Mauk: The forgotten Deacon

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 30, 2006

By Joedy McCreary

Associated Press

DAVIE, Fla. — Game days are always the toughest for Ben Mauk.

That’s when the harshest reality of his season really stings: Had he not broken his throwing arm in his team’s first game, maybe Wake Forest wouldn’t have gone on to the best year in school history.

Mauk’s season-ending injury cleared the way for redshirt freshman Riley Skinner to take over, become the ACC rookie of the year and lead the Demon Deacons to a school-record 11 wins, an improbable league title and an Orange Bowl berth.

On the sideline, Mauk said he battled conflicting emotions as the best season in school history developed without him on the field.

“The team being successful, it’s exciting for me, because I do feel like I’m a part of this team,” Mauk said. “I’ve developed friendships with everybody on the team, and seeing them successful is exciting for me, but it doesn’t really hit me that I’m not out there until game time. That’s when you get a little emotional, maybe some tears even. It doesn’t really hit me until the game starts, and it’s like, ‘Man, I’m not out there.”‘

Defensive end Matt Robinson and running back Micah Andrews know how Mauk feels.

Robinson, Mauk’s roommate, didn’t play a snap all season while recovering from surgery to repair a broken kneecap. Andrews injured a knee ligament in Week 3 and was lost for the year.

It would have been so easy for any of them to pout or, worse, be forgotten.

Instead, they are some of the team’s steadying influences and have established themselves as behind-the-scenes supporters.

“They’re always here with us. They’re behind our back,” safety Josh Gattis said. “You see them on the sideline and they’re the first one to greet you. That means so much to this team, just to have that positive image on the sideline.”

Mauk, a redshirt junior, was set for his third chance to lead the Demon Deacons — he was benched twice in 2004 — and coach Jim Grobe pledged his support for him.

“There was no doubt when we started the season, Ben Mauk was our quarterback,” Grobe said.

But in the third quarter of a season-opening 20-10 victory over Syracuse, Mauk dove to recover a fumble, breaking his right arm and dislocating his right shoulder.

“It’s disappointing to see someone with that much talent have a season-ending injury like that,” Skinner said.

Mauk didn’t mope. Instead he mentored Skinner, helping him analyze film and even calming Skinner down during his first career start.

Wake Forest trailed Duke 10-0 at halftime and Mauk, watching at home on television, could tell Skinner wasn’t comfortable. So, he quickly persuaded a friend to drive him to Groves Stadium, charmed his way past a security guard and onto the field and calmed Skinner down.

“I just felt like he was lacking a little bit of confidence,” Mauk said. “I remembered my first game — I had real big eyes and everything happened so fast. I just felt like I could go talk to him, a human to a human, and settle him down a little bit. Not that I’m the one who calmed him down, but he came out and had a good second half.”

Skinner rallied Wake Forest to a 14-13 victory that some players say launched the Demon Deacons to their 11-2 record, their No. 15 national ranking and an Orange Bowl berth against No. 5 Louisville on Tuesday.

“I look up to (Mauk) for his athleticism and his quarterback play and his ability to do things, but mainly his character is what stands out to me the most,” Skinner said. “Having to look on this season, the special season it’s been this year, to still be around the team and the players, I’ve never seen him with his head down or in a bad mood, pointing fingers at anybody.”

Now Mauk is looking forward to getting back in the game, and says when spring arrives he won’t give up his job without a fight. He expects to be up to 90 percent healthy in March and 100 percent by April, and is relishing the competition during spring drills.

Before that, though, there’s a bowl game to play. And Mauk plans to be in his customary spot on the sideline, passing along encouraging words to Skinner after each series.

Yes, he’ll play a role in the Orange Bowl. Just not the one he originally envisioned. And maybe his involvement will make this game day easier to handle.

“Each time Riley comes off the field,” Mauk said, “I might give him my two cents, see if that will help him out at all.”