Dan Mason was off to a fast start when he came to Pitt in 2009. He appeared in all 13 games as a true freshman, and even made three starts including Pitt's Meineke Car Care Bowl win over North Carolina. He started two of the first three games into the 2010 season, when he went down with a devastating right knee injury. It not only ended his 2010 season, but he did not return in 2011.
Since spring drills began last week, Mason has not only found himself with the first-team defense in all five practices, he has not had to miss a beat. That includes going in full pads as the team did on Thursday. When head coach Paul Chryst started off the spring, he said he was well aware of the history with Mason's injury. He is pleasantly surprised to have Mason where he is at.
"Honestly, I'm less shocked than you guys, or anybody that knows the program," Chryst said Tuesday of Mason's progress. "In my time with Dan, he is doing everything in the workouts and comes out and does everything in practice. I know what he is working through and I really appreciate that, but it's hard for me to say I'm surprised."
For Mason, the only doubt he had of ever returning to the football field came when the injury first occurred, September 23, 2010 against Miami.
"I was doubting right after the injury," Mason said. "A week after that, I got my mindset right. I talked to God, I'm coming back. I'm back already. It's not me, though, don't get me wrong. It's not me.
"I couldn't stop, rehabbing and everything, I couldn't stop. God put something in me. I just couldn't (quit). I had to try. They never told me I could get back to 100 percent, but they told me I wasn't going to be able to play football again. I'm just working; working and praying, that's all I can do. Working hard, faith, that's it."
Even going in full pads Thursday, Mason said there's very little hesitating. The hunger to throw himself in to making a tackle or a big hit—one of the characteristics that earned him a scholarship—far outweighs any hesitancy he might have.
"I've been doing everything that everybody has been doing since last May," Mason said. "I've been doing everything that everyone else has been doing. If it feels like it's hurting, you just stop. It hasn't. Since I've been out there, I don't even think about it anymore."
Mason says the knee is at about 90 percent back. Does he expect it to be back to 100 percent? He treats that prediction the same way he felt when he was advised that he might not play football again. Outside of working out the nerve in that right knee—which he says is the only reason he's wearing a knee brace right now—he's more focused on getting back to what he calls his ‘old self.' That, he adds, is not so much with the knee, but moreso just getting back into football shape. Judging by how he's thrown himself around through the first five days of spring practice, he might not be too far from that ‘old self.'
"To be better than my old self," Mason says is his ultimate goal. "Sometimes, coming out of my break, I hesitate a little bit. That's all going to come back with reps. It's been a long time since I've played in a football game, getting used to the speed again. That's another issue, but it will come in time."
"I feel awesome," Mason said. "It feels good. I'm out here moving around, getting a lot better. It's about 90 percent. I don't feel like my old self yet, but I'm getting close every day."
From a football sense, Mason says he feels comfortable in the 4-3 as the middle linebacker, just as he was before in 2010. There are some things that are different about Dave Huxtable's 4-3 as opposed to Phil Bennett's 4-3, but overall it's an easy transition.
"It's a little bit different," Mason said. "It's a little more over and under defense. You adjust to any defense. It's good. I like it. Over is more a legit 4-3. Under, I'm playing a little bit outside. I did that with (Dave) Wannstedt too. It's nothing."
Mason is listed as a redshirt junior, meaning that his whole year in 2011 counts against him, even though he did not play. The possibility exists where he could apply for an extra year, but he's more keyed in on just getting back to the field, whatever class he's in.
"I know I can, but if I don't need (the extra year of eligibility), I'm not going to use it," Mason said. "I'm going to go forward, and if it comes to it, I'm going to go through it. If not, I'll go ahead and do what I do."