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April 6, 2012
By Tony Mancuso
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Success is often measured by one's ability to move from one setback to the next without losing enthusiasm.
Penn State tight end Garry Gilliam and defensive end Pete Massaro know a thing or two about setbacks. They also know a thing or two about the work ethic and positive attitude necessary to overcome adversity.
Neither player ever doubted that the opportunity to step back on the field might not happen again, but overcoming a serious knee injury is as difficult mentally as it is physically.
But the hours and hours of rehab work, often side-by-side, are behind them, and Gilliam and Massaro are back on the practice field this spring looking ahead to playing a big role for the Nittany Lions in the fall.
"It was kind of surreal," Gilliam said of stepping back onto the practice field for the first time. "It was just good to get out there and play again."
"It feels so good to finally get back out there," Massaro said.
While Gilliam has no limitations this spring and Massaro's knee is not quite 100 percent, both players will be at full strength when the 2012 season begins in September.
The road back to the field is virtually over, but it was by no means an easy road to get there for either Nittany Lion.
While blocking down field in the latter stages of the first half at Kinnick Stadium during Penn State's primetime clash at Iowa on Oct. 2, 2010, Gilliam's knee gave out. He knew instantly that something was wrong. Gilliam had suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), torn medial collateral ligament (MCL), torn patellar tendon, torn lateral meniscus and bone bruising in his left knee.
After starting three of the first five games during the 2010 season, Gilliam's promising redshirt freshman campaign ended after just five weeks.
His first question to Penn State team doctor Wayne Sebastianelli after the injury diagnosis was whether or not he would be able to return to the field at full strength. Dr. Sebastianelli told Gilliam that while it would be a difficult recovery, he would return to the field.
That is all Gilliam needed to hear.
From that moment forward, Gilliam put his head down and went to work.
The Carlisle, Pa., native was scheduled for surgery to repair the damages in his left knee during the week after Thanksgiving in 2010. However, the swelling had not reduced as quickly as it should have, so Gilliam underwent further testing.
Things became more complicated from there.
It was determined during the week prior to the surgery that Gilliam had a severe infection in his injured knee, thus delaying surgery. After extensive treatment for the infection, the tight end underwent surgery in May, six months after it had been originally scheduled. Gilliam had a second operation for a follow up procedure to clean up the area, as well.
He then missed all of the 2011 season while he rehabbed the knee. Gilliam said it was tough to stay mentally strong during the prolonged recovery period, but knowing that a return to the field was at the end of the battle was all he needed to keep working hard.
In January, Gilliam began to feel like his knee was nearing 100 percent. He was a full participant in offseason conditioning drills, and now, he is back practicing for the first time in 18 months.
"No, I am not limited," Gilliam said. "The knee is good. I am still trying to build up my confidence up, but it is going great...I am able to do everything at practice."
Like the rest of the offensive players, Gilliam is learning a new playbook and offensive scheme this spring.
"It is kind of like being a freshman again, learning an entirely new offense," Gilliam said. "Everything is fast and precise in the offense."
The tight ends will be at the center of the Penn State offense, and Gilliam is eager to continue learning the `Y' and `F' positions.
"I am really excited about the offense," Gilliam said. "The tight ends will have a big role in it. It is a lot to learn, but I am excited about what it has in store for us."
Gilliam, who will petition the NCAA for a sixth season of eligibility so that he will have three seasons remaining, said that learning the new offense is like learning a new language.
Massaro's plot features many of the same chapters as Gilliam's during the past 12 months.
Nonetheless, the Newton Square, Pa., native came back with a vengeance in 2010. A starter in the final 11 games, Massaro evolved into a consistent pass rusher for the Nittany Lion defense. He tallied 37 tackles and 8.0 tackles for a loss. Massaro was named an Academic All-American following his strong season on the field and in the classroom in 2010.
Poised for a big season in 2011, Massaro entered spring practice with a great deal of confidence. But nearly two years after his first serious knee injury, Massaro tore the ACL in his left knee during spring practice.
Facing his second recovery in two years, Massaro's confidence level never wavered.
"I knew that I needed to keep my nose to the grindstone, and that everything is going to turn out all right," Massaro said.
He never doubted whether or not he would play again.
"Despite second injury, I knew I was going to come back. There was never a question," Massaro said.
Through countless hours of rehab work, again, Massaro is back in uniform this spring. While his left knee is not quite at full strength, Massaro has practiced every day this spring. He is not a full participant yet, but he is working his way back into game shape.
"It does take time to get muscle memory back," said Massaro. "I want to get back to last spring's form before the injury."
Massaro said the spring practice season has gone well for him so far. It is decided day-to-day which drills he participates in. Additionally, he is enjoying the challenge of learning a new defensive scheme under new coordinator Ted Roof.
"Coach Roof is great at pushing people and getting the best out of people," Massaro said.
Gilliam and Massaro spent much of the past 12 months enduring the same challenges, often rehabbing together.
"We have gone through rehab together, and pretty much every day we talk about our knees and how they are feeling," Gilliam said. "It has helped both of us because we have had that person to go through it with us. We are going through the same thing, so it helps."
Having been off the field for so long, both players are understandably rusty this spring.
"I am obviously a little rusty because it has been a long time since I have played football," Gilliam said. "The hardest thing was probably my confidence, just really trusting the fact that my knee is good to go."
"I'm a little rusty at this point," said Massaro, who does not expect to wear a brace in the fall. "The knee is not quite 100 percent, but it feels good."
The Sept. 1 home opener against Ohio cannot come soon enough for two players deserving of a strong 2012 season.
Follow GoPSUsports.com Media Specialist Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony
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