone from rags to riches.
Not only has he come to a team that respects what he does best, but also to a team that has winning seasons, playoff seasons, even Super Bowl seasons -- as if that came with the helmet.
"The other day," Mauti said, "I was having a beer with (fellow special team player) Greg Williams, and I said to him, 'Greg, you don't know what this means to me -- having a chance to go to the playoffs. You don't know what it's like on a losing team.' By the 12th game at New Orleans we usually had absolutely no shot at going anywhere; those last four weeks seemed like a lifetime." Mauti grinned as he recalled Williams' answer. "Greg said to me, 'I guess I'm spoiled. I'm in the league for two years and I've gone to two Super Bowls.' "
Now, at 30, which is already middle age for most NFL players and positively Medicare for special teamers, Mauti will be in the playoffs for the first time.
What words would describe Mauti's feelings?
"You don't have enough paper to fit them all," he said, beaming.
Even with Mark Moseley kicking the winning field goal, and Art Monk setting a record for most pass receptions in a 16-game schedule, it's hard to imagine a Redskin being more excited than Mauti following Sunday's 29-27 victory over the Cardinals. Not only was he certifiably in the playoffs, and on a division champ for the first time, but also Mauti had made a major contribution to the Redskins' effort late in the first half by blocking a punt, which led to a field goal.
"My responsibility on that scheme was to rush the outside, to make sure the punter didn't run for the first down," Mauti said. "But it was fourth and 13, and deep in their territory. I was pretty sure they'd actually kick. I was one-on-one at the line, and the last couple of punts I'd been setting my man up for an inside move, an 'up and under.' I thought if I got anywhere close, I'd just lay out on it -- dive for the ball. Next thing I heard was the thud. I felt it hit solidly in my hand. I saw it, picked it up and headed for the end zone."
He got six yards.
"That's all?" Mauti asked.
He laughed. "Felt like I ran 200."
It was the second blocked punt of his career, and, under the circumstances, someone wondered if it was Mauti's biggest thrill as well.
"You want to know the truth?" Mauti asked. "This whole season has been the biggest thrill of my career. Without a doubt. I couldn't have written a better script for myself. I was anxious to get out of New Orleans. I'd been there for seven years, and it didn't seem like there was any hope there. I wasn't happy. I wasn't giving 100 percent. It wasn't fair to my teammates, so I asked for my release. I would have been happy to go anywhere, but the fact that I came to an organization like this was almost too good to be true. To make the playoffs was my dream. To get a block like this is icing on the cake. From now on, everything is gravy.
"The last week has been very anxious for me," he continued. "I didn't sleep well. My stomach was upset. I'm sure it was the playoff situation. I knew we'd pretty much locked it up, but I still felt so relieved when the Rams and Giants lost. With New Orleans playing the Giants, my wife and I sent Dave Wilson, the Saints' quarterback, a plant on Wednesday, and on the card we wrote: 'Please, please, please, please, please beat the Giants.' "
Mauti sat back and smiled contentedly.
He hadn't felt this calm in a while.
After eight years in the pros he was finally, and exactly, where he wanted to be. After playing for a 1-15 New Orleans team in 1980, a team in which players fought each other almost daily and actually threatened each others' lives in the clubhouse, here he was with a champion, at the crest of the wave looking out at a blue horizon.
In some ways, they've been cut of the same cloth, Mauti and these Redskins. He was a free agent, waived through the league once already, who molded a full career out of next to nothing. They were riddled by injuries, patched together by bubble gum and spit.
Maybe both played over their heads.
The way it's worked out, they'd both have to be very satisfied, don't you think?
"I'd absolutely like to be back here next year," Mauti said. "But whatever happens, I'll be able to handle it. When I hang up my spikes for good, I'll do just that. I'll walk away and I won't look back. And I'll probably be the most satisfied professional football player to have ever played the game."