Return is uncertain for Pitt linebacker Mason
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Pitt linebacker Dan Mason looks at his right knee like a proud parent watching the growth and maturation of a child.
He pats it with firm hand and assures anyone willing to listen, "My knee is fine."
Actually, he is right. The knee was surgically repaired and is gaining strength at a rate that pleases Mason's doctors.
But "fine" doesn't mean he is significantly closer to returning to the Pitt defense than he was the night of Sept. 23, 2010. During a game against Miami at Heinz Field, Mason suffered a total dislocation of the knee, tears to the anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments and damage to the peroneal nerve.
"It's a day-to-day deal," Pitt coach Todd Graham said. "Dan's got faith and belief that he can make it back. We will just have to see. He is still a ways from being where he can compete right now."
Graham's cautious words are to be expected from a coach who doesn't want to rush back a 20-year-old from a horrific injury.
Mason, however, is absolutely clear in his conviction that prayer, the grace of God and hard work will heal him.
"I will be back," Mason said. "I have no question in my mind."
Mason said the knee is OK, but the peroneal nerve that is essential to the muscles that lift the foot and toes was stretched and damaged and is taking a long time to heal. Doctors refuse to clear him medically before that occurs.
"They didn't give me a timetable," said Mason, a redshirt sophomore from Penn Hills. "Because of my nerve, you have no clue when that is going to come back."
Meanwhile, Mason splits time among doctor visits, practice and rehabilitation sessions. He wears a helmet in practice, has taken a few snaps during the first two days of unpadded drills and targets this season for his return.
"I definitely feel like I can play (now) and take on a block, no question," Mason said. "My knee is very strong, stronger than what it is supposed to be (11 months after the injury)."
The injury occurred at the least opportune time for Mason, who led the Pitt defense in tackles in each of the first two games last season (a total of 11) and added three more and a quarterback hurry against Miami before getting hurt.
Pitt defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, who watched video of Mason before the injury, was impressed.
"He is one of the best linebackers I would have had the opportunity to coach," he said.
Actually, the injury wouldn't have occurred in that game if former Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt had followed through on his threat not to use Mason. Eleven days earlier, Mason was demoted from the first team for being in a car with former Pitt running back Jason Douglas, who was arrested on DUI and aggravated assault charges after hitting a pedestrian on the South Side.
Mason didn't start the game, but he entered before halftime. He was injured while helping make a stop on third-and-9, forcing a punt. Miami's Laron Byrd caught a pass and was close to the first down when Mason arrived.
"Everybody knows I like to tackle," Mason said. "As (Byrd) was going down to the ground, I tried to make sure he was going down and threw him a shot. I blinked a little, he went lower than I went and took my knee out."
His right leg stuck in the turf, but Mason believed the injury was only an ACL tear.
"I was going to get up, but I looked down and saw it was out of place and I just laid there."
Mason has said "Why me?" only a few times.
"I thought about it once or twice right after I got hurt, but you have to move on," he said. "This is nothing I can't come back from. Things happen to you so you can react to it and have a story to tell afterward."
He said his story will be, "How my God healed me."
"I am definitely proud of myself, but it's not me. (My parents) pray for me and tell me it's in God's hands and he will see me through."
Note: Pitt's regular-season finale against Syracuse on Dec. 3 at Heinz Field will be televised by ESPN or ESPN2.
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