'I finally have my body back': Saints' Mauti, Block Award recipient, overcomes ulcerative colitis

Gone are the cold sweats, the awful cramps and the beelines to the bathroom, which Michael Mauti made more than 20 times a day.

“I finally have my body back,” said Mauti, a linebacker for the New Orleans Saints. “I’ve overcome the hardest frickin’ obstacle I ever faced in my life.”

Ulcerative colitis nearly did him in. But Mauti, 28, underwent three operations, beat the inflammatory bowel disease that affects nearly 1 million Americans and returned to football last year.

On Saturday, he’ll be among the 32 recipients (one from each NFL team) at the 40th Ed Block Courage Awards at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel. The award is named for the late Ed Block, trainer of the Baltimore Colts from 1954 to 1977.

During the event, Mauti shouldn’t need to hurry to the men’s room on countless occasions, as he would have in the past.

“There were times [in 2016] when I’d take one bite of food and have to go,” he said. “For several weeks, I had to stop three times, on the way to practice, which was a 10-minute commute. I knew every gas station on the way; sometimes I didn’t make it.

“I lost more than 50 pounds [from his playing weight of 240] during the first two months of the season. I couldn’t sleep. I was up every 30 minutes.”

The disease ravages the digestive tract, eroding the lining of the colon, a tube-like muscle comprising the large intestine and rectum. Mauti was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in his senior year at Penn State in 2012, when he noticed blood in his stool.

Six agonizing years later, he is pain-free. He’s also playing football without his colon, the 6-foot bowel that was removed during surgery.

“It has been one heck of a journey,” said Mauti, a college All-American who has given hope to those suffering from the malady and from Crohn’s disease, a related inflammation that affects an additional 700,000 Americans. Routinely, he shares his story to bring awareness to a plight that is seldom discussed in public.

“You don’t always know what you’ll be called to do. Sometimes it just happens,” said Mauti, who is writing a book about his battle. “I get calls and emails every day from others going through this, people who are in tears and desperate for answers.

“This transcends football. It’s not the role that I wanted, but the mental anguish of the disease is real. If I can encourage people about dealing with it, then it’s worth putting my pride aside and being open about it.”

Mauti’s candor has triggered a positive response from others with inflammatory bowel disease, said Rebecca Kaplan, spokeswoman for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation.

“Michael has brought a lot of hope to the IBD community,” she said. “Seeing a successful pro athlete living with a chronic illness inspires patients and gives them motivation for the future, while educating others about the seriousness of these diseases.

“He is using his platform to show that this is more than just a bathroom disease, and that it affects one’s entire life.”

Stricken in 2012, Mauti took medication for several years until the symptoms worsened. A seventh-round draft pick of Minnesota, he spent two years with the Vikings before being claimed off waivers in 2015 by New Orleans, his hometown team. Few knew the trials he was going through.

“I was very uncomfortable talking about it, as any young person is,” he said. “My coaches knew I was struggling because I couldn’t sit through team meetings, or go through practice without excusing myself.

“Did I soil my pants? Way more times than I care to admit, but never on the field — though, at times, I thought about taking myself out of a game.”

In the Saints’ sixth contest in 2015, against visiting Atlanta, Mauti blocked a Falcons punt and returned it 4 yards for a touchdown. The crowd went nuts. Before the game, New Orleans had honored a former player, Steve Gleason who — in 2006 — had also blocked an Atlanta punt that was recovered for a touchdown in the Saints’ first home game after Hurricane Katrina. Nine years later, Mauti’s heroics were witnessed in the stands by Gleason, then battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Mauti’s touchdown came with barely two minutes remaining in the first quarter.

“I know that because I’d been looking at the clock, waiting for time to run out because I had to go,” he said.

At first, medications controlled things. But by the 2016 season, the meds were losing their grip. Often, on Mondays, Mauti drove to the hospital where, for four hours, he received a slow intravenous drip of immunosuppressive drugs. His pregame “meal” consisted of the contents of four IV bags pumped into his system to give him the energy to play.

By Week 8, “I was shot. I couldn’t do it anymore,” he said. Surgery, it would be — three successive operations which, in the end, replaced his colon and rectum with a J-shaped pouch made from Mauti’s small intestine.

And now?

”I feel 100 percent,” he said. “My diet is way cleaner — no fried foods — which is a blessing in disguise. On Sundays, when my wife and mom fix spaghetti and meatballs, I sprinkle baking powder on the sauce to cut down the acidity.”

His wife, Juliana, has been “my biggest supporter,” said Mauti, who wed in 2016. “We struggled through it together. The first year of marriage is tough enough without this.”

Mauti is not the first pro athlete to go public with his IBD. Jake Diekman, a pitcher for the Texas Rangers, had the same surgeries in 2017, and Larry Nance Jr., a center for the Cleveland Cavaliers, battles Crohn’s.

Mauti’s struggles were not without their lighter moments. In December 2016, in the midst of his operations, he received 100 rolls of toilet paper from Charmin, with a note that wished him well.

“It was very helpful,” said Mauti, who thanked the company “for making this year a white Christmas.”

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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