Pitt linebacker Dan Mason wasn't supposed to step on a football field again after serious leg injuries ended his 2010 season.
Ligaments in Mason's right knee were torn, his kneecap dislocated and nerves were severely damaged lower in the leg when he made a tackle Sept. 23, 2010, against Miami at Heinz Field.
Doctors told Mason almost immediately that his football career likely was over. They said he might never be able to walk again without a limp.
Doctors made an educated guess based on the severity of the injuries. They did not factor Mason's drive into the equation.
Mason is back in a Panthers uniform this spring. His smile seems to be a little bit wider every time he takes the field for practice. Not only is he back on the field, but he also is the starting middle linebacker.
"I feel awesome," Mason said, with a big smile after practice Thursday. "I'm out here moving around, I feel about 90 percent. I don't feel like my old self yet, but I am getting closer. But the knee is healed. I have been doing everything everybody else had been doing since last May so [the doctors] said go ahead [and return to full-contact drills] and, if it feels like it is hurting, just stop.
"But I haven't even been thinking about it since I have been out there."
Mason, who wears a brace on the front of his shin to protect his still-healing peroneal nerve, has been as active as any player in drills.
Mason, a Penn Hills High graduate, was hurt when his foot stuck in the turf while making a tackle and a Hurricanes player came down on his leg. He lay on the field with his knee out of place, the severity of his injuries obvious.
He said he was crushed when doctors told him his career was likely over. But he wasn't about to accept their opinion without pushing himself to work through the long rehabilitation process.
"Yeah [it is a miracle]," Mason said, "but I couldn't stop rehabbing and everything, trying to get back. God put something in me, I just couldn't [quit], I just had to try. It was working hard and faith. I was doubting right after the injury, but that is the only time I doubted. But, once I just got back into it, got my mindset right, it just started coming back.
"But it isn't me, don't get me wrong, it isn't me," he said, then gave all the credit to God.
Mason said doctors have told him they don't know if his leg will ever be back to 100 percent again. But, he noted, "They told me I wasn't going to be able to play football again."
The Panthers have a new staff of coaches who did not witness the injury and have not seen how hard Mason has worked to get back on the field. It didn't take them long to see just how intense and passionate he is.
That's why he ascended to the starting middle linebacker spot so quickly and why he continues to serve as an inspiration to those around him, including the defensive coaches. All have said if they didn't know his history, they'd have no idea he hasn't played in nearly two seasons.
"I salute Dan Mason, I have fallen in love with the kid, he is tough as nails," said Pitt defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable. "When I got here, I was told that we probably wouldn't have him. But I'll tell you what, he is making a lot of non-believers [into] believers. He is working extremely hard, and I pray for that kid every night that he can stay healthy and continue to improve because he loves it, he loves this game.
"I think there is still a little bit of limitation there, but I've never seen his head down or use it as an excuse," Huxtable said. "And I've never seen any body language suggesting it might bother him."
Mason's passion, intelligence and athleticism made him a natural fit as a middle linebacker as a true freshman in 2009. He appeared in 13 games and started three that season.
He had 26 tackles and two sacks and took over the starting role full time heading into his sophomore season, Then came the third game of 2010 and the injury. He has been on the road to recovery since.
Mason said that road has been long and hard, but he is back playing football and is having as much fun playing the game now as he ever has.
"I just need to get back to my old self," Mason said. "Actually, I want to be better than my old self. Sometimes I hesitate a little bit. But that is all going to come back with reps because it has been a long time since I have played football and I am getting used to the speed, so it is going to come in time."
NOTES -- Several players were hurt in practice Thursday, but coach Paul Chryst said they were bumps and bruises. ... The annual Pitt Blue-Gold Scrimmage will be at North Hills High School April 14 "I may be new to Pittsburgh, but I've respected and known about the traditions of Western Pennsylvania high school football for a long time," Chryst said. "As a first-year coaching staff, we feel it is important to get out and engage the people and communities who have built that tradition."