This is nothing new for Pete Massaro.
In 2008, Massaro spent the year on the sidelines as a redshirt freshman. The following spring, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
So, in 2010, the Penn State defensive end entered the season as a relative unknown. Seemingly without warning, Massaro burst into the starting lineup for the final 11 games of the season, finished fourth on the team with 8.0 tackles for a loss, and racked up 37 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
Now, he's trying to make the same impact again, under eerily similar circumstances.
Tearing the ACL in his left knee early in the 2011 spring practice session last year, Massaro has been through the heartbreak, the operating room, the countless hours in the training room, and has finally worked his way back to the field this spring. Again.
Taking inspiration from teammates who had suffered the same fate before him, Massaro said he didn't question that he'd return to the field someday.
"I knew I was going to come back regardless," he said, noting Jerome Hayes' two ACL injuries. "Having those guys to look up to and the guys that have done it before me, it's just kind of more motivation and it keeps the hope alive. It wasn't really a crushing thing for me. Obviously I was upset for a while afterwards, but it's something you just have to move on from."
For the second time, he has.
Massaro returned to the practice field with a (nearly) clean bill of health on March 26. He says he couldn't be happier.
"It feels good to finally get back out there," Massaro said. "It wasn't really something that I was actively thinking about, I was kind of just taking it one day at a time in the winter and just trying to progress day-by-day with the knee. So, it feels good to get back out there. I'm a little rusty at this point. The knee is not 100 percent yet, but I'm making progress and just getting better every day."
Though Massaro's most recent ACL tear is now more than a year in the past, he said recently that he's about 80-85 percent recovered, but feels like he's close to being completely recovered.
According to one practice observer, that number may be a bit of a rouse. Whether Massaro feels back at 100 percent or not, BWI sources have indicated that his performance this spring, so far, has erased any memory of injury.
Defensive line coach Larry Johnson is certainly hoping as much, and is treating Massaro's participation this spring with the type of caution befitting high expectations for the upcoming season.
According to Massaro, Johnson has limited his repetitions in drills through the first part of spring practice, and will occasionally hold him out for the duration of particular sets. While welcoming the participation in full-contact practices again, Massaro says he continually reminds himself that the recovery from an ACL injury is a time-consuming process.
"My goal is to return to the form that I was in spring of last year and at the end of two seasons ago, but I've gotta keep telling myself that I gotta take it slow, I gotta take it one day at a time and not get too ahead of myself," he said. "It does take time to get that muscle memory back. It's kind of a slow process as opposed to a quick process, but I'm kind of glad that I'm getting it out of the way now as opposed to during camp, so I think it's a good thing."
Harking back to his recollections of the first injury and subsequent recovery, many of the final hurdles that remain are now mental.
For instance, ignoring the clunky brace stabilizing his left knee.
Massaro says he's expecting to play without it in the fall, but notes that there are times when it slows down his natural quickness on the defensive line. Just another aspect of a process he knows too much about.
"There's definitely times where I feel like my head gets in the way more than me knee does," he said. "There's other times where I can take a step back and say, 'OK, well, that part of it was mental and the other part was definitely a little bit of rustiness on the part of my knee.'
"But, I just have to think back to last time and when I came back from the last knee in camp, I was a little bit rusty then, also. So, I know it's something I'm going to have to go to, it's just kind of an adjustment period. I'll keep my nose to the grindstone and taking things one day at a time and I know everything is going to turn out all right."