Skip to main content

Massaro, Gilliam team up in road to recovery

By 10 April, 2012August 18th, 2012No Comments

By Frank Bodani, Delaware County Daily Times
April 10, 2012

After practice, the two Nittany Lions would find each other to talk about what was holding them back, yet driving them ahead.

Sometimes the chat would come before or after one of their seemingly endless rehabilitation sessions.

They worked and watched but didn’t play.

Two forgotten Lions, in a sense, until now.

The long-awaited return of defensive end Pete Massaro, a Marple Newtown All-Delco, and tight end Gary Gilliam this spring will not only deepen thin spots on a depth chart but should also have a significant impact on Penn State’s success this fall.

Massaro, a redshirt senior, is coming back from his second torn ACL, one in each leg.

Gilliam, a redshirt junior, is coming back from what amounts to knee reconstruction surgery further complicated by an infection.

Both could be starters this fall.

They are getting tested mentally and physically in spring practice sessions, which conclude with the annual Blue-White game April 21.

“In rehab, having other guys going through the same things you are helps a lot,” Massaro said. “Me and Gary and (Mike) Mauti formed a closer bond going through rehab. Me and Gary talk every day after practice.

“We’re in this together. We’ve kind of been step-and-step the whole time. … Having someone else there helps you push yourself.”

Massaro was shelved for the first time in spring 2009 when he ripped up his right knee. He missed the entire season before coming back strong in 2010 with eight tackles for loss and 31/2 sacks. He pushed for a starting role last season.

A second knee injury, though, derailed him in spring 2011. This time, he tore the ACL in his right knee.

He missed another season.

“I’m trying to remember that it’s going to take time,” Massaro said of working back into drills this month. “I keep telling myself to take it slow, take it one day at a time. … It does take time to get your muscle memory back.”

The second injury “wasn’t crushing for me,” Massaro said, because he remembers how former teammate Jerome Hayes persevered through the same ordeal.

Plus, Hayes “just had a kid at that point. I knew what I had to do wasn’t as tough as what he had to do,” Massaro said. “I look up to those guys who came before me as motivation.”

Now, Massaro is pushing for a starting spot opposite Sean Stanley. No one at defensive end behind those two has any significant game experience for the Lions.

Massaro said his knee is 80 or 85 percent healed.

“Some things I’m very comfortable with, but there are other things where my knee bothers me and is a little uncomfortable. … I won’t be playing with a brace in the fall. That’s something that sort of slows you down.”

At one point, Gilliam would have been battling right along with Massaro.

The Milton Hershey School grad also came to Penn State as a defensive end. But he was switched to tight end and looked to be working himself into a significant role in 2010.

Everything ended abruptly, though, at Iowa.

Gilliam was blocking a defensive back just before halftime when “I got off balance and my knee went loose, you could say.”

He knew the injury was serious, but he could have never predicted the outcome. He not only tore his ACL but also damaged so much else in the knee.

Then, as he prepared for the second scheduled surgery around Thanksgiving 2011, doctors discovered an infection in the knee.

His ACL surgery was postponed for nearly six more months.

His hopes of playing last year were gone.

“It was pretty depressing, but you realize everything happens for a reason,” Gilliam said. “I was just starting to get the hang of college football, and it’s discouraging it happened, but I’m making strides in getting back out there.”

His return also comes at a most critical time.

New head coach Bill O’Brien values the tight end significantly, as shown by his work with the New England Patriots. Penn State has only Gilliam and Kevin Haplea there with any field experience.

“We’re running a lot more routes now. It’s more thinking with reading defense coverages and what to adjust to. We’re involved in everything,” Gilliam said.

He compares the new playbook to “learning a new language.”

And yet he and Massaro talk as though they are simply grateful to be wearing helmets and uniforms again.

Grateful for second, even third chances.

“I’m a little rusty at this point, but I’m making progress,” Massaro said. “Getting better every day.”