NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans Saints linebacker Michael Mauti became so fearful of food in recent years that even the thought of a holiday dinner gave him high anxiety.
Not wanting to cut short an NFL career that began in 2013, Mauti tried to manage — with medication and diet adjustments — the ulcerative colitis that was destroying part of his digestive tract. But the excruciating pain and mental anguish he came to associate with eating made a pro football physique hard to maintain, and his weight dropped to 190 pounds, more than 40 pounds lighter than his target weight.
"Last year, I didn't want to eat anymore," Mauti said this week, as the Saints prepared to face the rival Atlanta Falcons in a high-stakes Christmas Eve showdown. "It was so painful."
A year after Mauti went on injured reserve to have his large intestine surgically removed, the 27-year-old has become a triumphant figure to those who have ulcerative colitis or similar inflammatory digestive tract diseases that make everyday life uncomfortable — never mind playing professional football.
Not only has Mauti managed to rehabilitate his body well enough to perform in the NFL, but he also has overcome the embarrassment that might dissuade one from talking freely about having to go to the bathroom more than 20 times a day, or about his regular fear of besmirching his uniform on the field during a game, or about what it was like to train while wearing a colostomy bag.
"It is personal, but look, once you go through what I've been through, I can put my pride aside if I know that it's helping people," said Mauti, who also recalled the awkwardness of having to abruptly leave meetings at Saints headquarters to run to the bathroom. "The response that I've gotten is overwhelming, people just pouring their heart out, saying how much it has helped them or just inspired them."
While Mauti didn't make it back onto New Orleans' opening week roster out of training camp, he forged ahead with his workout regimen and was re-signed on Oct. 17. He has been a regular on special teams — where he made his mark with a blocked punt against Atlanta two seasons ago — and has increasingly rotated in on defense.
"It's nothing short of remarkable he's back on the field," said Mauti's father, former Saints receiver Rich Mauti. "As a parent, I'm even taken aback."
The elder Mauti sounds equally impressed by his son's candor about his digestive issues.
"It's a tough thing to talk about. For him to come out was very, very difficult," Rich Mauti said. "There are a lot of people out there who have it and you would never know. There are a lot of people suffering with it, so he's going to have a tremendous impact."
Michael Mauti first discovered his condition, which is often hereditary, while playing at Penn State. But controlling it with medication became increasingly tricky because ulcerative colitis tends to be exacerbated by stress.
"The NFL is not like the most calm, relaxed place," said Rich Mauti, who played six seasons with New Orleans (1977-83) and one with the Washington Redskins (1984). "The stress factor can be off the charts."
Michael Mauti recalled flare-ups during each training camp, first with Minnesota in 2013 and 2014 before joining the Saints. While he was still playing last season, he sought intravenous fluids every day of practice or a game to minimize the need for eating or drinking. He'd spend hours in the hospital on Mondays and Tuesdays, often in rooms filled with cancer patients, getting IV drip medication in hopes of minimizing his immune system's attacks on his colon.
Finally, he sought a colonoscopy, at which time he learned he could no longer put off surgery, forcing him to confront a possible end to his NFL career. He was already thinking about a backup plan, taking real estate classes at the time he started rehabilitating his body with the hope of playing again.
Mauti has had three surgeries — the most recent in April — to first remove his large intestine and ultimately reshape and reattach his small intestine to give him a semblance of a digestive tract. To have a shot at being invited back to training camp, he had to start working out before all three surgeries were complete, which meant training with a colostomy bag.
"It was just embarrassing," Mauti recalled. "It was just a constant maintenance deal. I was so fed up with it."
He texted videos of his workouts to Saints coach Sean Payton, who was eager to give Mauti a chance in training camp but couldn't justify keeping him on the roster when the regular season began.
"One of the challenges is removing the emotions from the roster decisions — and that was the case in both situations when he was released and when he was signed," Payton said.
Without his large intestine, Mauti still has more frequent and sometimes more painful bowel movements than people with fully functioning digestive systems. To reduce complications, he avoids acidic foods such as tomatoes. He said he treats his digestive system like that of a toddler in that he avoids too many ingredients at once.
Baked chicken or salmon are OK. But an enticing bowl of gumbo? Forget it.
"Most people around the country may not realize how tough that is to do in New Orleans," Rich Mauti quipped.
Michael Mauti conceded that on rare occasions he eats what he wants, "but I know, still, I'm going to pay the price."
Through trial and error, the 6-foot-2 Mauti has adopted a diet that has helped him keep his weight steadily around 235 all season, giving him hope that he might prolong his NFL career. He's also sleeping better and getting through meetings and games without worrying about abdominal pain or bathroom emergencies.
"I feel better than I've ever felt in my career," Mauti asserted.
On top of that, he's playing meaningful snaps for his hometown team during a playoff push.
"It's been an amazing ride," Mauti said. "When it's all done we'll sit back and reflect, and it'll be emotional for sure."