- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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There is an incredible story unfolding in Pittsburgh, the stuff of clichés, Hollywood movies and Disney endings.
Only this is so much better, because it is real.
Forget "Rudy." How about Dan?
Pitt linebacker Dan Mason is on the verge of making his triumphant return to the field nearly two years after a devastating knee injury should have ended his football career. Mason has been running with the first team since spring practice began last week, cleared for full contact after a long, painful -- and, yes, uplifting recovery.
Those who know him best are hardly surprised to see him back on the field. He has a love of the game that supersedes everything but his faith. And it is that faith that got him through some of the toughest times.
In fact, Mason will humbly tell you he is happy he went through the trials of the past 18 months because they allowed him to re-focus his priorities and find a deeper spiritual meaning to life.
“I feel like I’m a much better man, much better person,” Mason said in a recent phone interview. “I appreciate things a lot more, because I had something taken from me. I went from feeling like Superman to my mom having to walk me around my house.
“God has opened up my eyes to different things, the things he gives us and we take for granted. Like taking one step by yourself, using the bathroom by yourself, getting your own glass of water. It’s such a humbling experience feeling like you could do anything on your own, and then you need somebody to do almost everything. That’s how we’re supposed to be with God. We shouldn’t have to take another step without him.”
Mason hurt his knee making a tackle against Miami in September 2010. The injury was gruesome -- so gruesome that teammates turned away because they could not look. As Miami receiver LaRon Byrd was falling to the turf, Mason tried to get a final hit on him. His leg caught in the grass and Byrd crashed into his knee.
The result -- a dislocated knee cap, torn ligaments and nerve damage.
“It was my fault,” said Mason, who has watched tape of the hit. “But that’s me playing the way I do.”
Doctors initially told Mason it was highly doubtful he would return to play football. Mason refused to listen.
He underwent five operations and spent countless hours doing rehab, working on flexibility in his knee, cutting, strengthening and generating nerve function again. He was able to run at full speed eight months after the surgery and was able to return to the practice field last season.
But his participation was limited while he worked to regain his nerve function and he never played in a game.
“The toughest time for me was basically last football season,” he said. “I saw everybody getting ready to go out and play. I wanted to be out there, too. I wasn’t ready yet, so I had to sit back and watch. It was a hard time.”
He tried to be a coach on the field and then joined the scout team, beginning in Week 4. That allowed him to get in football shape and even take a few hits to his knee.
“It was on my mind a lot last year, and I was being cautious on what I was doing,” he said. “Now when I’m out there, I don’t even think about it. I go. I feel that good.”
There still is plenty to do before the season kicks off, including scrimmages, a spring game and an entire offseason of work. But Mason has come too far to let up. Or to give up.
So what can folks expect to see from him?
“They can expect to see me coming out that tunnel, first game of the season.”