When Dan Mason sustained a massive knee injury in Pitt's third game last fall, his football career was in jeopardy.
But the linebacker from Penn Hills High School has used a mix of willpower and bravery to bounce back. For all intents and purposes, Mason should not be on the field in a practice jersey and helmet, but he should not be running or, perhaps, even walking, at practice after what happened to him Sept. 23 against Miami.
Yet, Pitt defensive coordinator Keith Patterson has found himself keeping an eye on the redshirt sophomore during 7-on-7 drills to make sure he does not play too much.
"If I turn my back, he's running out there and tapping in with someone," he said. "He's the most focused, intense, passionate player I've ever been around, and he's not even cleared to play."
Last season, Mason's 11 tackles were the most on the team after the first two games. But, after recording three more tackles, he tore his anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments, the posterior lateral corner (an area of muscles and ligaments on the outside of the knee) and stretched the peroneal nerve.
Mason was covering Miami receiver LaRon Byrd in the middle of the field, and, when Mason tackled Byrd after the completion, Mason's foot got stuck in the ground as Byrd's body simultaneously came crashing down on Mason's knee.
In a matter of seconds, Mason's career was seemingly over.
"Right when you got to him, you knew it was going to be an ugly, long-term thing," said Rob Blanc, Pitt's head athletic trainer. "Literally, there are people who lose their legs over these injuries."
While the ligament damage was certainly traumatic, the stretch in his peroneal nerve is what threatens to keep him on the sidelines permanently. Because of damage to that nerve, he cannot lift his foot up. Until that function returns, doctors cannot clear him to play football.
"I'm ahead of schedule with my knee and everything, but right now I'm just waiting on my nerve to come back," said Mason, exuding calm and some optimism. "It's coming back slowly but surely. It's definitely going to come back."
He has regained slight movement in his foot and has faith that will grow into full function. Going into the recovery process, Blanc expected the knee to be back to the way it was by around this time, but, as far as the nerve, the veteran trainer said Mason is well ahead of projections.
The team is looking forward to Mason's return not only because of its morale-boosting appeal, but also because Patterson's defense features four linebacker positions that call for different responsibilities and skills.
Patterson believes Mason can play each one at an elite level.
"When you look at successful people at any sport, from Michael Jordan to Tiger Woods to anyone who's been the best at what they do, Dan Mason possesses that same passion, drive, intensity and focus," said Patterson.
Those qualities are what have guided Mason to this point, and they will continue to be paramount in his recovery as he accepts challenges instead of questioning their existence.
"It was a process, it was a struggle, but you get through it," Mason said.
"God doesn't put anything on you that you can't bear."
Charlie Magovern: firstname.lastname@example.org , 412-263-1466 and Twitter @cmagovern.