Coming off back surgery in October, and no participation during the entire 2010 season, Penn State fifth-year senior tight end Andrew Szczerba is preparing for a return to the field this season.
Is he healthy and ready to reclaim the role he thought he once had?
The following is an excerpt of their conversation:
NB: The back... you're healthy?
Szczerba: Yeah, I'm feeling good.
NB: Give me a little bit of a background on it. Did you have back issues in high school?
Szczerba: I never had back issues until my junior year up here. I don't know how it happened. It could have been a mix between lifting, running, football, not sleeping right, a bunch of different things. I had some back trouble and then eventually it turned into a disc problem, which I hear is common for a lot of people. I could have picked up something wrong.
But, I got it my junior year up here. I was just kind of pushing through a little bit of pain. I just thought it was some soreness, that I was tight, and it just ended up turning into more severe pain to the point I had to eventually get it taken care of surgically.
NB: Did it just feel like you tweaked it? Were you going to the training room?
Szczerba: It was during our winter workouts and I just thought it was tight. It was tight at the beginning of the workouts and toward the end of the workouts, when we'd be bending down to touch the line, I'd be like really, really sore. Maybe I need to take a break. I talked to them and they were cool about it and they tried to take care of me as much as they could before spring practice. I was feeling great before spring, but still the problem wasn't totally fixed.
NB: So, it was nagging at this point?
Szczerba: Well, no, I felt great. I wouldn't say great... I felt good going into spring practice. But then after the hitting and the pounding and the disc getting a little worse, it got pretty bad. I was on my own for the whole summer, doing my own workouts. Then the pain started to come back at the end of the summer, which was frustrating because I kept my fingers crossed and I thought I'd be good.
Then I started feeling good again and tried to push through it to eventually get back on the field in the fall, because the last thing you want to do is rush into spine surgery. I tried to do everything I could and it just didn't work. I got to the point where I started having pain again and I just told myself, You know what. I've just gotta get this fixed, start rehabbing and I'll be fine.
NB: You won the total commitment award that spring. So, you got that through the pain?
Szczerba: I would have to say that spring was probably the roughest few weeks of my life. I mean, I haven't had a lot of troubles. I've been pretty blessed with everything in my life. Great family, going to a great school... But, just physically, mentally, you're thinking that next year is your year to play. You've been waiting and you want to make your family proud and you want to prove to your recruiting coaches that they brought you here for a reason. It was kind of just like, the wind was taken out of your sail a little bit.
NB: Plus, Mickey Shuler and Andrew Quarless had graduated. You were biding your time behind those guys.
Szczerba: Exactly. So, bad timing. I was definitely bitter in the beginning, like, frustrated. But, the more you think about it, the more you realize that things happen for a reason, and that's just going to make this year even better. So, I've just got to look at it in a positive way.
NB: So, through last year and the fall, were you participating at all?
Szczerba: I never put on a helmet. Never put on shoulder pads or anything, unless it was me on the side trying to catch passes and see how I felt.
NB: So when did you finally pull the trigger and decide on surgery? I'm assuming it was your call.
Szczerba: I took the doctors' opinions because I had never had surgery before. I took my parents' opinions and I definitely prayed about it. I had my surgery in October, so right around then I decided that was going to be the way I was going to go.
NB: Was there ever a point when it started to come back that you thought you might take that option?
Szczerba: They did. They definitely presented it as an option. In the summer, they were like, You know what Andrew, we can get it fixed, but you're going to miss the season. In my heart, I was like, I'm playing this season. It was tearing me up. I didn't want to give up. That's the thing. I wanted to do everything I could before I got back surgery because with back surgery, they were telling me they could have surgery and you could wake up and you'd be in the same pain.
That's where I was. I'm just like, Lord, really? I was in so much pain for so long and then I'm thinking, if they don't do the surgery correctly, the scar tissue can heal a certain way, and it still rests on my nerve. That's where I had the pain, in my nerve. I didn't have a ton of back pain. I had a pinched nerve and my sciatic nerve, which goes down my leg, that's where most of my pain comes.
As the disc gets worse, it starts pushing on it a little more and more, and that's when your leg starts to fall asleep. Walking to class, walking to the building, trying to sleep, trying to sit, trying to watch TV, trying to drive home for three hours in the car. Everything is affected.
