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Starkey: Injured stars Graham, Mason see big picture

| Sunday, March 25, 2012

One walks with a limp. The other needs a brace to keep his foot from flopping on the practice field.

Their gruesome injuries happened live on ESPN.

Pitt running back Ray Graham was leading the nation in rushing last October when his right knee deserted him on a cut against Connecticut.

Three weeks earlier, Graham had so artistically carved up USF that LeBron James was tweeting about him.

"Ray Graham is a beast out there!" wrote The King.

Now, the beast was as helpless as a newborn.

"It felt like somebody died," Graham says. "I cried at that moment, not because of the pain -- I could deal with that -- but because I knew my season was over."

A year prior, on a tackle against Miami, middle linebacker Dan Mason sustained an injury so grotesque that television stations wouldn't show the replay.

As he was carted off, Mason pointed skyward.

"I knew how bad it was," he recalls. "I saw my knee poking out of my skin. I knew it was going to take God to get me back."

This past Thursday at Pitt's practice facility, I asked Graham and Mason to sit together and share their experience -- the fears, doubts and pains that confront an athlete whose world is rocked by a devastating injury.

In 20 years in this business, I've never witnessed a dialogue quite like it. The two spoke with a wisdom that belied their age. Graham is 21. Mason turns 21 next week.

Graham is Type A all the way, knees bouncing like Superballs as he jabbers on. Mason is quietly intense. His eyes lock on yours as he methodically makes a point.

Maybe I was fooled, but I'd swear that each views his injury as a blessing rather than a curse.

An opportunity, rather than a robbery.

"I never asked why," Graham said. "It forced me to look at my outside life. Matured me into a man. My speech to people is this: Cherish every moment of this life, man, because you never get that play back. It ain't like watching a movie."

Several times, the conversation turned to God.

"He'll never leave you," Graham said, peering across the table at Mason, whose fight has motivated him. "No matter how much bad you do, he's willing to give you a chance."

Mason: "Exactly."

Graham: "He doesn't care if we play football. He wants us to be men and do right. We're blessed to be able to do this."

Mason: "This injury is for others to learn from so they can get through, too (Graham nods in agreement). It's bigger than us. That's why we're still going. You gotta have something inside to keep going."

Graham: "Got to."

Something inside• These two have raging infernos. You can feel the heat when you ask if they'll be ready for Pitt's opener.

Graham, who has yet to practice, refuses to use to the word 'if.'

Mason is a miracle. He shouldn't be on the practice field, let alone running first team. His dislocated right knee initially was held together with a rod and pins. It required five surgeries, leaving him without an ACL but with lasting nerve damage that hampers his ability to lift his foot.

Mason's brace winds around his shin and curls under his foot to keep it from flopping. It's the only way he can run.

Both credit family members with keeping their spirits lit during the dark moments of early recovery.

Mason's team included mother Carol, father Dereke Sr. and brother Dereke Jr.

Graham's included mother Nyla, uncle Hakiem Stewart and cousin Xavier Harris.

Carol Mason sat for hours by her son's side reading him scripture. Nyla Graham took a leave from her job as a security guard in New Jersey.

"I had to beg her to go back to work," Graham said. "It was sad for her to see me like that. I told her, 'I'll be strong like you've been strong.' She played mother and father in my life."

Both men drew inspiration from Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand, who was paralyzed during a 2010 game but has fought a brave public battle since.

One of LeGrand's close friends is Graham's brother, Khaseem Greene, a Rutgers linebacker.

"(LeGrand) says one day he'll be able to walk," Graham said. "I truly believe he will."

Graham plans on participating in fall camp -- and he knows decorated freshman Rushel Shell will be among those aiming for his job.

"He'll make us better," Graham said. "But me shy away from a challenge• Never happen. I wouldn't be me if I was scared of somebody coming in here trying to take my spot."

Like Mason, Graham acknowledges the possibility that he will never be the same.

That is the beast. But it's a burden he bears gratefully.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2-6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 "The Fan." His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at

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