This is a hell of a story. Seeing Dan Mason out there — and looking really good — is more than a little surprising.
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.”
That, however, is not the issue. Despite the numerous surgeries and gruesomeness of the injury, the knee is fine. It was fine last year. The issue is the nerve damage.
Damage to the peroneal nerve that still hasn’t healed.
The peroneal nerve is a branch of the sciatic nerve that wraps around the fibular head (“funny bone”) near the knee and then innervates muscles that lift the foot and toes. Damage to this nerve from injury (e.g., knee dislocation), or even surgery, may cause a foot drop. Patients have foot extension weakness, as well as numbness or pain on their shin and top of the foot. …
Unfortunately, for uncertain reasons, the peroneal nerve has a poor chance of recovery, with or without surgery. The mainstay of early treatment is physical therapy and a properly fitting, custom-made orthotic (foot splint). This orthotic is unobtrusive, and usually allows a return to normal daily activity.
Here’s a diagram of how much of an impact the peroneal nerve has on the control of your leg and foot. Wow. Just, wow.
Mason is wearing a brace over the shin to protect it, but it’s both amazing how far he comes and terrifying to think what could happen if it gets damaged once more. I’d be in terror of slipping on a step and banging my shin with that sort of damage. Mason is out there playing middle linebacker with guys diving and falling at his knee and leg.
Mason said doctors have told him they don’t know if his leg will ever be back to 100 percent again. But, he noted, “They told me I wasn’t going to be able to play football again.”
The Panthers have a new staff of coaches who did not witness the injury and have not seen how hard Mason has worked to get back on the field. It didn’t take them long to see just how intense and passionate he is.
That’s why he ascended to the starting middle linebacker spot so quickly and why he continues to serve as an inspiration to those around him, including the defensive coaches. All have said if they didn’t know his history, they’d have no idea he hasn’t played in nearly two seasons.
“I salute Dan Mason, I have fallen in love with the kid, he is tough as nails,” said Pitt defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable. “When I got here, I was told that we probably wouldn’t have him. But I’ll tell you what, he is making a lot of non-believers [into] believers. He is working extremely hard, and I pray for that kid every night that he can stay healthy and continue to improve because he loves it, he loves this game.
“I think there is still a little bit of limitation there, but I’ve never seen his head down or use it as an excuse,” Huxtable said. “And I’ve never seen any body language suggesting it might bother him.”
I mean, there is an inclination to treat this story as yet another player coming back from a season-ending surgery. But the more you learn about this injury and condition. It is an amazing story.