Sports are unpredictable. Sports are incredible, yet cruel. One day an athlete will be on top of the world, and the next they are down in the doldrums.
This mantra perfectly epitomizes the collegiate career of junior Max Mazzella. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound tight end from Waterford Connecticut had a rollercoaster season. From starting the season on injured reserve to being showcased on SportsCenter, Mazzella has seen it all this year.
Despite all the drama and heroics that have transpired this season, it is important to note that none of it would have been possible had Mazzella pursued his original true passion: basketball.
Most athletes who compete at the Division I level have played their respective sports their entire lives. Not Max Mazzella, who started playing football his senior year of high school.
“I was a basketball player before then, and I got bored in the offseason; figured I’d give football a try,” Mazzella said.
Dual-sport athletes are not uncommon at the high school level, but picking up a brand new sport in your senior year of high school is out there. Yet Mazzella not only succeeded with his new sport but thrived to the point of receiving recognition.
In a mere nine high school games played, Mazzella accumulated 40 receptions, 675 receiving yards, and nine receiving touchdowns. His dominance on the football field was no fluke, however, he never expected this new sport that he just incorporated into his life would lead anywhere.
“I had no intentions of coming out [to play collegiately],” Mazzella said.
He played football to fulfill his boredom, initially having no future playing aspirations in mind. But once Mazzella went to prep school, scouts began to really start paying attention to him, including Marist head coach Jim Parady.
With Division I football on the horizon and a potential starting spot in his near future, everything was trending upwards for Mazzella. He never saw action his freshman year, but he was hoping to get his first taste of collegiate ball the following season.
On January 21st, 2020, Marist College announced it would cancel the spring football season. A very controversial decision at the time, especially with all the other Marist varsity sports continuing to play that spring. Despite this devastating news, there was nothing they could do about it. As upset as Mazzella was he remained dedicated, going right back to work the next day.
“I was just working on my routes, took a bad one, and just happened to tweak it the right way,” Mazzella said.
Just three days following one of the most emotionally challenging days of his life, Mazzella suffered a torn achilles. He lost his motivation to keep working but remained determined to be ready for the fall season despite the injury knocking him out for four-to-six months.
The recovery process was no easy feat either. He struggled with an infection in April that sent him to the hospital for eight days. This reverted back all the progress he made in the previous three months and reset the recovery time.
“I was out for football until the first day of classes,” Mazzella said. “I don’t think I participated in camp at all.”
Setback after setback continued to delay the tight end. After originally aiming for the season opener, it would not be until week four against Bryant when Mazzella would finally suit up.
Marist played Bryant for their home opener, and the game in particular held significance for a multitude of reasons. It was the team’s first home game in 680 days. It was the first night game since 2017. The entire school was eager to watch a sporting event of this magnitude for the first time since the pandemic and the crowd did not disappoint.
Tenney Stadium has a capacity of 5,000. For this game, 6,154 spectators came to watch, breaking the previous attendance record by over 1,500. For a debut, an athlete could not ask for a better environment.
“It was amazing going to lace up again for the first time since high school. Have a crowd like that,” Mazzella said. “I’ve never played in front of that many people in any sport and just to be able to be part of the atmosphere, be healthy, participate in it and have my family there was huge after everything I’ve been through.”
Like a dream come true, Mazzella finally got his first taste of live-game action against Bryant. Not only did he touch the field, but he was a fixture in the playbook.
As soon as Mazzella entered, freshman quarterback Brock Bagozzi just barely missed him down the field with an overthrow. In the third quarter, it was like straight out of a movie – Bagozzi threw a thirty-yard bomb to Mazzella for his first collegiate reception and touchdown. The crowd and the sideline would not stop celebrating, as the catch just cut their deficit to three. And Mazzella, not knowing what to do, just kept rapidly tapping his helmet in celebration.
Then all of a sudden, a flag is seen around the 40-yard line. A holding call that would bring back Mazzella’s first score. After overcoming so many hurdles to reach this point, it appeared the tide was finally turning for Mazzella. But of course, this moment was too good to be true.
Entering their next game at Valparaiso, the team was 0-2.
“There was a lot of negative energy from outside sources about how we were going to do this year, and we were just really focused on proving people wrong,” Mazzella said.
With it being their first conference game, it was imperative for Marist to come out with a win if they wanted to keep their season alive.
Throughout regulation, Marist appeared to be in firm control of the game, but two fourth-quarter touchdowns by Valpo forced the game into overtime. Number 83 enters the game. Mazzella had only played sparingly but despite the lack of action, the team had a play in mind catered to him.
“We saw another college run it and were like, wow, that would work perfectly with their defense,” Mazzella said. “We practiced that play, but I don’t think we made a connection once all week.”
First snap, redshirt senior quarterback Austin Day hikes the ball, drops back, tosses it into the vicinity of the endzone, jump ball…game over.
One play and this potentially brutal choke turns into the game of the year. Mazzella’s first career collegiate reception could not have come at a better time.
“Wow. The only thing I thought was wow. I would never think to be here if you told me this a couple of months ago sitting at home,” Mazzella said. “All I was thinking is this is my first taste of college football. It was just amazing.”
This play not only saved the day, but reinvigorated the entire Red Foxes season.
The magnitude of the catch is really hard to put into scale. Instead of leaving Valparaiso still winless, they were now 1-0 in conference play, and it would be the first of what eventually led to a three-game winning streak. The next morning, Mazzella discovered he made SportsCenter, with ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt even complimenting his headshot.
Mazzella was on top of the world, however, that next Wednesday in practice, history repeated itself. While taking a step backward to reach for an underthrown ball, his weakened skin tore open and he was finished.
“I was hurt that day just mentally,” Mazzella said.
There was nothing anyone could do, nothing people could even say. Words would not do the situation justice. It was not the fact that he would need another four-to-six months to recover, but the fact that he just came back. Having the mental endurance to repeat the process is its own strength.
“The night I got surgery, Coach Tosches texted me, ‘This is going to be a hell of a story when you’re all healed up playing again,’” Mazzella said. “It’s something I think about, that people who still believe in me. My family. My teammates.”
Mazzella lost nine months from an achilles injury, came back for two weeks and then it gave out again. But Mazzella has been stripped of that opportunity, as it will not be until 2022 when he can suit up again.
When the doctors were evaluating his injury, they discovered his achilles was never actually properly reattached after the first surgery. Therefore, Mazzella has been playing on just one achilles all season.
It will be a long road to recovery, but Mazzella did it before and he will do it again. It will be a tough and grueling process, but he came to Marist to play football and that is what he plans on doing.
Edited by Connor Kurpat and Bridget Reilly
Photo Credit: Marist Athletics