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September 22, 2004Tailback Mike Gasparato never could catch a break during his Penn State career. All things considered, that may have been a good thing. Because given the fifth-year senior's tough luck, it probably would have been a broken leg.
Dogged by injuries throughout his stay in Happy Valley, the capper came in Saturday's 37-13 win over UCF. Gasparato was on the field for one play - taking a fourth-quarter handoff, breaking a tackle and galloping into the end zone for his second career rushing touchdown.
While breaking the tackle, however, he sustained a high right ankle sprain. Then he couldn't run at practice Monday. Rather than endure a projected month of rehabiliation, he decided to walk away from the game while he still could.
"I'm walking away because my body can't take it anymore," said Gasparato, who missed the entire 2003 season with a torn left hamstring. "It's the latest in a long story of injuries.
"When a running back can't run anymore," the 22-year-old added, "it's time to finish up."
Always a class act in the media room, Gasparato is handling his final football setback with predictable grace. He said he is thankful for the opportunities he's gotten in football and from Penn State, and disappointed he couldn't make it through his final season in the program.
"I was really hoping to finish what I started," he said. "It was important to me. ... But I got a shot and a lot of people don't get a shot. I'm not bitter at the game of football."
The son of former Nittany Lion assistant coach Nick Gasparato, Mike's best season was 2002, when he served as a change of pace out of the backfield behind Larry Johnson. He had 32 carries for 158 yards that year, and a pair of catches for 62 yards. Among the catches was a 32-yarder that helped change momentum in a road win at Wisconsin.
Bothered by torn ligaments and tendinitis of the knees early in his career, Gasparato believes compensating for those issues contributed to the torn hamstring that knocked him out of the 2003 season. While he was out, he was passed on the depth chart by then-true freshmen Austin Scott and Tony Hunt.
When Gasparato returned last spring, the speed and quickness that helped him earn All-State honors at Dutch Fork High in Irmo, S.C., were gone. He knew he had little chance of climbing ahead of Scott and Hunt, but wanted to stick around the program to serve as a team leader.
He had seven carries for 38 yards this season before sustaining the injury. Ironically, his last carry, the one on which he scored from 22 yards out, was also his longest.
"If you're gonna go out, that's the way to go," he said with a laugh.
Gasparato will graduate with a degree in communications arts and sciences in December. He hopes to remain with the Nittany Lions through the end of the season in some form of volunteer coaching capacity, but he is waiting a few days before seeing if that will be logistically possible.
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