Pitt linebacker Dan Mason's journey of faith
Pitt's Dan Mason watches next to head coach Paul Chryst after his team recovered a fumble against Gardner-Webb in the fourth quarter.
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With 13:37 to go in Pitt's win over Gardner-Webb last weekend, Dan Mason got the call.
The Panthers were up, 48-10, and the coaches were starting to put in some of the second-string players. They told Mason to get his helmet on and start stretching. He was going in.
For the players going in, it was a chance to show the coaches what they can do in a game situation. For Mason, it was also a culmination of a much longer journey.
When Mason trotted on the field, it was his first game action since Sept. 23, 2010 -- nearly two years to the day -- when he suffered a gruesome knee injury in a loss to Miami.
"When they called my name, there was no hesitation," Mason said. "I got started stretching, ready to get back in there."
Heading into the 2010 season, Mason figured to be a key player in the middle of Pitt's defense. He had played in all 13 games as a true freshman and was named the Panthers' starting middle linebacker to open the year. Through two games, he had 13 tackles.
In the third game of the season, Pitt had a chance to make a statement with a win against No. 19 Miami but trailed 17-0 midway through the third quarter. On third-and-9 with nine minutes to go in the quarter, Hurricanes quarterback Jacory Harris completed a pass to running back LaRon Byrd.
Mason moved and made the tackle -- short of the first down -- but caught his cleat in the turf. The result was his right knee twisting in a way the human knee wasn't meant to twist. Some teammates turned away because they couldn't stomach looking at it. ESPN didn't even show a replay.
"I thought it was a cramp," said Carol Mason, Dan's mother. "But he didn't get up. I was saying to myself, 'Danny, get up, get up, then I noticed he wasn't getting up."
As his teammates gathered around, Mason was carted off the field with a thumbs-up to the crowd.
Mason's father and brother tried to hop onto the field from their seats but were forced to go around and meet him in the tunnel.
From there, the entire family met at the hospital, where they were told the news. Mason had torn three of his four major knee ligaments. The posterolateral corner, a major stabilization force in his right knee, was gone. He had also stretched, though not torn, his nerves.
"They gave me the worst-case scenario, and I didn't want to hear it," Mrs. Mason said. "I'm going to be honest, I didn't want to hear it. I told them, 'OK, you do everything you can for him, but I'm going to pray.' "
Mason needed five surgeries to correct the damage in his knee and faced a grueling rehabilitation track in front of him. Pitt's head athletic trainer Rob Blanc consulted medical journals and did hours of research to figure out how to best handle Mason's recovery.
At the time, Blanc thought there was no way Mason would ever play football again. He and his staff tried to set realistic goals, but Mason kept reaching past them.
"Honestly, our goal was to be able to get him back to run a little bit," Blanc said. "But he kept coming to us saying, 'Can I do this?' And we just kept saying, 'Go ahead and give it a try.' Instead of just saying, 'No, you can't try it,' we let him try it, and he just kept doing it."
Mrs. Mason said the moment she knew her son would one day step back on the field came just a few weeks after his first surgery. The family was in church one Sunday, and Mason put his crutches down and walked around the room. There wasn't a dry eye in the building.
Both Mason and his parents said their faith played an important role in the rehab process. Mrs. Mason gave her son a copy of the movie "Facing the Giants," a Christian film about an underdog football team. The team in the movie had a motto that she relayed to Dan: "What's impossible when God is on your side? Nothing's impossible when God is on your side."
"Our faith is what kept us going," said Dereke Mason, Dan's father. "There wasn't any doubt [Dan would come back]. We knew it was coming. We just didn't know when."
Mason admitted that the past two years weren't easy, but he had his family and teammates to rely on when things got hard.
"There have been days I was a little down on myself and they've been right there to tell me to keep my head, keep working," Mason said.
Mason had expressed hope of playing last year but ultimately spent the season continuing his rehab. He returned to practice fully this spring and knew that this would be the year he finally made it back.
"Just looking at him on the sidelines over there, he was like a caged animal waiting to get out," Mason's father said.
He got loose last weekend, much to the delight of his parents and teammates, who understood all the hard work Mason had put in over the last two years.
"Oh man, it was a great feeling," fellow linebacker Shane Gordon said. "I might have been more excited than he was. We came in together as freshmen, that's like my brother."
Mason didn't record any official tackles during his nine plays on the field but managed to get in on a few piles and lay some hits. After rewatching the game tape, Blanc couldn't believe what he saw.
"It doesn't make any sense from a bio-mechanical standpoint that he can do what he can do," Blanc said.
For as much as he has accomplished, though, Mason still has higher goals. He wants to get back to his pre-injury level of play and ultimately reclaim his starting role in the middle of Pitt's defense.
The nerve damage may ultimately limit just how much strength and motion he can regain in that knee, but if there's one thing the last two years have shown, it's that you shouldn't try and tell Dan Mason what he can't do.
"It was an accomplishment," he said of getting in the Sept. 22 game. "It was a step, but it's not my ultimate goal."
First Published September 30, 2012 12:00 am