That's when it gets to a point where you realize that there's more important things in life than football. I gotta take care of my health first because nobody wants to be in pain all the time. That's what puts things in perspective, when you start having pain all the time.
It's like, you don't realize... that's where I kind of got bitter because you don't realize how blessed you are to go out there and play. So, you're looking at the guys on the team and you're just bitter. They don't appreciate it. They're healthy.
So, it just makes you take a step back and realize just how fortunate you are just to suit up. Even just sitting here talking to you and not being in pain. Awesome.
NB: You're not going to have an appreciation for something like that until it happens.
Szczerba: Right. It makes you appreciate the little things and I definitely believe things happen for a reason. It definitely made me a better person.
NB: What was the prognosis after the surgery?
Szczerba: They were thinking I'd be back for spring, which I was. I mean, forgetting back surgery, I didn't have something major. I had a disc and they just took out some cartilage resting on my nerve. Compared to other back surgeries, it's not that bad. So, they were talking, coming back for spring ball and immediately, I was like, Are you serious? After back surgery? I was like, All right.
The thing was, when you have that pain for so long, in your mind, you're like a dog that gets hit. You're not going to go back and mess with the trash if you're going to get hit every time. So, I'm thinking, I don't want to just jump back into football if it's going to hurt me. So, I wanted to make sure I was 110-115 percent before doing anything that could re-aggravate it. I'm thinking, You know, this is the rest of my career at Penn State or God willing, after Penn State. This is important. I don't want to rush this because what's the point? This is my back for the rest of my life. Also, I know spring ball is really important but I'm thinking, I'm an older guy. I've played a bunch of spring balls.
Would it be cool if I do my thing and kind of get back on my own pace. I know the coaches know I'm not the type of guy that's going to slack off or not come to therapy. So my main concern was that I wasn't rushed coming back and the doctors were great about that. In the spring, basically I suited up and was running routes, doing our individual drills. No contact. But, it was just nice to be back in uniform, running around and catching passes. Blocking the sled or hitting somebody holding a bag. It just felt good and it gave me confidence going into the summer.
NB: So where are you now?
Szczerba: Right now I'm at the point where I forget that I even had surgery, which is awesome. I did every single run with the team this summer. I did every single lift, and I feel great. I feel fine strength-wise.
I was working out twice a day sometimes (this summer), running routes in the afternoons. The fact that I could run in the morning, run routes in the afternoon, next day wake up and lift hard and feel good, that was pretty awesome.
NB: Does the weight (expectations) of this upcoming season get to you at all?
Szczerba: You would think it would, but I don't know what it is but I just have a confidence about this season. I think it's because I realized just the fact that I can practice tomorrow is a blessing. Just the fact that I can put on helmets and shoulder pads and run around with my teammates, I'm just excited to do that. Just the fact that I can hang out in the dorms with them during camp and go to meals and feel healthy. That's a big deal. It's awesome.
Obviously, I want to do big things this year, but I have a peace about me and confidence that I know things are going to work out. I feel like it's not in my hands, whether it works out or not. I've just gotta go out there and do my best and see what happens. I'm not stressing out about something that I can't control. So, I feel great about it. I'm real excited.
NB: What kind of role do you expect to take this coming year as a senior?
Szczerba: As a senior, I just want to be as much of a mentor to the younger guys as I can. I remember when I came in, I would have loved to have an older guy kind of tell me how things were, what to expect or what to avoid, things like that. But, I'm a quiet guy. I'm not a big rah rah guy, get everybody pumped up after runs.
Hopefully I'll just lead by example. I just want to make sure my piece of the puzzle is complete. I feel like you can't lead unless you're taking care of your stuff. I just want to be reliable. Somebody that people can look to when the game gets tough, hopefully they can have confidence in me to do my part and help the team out. But, I'm more of a quiet, lead by example guy.
I feel like football and sports are so awesome for teaching you life lessons. That's been my whole life. I've had little jobs, but people ask me if I've had a solid job before and it's like, No, not really. This is my job.
I feel like all the life's experiences, all the ups and downs that you have with football are awesome and they just make you into the person that you are. So, obviously, my back issue, that was definitely a rough time for me, my family.
For me to overcome that and get back out there on the field and strap up is awesome. That's what motivates me.