Pitt's Gunn 'not ready to be done with football'
TAMPA -- Adam Gunn couldn't recall a thing about the hit that knocked him out so cold his teammates heard him snoring while sprawled on the turf of Heinz Field in Pitt's season-opener against Bowling Green.
The force of the hit was so violent that it not only caused a concussion but left a slight fracture in his C-5 vertebrae, a condition which has since required surgery and is considered a career-threatening injury.
Gunn, a fifth-year senior linebacker from Vandergrift, forced himself to watch film of the helmet-to-helmet collision with middle linebacker Scott McKillop, his best friend and teammate since their pee-wee football days. They viewed it together at Pitt's Duratz Athletic Complex on the South Side, repeatedly rewinding the clip "multiple times" to let it sink in.
"It's hard to think that could be my last play, that it was the play that ended my senior year," Gunn said Wednesday night at the Hilton Tampa Airport Westshore Hotel, as Pitt was preparing to play No. 10 USF. "When I saw myself in that state -- unconscious -- it was hard. But I needed to see it."
It was Gunn's first-ever injury. The Kiski Area graduate had never missed a practice, let alone a game, in high school or college. Now, he was forced to deal with the possibility that his career could have ended early in the third quarter of the first game of his final season of college football.
"To be honest, a tear dropped down," Gunn said of learning the severity of his injury from physicians three days after it occurred. "It's my senior year. This could possibly end my football career."
Since a Sept. 15 surgery to fuse a plate to the C-4 and C-5 vertebrae to stabilize his neck, Gunn is wearing a neck brace for support. Cleared by doctors Wednesday morning to begin rehabilitation, Gunn said he still plans to petition the NCAA for a sixth season of eligibility.
"I'm definitely not ready to be done with football," said Gunn, 22. "If I have the opportunity to come back, I would. But I have to look at it in a positive light. There's really no other choice."
Gunn has a hereditary condition, a narrow spinal canal, as well as a family history of spinal-cord injuries. His older brother, Sanford, was temporarily paralyzed while playing in a game for Indiana University (Pa.). Adam was just pre-school age at the time but clearly remembers his mother, Dona, running onto the field, and Sanford being taken to a hospital by helicopter.
Adam Gunn took the brunt of the blow when a Bowling Green receiver ducked to avoid the tackle and they collided so violently it bent McKillop's facemask and cracked his helmet. Gunn walked off the field without assistance but doesn't remember anything until reaching the locker room.
Still, he knew something was wrong. He couldn't move his neck and was in "tremendous pain." Gunn felt it necessary to let his best friend off the hook and is almost apologetic that they are forever connected by the play.
"The fact that it was Scott makes it worse, because every article is saying it happened in 'helmet-to-helmet contact with Scott McKillop,'" Gunn said. "It's almost like he's to blame for a freak accident.
"It was almost as hard for Scott. He did feel responsible. I made it clear there was nothing he or I could have done to make it different."
Added Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt: "By those two communicating, it helped Scott deal with the situation. It was an accident, and they know that."
Still, Gunn is having difficulty fathoming what could have been. The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder had worked his way from special-teams star to earn the starting strong-side linebacker job last season and was Pitt's third-leading tackler with 59 stops, along with six tackles for loss and 1 1/2 sacks.
He was looking forward not only to playing alongside McKillop again but also fifth-year senior Austin Ransom, Gunn's roommate the past three years.
Gunn is now making contributions in other ways, tutoring his replacement, redshirt freshman Greg Williams, and helping linebackers coach Joe Tumpkin and Wannstedt on the sidelines during games. Gunn stayed at the team hotel and was on Pitt's sidelines for the Buffalo and Iowa home games and drove with his family to Syracuse this past Saturday.
"Adam's always upbeat, no matter what happens, but he could have very easily shut down and went in the tank," McKillop said. "I think it was a great sign for our team that he drove up to Syracuse and came in the locker room. That's something the younger kids can look up to.
"Having him there was just natural inspiration for our team. Even though he isn't playing, he's being a leader off the field."
Gunn is now more aware of spinal-cord injuries -- Washington State quarterback Gary Rogers, Ball State receiver Dante Love and USF linebacker Brouce Mompremier all suffered them on the same day, Sept. 20 -- and was hoping to seek out Mompremier before last night's game. Gunn also can relate to the scare Steelers linebacker Andre Frazier endured on the opening kickoff against the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football.
If anyone was prepared for catastrophe, it was Gunn. He graduated in three-and-a-half years with a bachelor's degree in communication and rhetoric, and has a 3.75 grade-point average in two semesters in Pitt's masters of public administration program. Gunn could have opted to pursue another undergraduate degree and chase his NFL dreams but is glad he didn't.
"Thank God I made that decision," Gunn said. "In a sense, I've been preparing myself for a season- or career-ending injury, or not making it to the next level. I was trying to be ambitious, trying to make myself as valuable as possible, in football or life in general."
Whether or not he receives the extra year of eligibility, Gunn is hoping to remain involved in football. His focus is non-profit management, and he's interested in working in an NFL front office, perhaps in a player-development program that prepares them for life after football.
"That is what a student-athlete should be doing," McKillop said. "He's a great mold of what you want when you're recruiting. It's terrible what happened, but he didn't put his eggs all in one basket. He was prepared, no matter what. I wish he was still playing football, but he has a backup plan."