Doctors and team trainers had their own opinions about the likelihood that Pitt linebacker Dan Mason would ever play football again after suffering a devastating knee injury two years ago, and those opinions were almost universally negative.
Those doctors and trainers would probably want to consult Buffalo receiver Devon Hughes. After all, it was Hughes who tried to get to the end zone on the final drive of Pitt's 20-6 win over the Bulls at UB Stadium on Saturday, and the player who prevented him from cutting the Panthers' lead to one touchdown was none other than Mason, the redshirt junior from Penn Hills who wasn't supposed to play football again.
"I felt great," he said after the game. "Two years was a long time. This is what I've been working for."
The history of Mason's knee injury has been documented almost to excess this season, but the abridged version goes like this:
As a sophomore in 2010, Mason suffered a knee dislocation that not only destroyed his knee but also damaged the peroneal nerve in his right leg. That nerve stimulates the muscles that lift the foot and toes; in Mason's case, the damage means he can't rock his foot on his heel, and if he lifts his right leg, the toes on that foot will point to the ground.
So Mason has to wear a brace that restricts his foot to a 90-degree angle at all times. Running shouldn't be a possibility with that kind of brace, and playing football shouldn't even be a consideration. But Mason is a different animal; driven by an unmatched work ethic and more than a little faith, he ran onto the field in the fourth quarter of Pitt's win over Gardner-Webb for the first time since the injury (which he suffered on Sept. 23, 2010, almost two years to the day before the Gardner-Webb game on Sept. 22).
In that game, Mason played in mop-up duty of a blowout, but the next week at Syracuse he got on the field when starting middle linebacker Shane Gordon left with an injury. He repeated that the following week against Louisville when Gordon suffered another injury, and on Saturday at Buffalo Mason completed the comeback with his first start since Sept. 11, 2010.
As such, it was only fitting that Mason was the player who made the final tackle on the final play of the final drive to seal Pitt's victory. The tackle on Hughes was Mason's third tackle on the drive and his 11th tackle of the game, tying a career high he set as a true freshman.
"We just wanted to get out there of there, man; somebody had to step up and make a play," Mason said about the game-clinching tackle. "Buffalo's a good team, but I had a hell of a time out there."
Hughes probably believes in Mason now, and it's easy to wonder if more than a few doctors and team trainers are convinced, too. Then again, the opinions of those doctors and trainers didn't impact Mason much in the past, so there's no reason to think that will change now.
"It ain't about proving the doctors wrong; they had to tell me what they had to tell me," he said. "I'm not going to listen to that. I want to play football, so that's what I'm doing. There it is."
Todd Thomas lined up next to Mason at weak-side linebacker on Saturday and sat next to him in the post-game press conference room. Thomas is also battling back from a knee injury - albeit one that is not nearly as severe as the one Mason suffered - and has used Mason's comeback as inspiration for his own recovery.
"He's a story," Thomas said. "Being out for two years, leg injury, fighting back; some people would just give up, but 'Mase' fought back and he came up big today."
Despite being asked about the knee injury at seemingly every opportunity since he got back on the practice field, Mason doesn't mind being "a story," as Thomas put it. In fact, he knows the power that a story like his can have.
"I don't mind people asking me about it, because I want people to see," he told the media on Saturday before boarding the team bus for the ride back to Pittsburgh. "As a matter of fact, y'all can ask me about it. Because it's a testimony, man, it's a story. Other people need it. So ask me whenever you see me."
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