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Dan Mason wasn't supposed to play football again.
After suffering a devastating knee injury in a game against Miami on a Thursday night in September 2010, Mason's career was supposed to be over. But on a Thursday afternoon in March 2012, Mason addressed the media after completing another spring practice as Pitt's top middle linebacker.
"I was doubting right after the injury; that's the only time I doubted," Mason said Thursday. "But the week after that, I just got back into it, got my mindset right, talked to God.
"I mean, I'm coming back. I'm back already. Did you see me?"
After posing that rhetorical question to a group of reporters who had, in fact, watched him practice that day, Mason reconsidered.
"It's not me, though. It ain't me. It ain't me. Don't get me wrong. It ain't me."
Mason can be forgiven for feeling like he's not quite himself yet. He says he is 90% back from the injury, which is about ten times the original percentage that doctors put on the likelihood of him returning to the football field after the injury.
The linebacker from Penn Hills suffered one of the worst possible knee injuries: a dislocation. Knee dislocations are rare as it is, but Mason's dislocation, unlike the one suffered by former Miami running back Willis McGahee, fell into an even smaller subset. Mason's dislocation damaged the peroneal nerve, which occurs in only about 33% of knee dislocations.
The peroneal nerve stimulates the muscles that lift the foot and toes. The peroneal nerve in Mason's right leg was pinched by the dislocation, and while the nerve was not severed, it was damaged. As a result, he can't use those muscles to lift the toes on his right foot. Mason can't rock his foot up on his heel, and if he lifts his right leg, the toes on that foot will point toward the ground.
So Mason wears a brace in practice, but it's not a brace on his knee, which has fully healed. It's a brace that wraps around his ankle and under his foot, keeping his foot at a 90-degree angle to his leg. It's the only way he could have a chance to even consider running, but in reality, Pitt's doctors and team trainers had little reason to believe that running was even a possibility. Existing research on peroneal nerve injuries includes very few, if any, examples of a person suffering such an injury and returning to the level of activity and mobility necessary to play football.
It would be like trying to make a light bulb work even though the wire connecting the light bulb to its power source had been severed. Or, at the very least, severely damaged. Medically, scientifically, and logically, it's not a proposition with any reasonable expectation of success.
But on Thursday afternoon, Mason was on the field again for Pitt's fifth practice of spring camp 2012. Less than two years removed from suffering one of the most devastating knee injuries imaginable, he is Pitt's starting middle linebacker.
"I mean, I couldn't stop; rehabbing and everything, I couldn't stop," Mason said. "God put something in me, man...I just, I couldn't. I had to keep going. I had to try."
But trying alone wasn't going to be enough and rehabbing wasn't going to be enough. Mason shouldn't physically be able to run around like he has through the first five practices this spring, and chances are his peroneal nerve will never fully heal. He has had to re-learn how to run while accounting for a foot that doesn't move, and it's unlikely he will get any closer to his pre-injury health than the 90% he currently estimates.
Then again, doctors and trainers told Mason about his ceiling in this process once before.
"They never told me I could get back to 100%, but then again, they told me I wasn't going to be able to play football again. So I'm just working. Working and praying; that's all I can do."
In the meantime, Mason is looking forward to playing in a game for the first time since September 23, 2010. He burst onto the scene as a true freshman in 2009 when he recorded 11 tackles against Navy and earned Big East Defensive Player of the Week honors. He started the next week against North Carolina State and started that season's bowl game against North Carolina. He also started two games in 2010.
By the time Pitt takes the field for the 2012 season opener on the first day of September, 23 months will have passed since Mason's last game. So it's not difficult to understand why he was all smiles on Thursday while he stood under an atypical March sun.
"It feels awesome; I love it out here," he said. "The sun's out, too. It feels good out."