Pitt training staff helps players fight through the pain

Jerry DiPaola
| Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

He talked to the coaches, consulted with doctors and trainers, even listened to his knee, which sent messages of pain to his brain nearly every day.

But Pitt linebacker Todd Thomas didn't make the most important decision of his football career until he had a conversation with his mom, Jodie Thomas-Brown.

“Just fight through it,” she said.

That's all he had to hear.

“I'm a warrior,” he said. “It was only a small wound. I said I'm going to fight through it.”

Thomas, a graduate of Beaver Falls, tore the ACL in his left knee last season while making a fourth-down stop of South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels. Immediately, the knee felt tight, but he jogged on the sideline, and the feeling went away. Over the next few days, there was minimal swelling, and he was able to maintain strength in the knee, which suffered little collateral damage.

Heartened, Thomas delayed surgery four months to play most of the rest of the season. He missed the next two games — losses to Rutgers and Utah — but played five of the final six, recording seven tackles and a 39-yard interception return against Cincinnati.

Payment came due in January, when Thomas had surgery and started down a long, painful road to recovery. He practiced twice last week, but he has been idle since Wednesday, when the team put on pads.

Head athletic trainer Rob Blanc said Thomas is still early in the rehabilitation process, but he is optimistic he will play this season.

“My main thing is conditioning,” said Thomas, who wants to get down to 225 pounds. “Once I get some of this weight off my knee, I'll be fine.”

Blanc has helped Pitt athletes recover from a variety of injuries in the past 25 years — from ankle sprains to a cervical spine fracture. The work he has done — and will do — with the knee injuries of Thomas, running back Ray Graham, guard Chris Jacobson, cornerback K'waun Williams and linebacker Dan Mason will go a long way toward determining Pitt's fate this season.

“Rob and (assistant athletic trainer Tim Dunlavey) are the reason I'm running right now,” Thomas said.

The typical rehab process is “brutal,” Blanc said, and Thomas admits to some difficult days, most of which began at 6:30 a.m.

“My personality is funny,” Thomas said. “(They said) ‘Come on, you have to work.' And I'm like, ‘No.' But every time I'm thinking of not doing something I need to do, I think of Milford (the New York prep school he attended after leaving Beaver Falls) and those times I sacrificed. Why go backwards? I need to go forwards.”

Three hours a day, five days a week, Thomas and other injured players worked with Blanc and his staff, preparing for the season. The process included something as difficult as running in a pool or pulling a weighted sled, or as simple as lifting a leg.

“There were a couple times he would text me, ‘Are you ready?' ” Thomas said. “I'm looking at it, and I wanted to lie back down, but I came over because I had to.”

Blanc said rehab is mentally and physically demanding.

“They talk about the stages of grief when somebody dies,” he said. “There is the denial, the acceptance, the bargaining. Then there is the rejection. You will see an injured athlete go through that.

“First, they don't believe they are injured. Then, they start feeling a little better, and they start to bargain with you: ‘If I can do this, will you let me do this?' That's the whole psychological part of it. Some kids don't believe they will ever get better. You really have to convince them.”

Blanc said he has seen few injuries more serious than the one Mason suffered two years ago against Miami at Heinz Field.

“I was worried that he was never going to walk again,” Blanc said.

Mason dislocated his knee, tore three ligaments and other muscles and stretched nerves. Today, he is a backup middle linebacker who runs with a brace and continues to amaze trainers.

“It's absolutely incredible what he's doing,” Blanc said. “He was the one that it didn't matter what we did to him.”

Such comeback stories are what make Blanc's job so rewarding.

“Any time you get a kid back doing what he wants to do and know you played a part in it,” Blanc said, “that's why you do this.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can reached at jdipaola@tribweb.com or 412-320-7997.

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