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Oct. 5, 2012
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) - For most athletes it can be easy to take for granted that their sport will always be there for them.
When it's taken away by a severe injury, they usually develop an attitude of appreciation.
Meet Justin Gilbert, the offensive right tackle for Maryland. He's now on the third ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in his left knee. He tore the one he was born with in 2010, then tore the replacement he was given through surgery in 2011.
Through the Terps' first four games of the 2012 season, the knee has held up. His team has eight games remaining in the regular season and Gilbert plans to savor every one.
"It definitely develops a bigger appreciation for the sport," he said of being away from football for most of two seasons. "I realized, getting it taken away from me, how much I loved it and how much I took for granted that it was there. Now I go out every day wanting to play as hard as I can and play every play as if it were my last, because I know it could be."
Gilbert is a fifth-year senior without much game experience. He has played in just 22 college games in his career, and 11 of those were as a reserve during his redshirt freshman season of 2009.
He showed enough talent to win the starting left tackle spot in his sophomore year, then went down in the fourth game with his first torn ACL. He rehabbed and was ready for spring practice last year, then was injured again on the first day the players were in full pads. Somehow he endured another round of rehab and made it back to play in the final four games of the season, this time as a right guard.
The change in position was a challenge in itself. He went from playing more in space, against speed rushers, to tying up the bull rushes of 320-pound defensive tackles and nose guards. During his rehab he would go down on the field by himself and run through plays, practicing the footwork.
Back at his more natural position at tackle this season, although on the other side of the line, Gilbert is enjoying playing again.
"This season it's going good," he said. "It's always good to be healthy and my knee feels great. I'm still rehabbing, just as a maintaining thing. I'm playing well and hoping we'll start getting some Ws."
Maryland has eight ACC games remaining on its schedule, beginning with Wake Forest Saturday. The Terps split their four nonconference contests and then had a bye week. They have had a chance to heal their bodies and refresh their minds.
Many players, after an ACL injury, can't wait to get back on the field. Gilbert was that gung-ho, saying he worked "100 miles an hour" to get himself ready. After the second injury occurred so quickly, it created some doubt as to whether he wanted to do it again.
"When it happened the second time, it did hit me that maybe something is telling me I should hang up the pads," he said. "It made it easier from the aspect that I knew what to do (in rehab). But having to start all over again when I thought I was done with it was probably the hardest part to get over.
"It took my friends, my teammates, my family, all really behind me, pushing me, telling me `you did it the first time, you can do it again.' I got my head on straight that summer, worked as hard as I could. It was tough, going on a year of being hurt, but I kept pushing. I had a lot of support and that helped out tremendously."
Both injuries came while Gilbert was wearing a brace, and both were caused by the way he twisted his knee under him. The resulting surgeries have left him with an unusual mix of parts in his knee.
"They took part of my patella (tendon) the first time (to make a new ACL)," he said. "The second time they did what's called a double bundle surgery. They took part of my hamstring and part of a cadaver ACL and put that in there. I've got all kinds of stuff in me.
"Being out for so long, I almost didn't remember what it was like before. I feel like I come off the ball pretty good. There are days where it will be sore and bother me a little bit, but for the most part I feel about as good as I did before it happened."
Head coach Randy Edsall has been impressed with the way Gilbert has persevered.
"Some guys might not continue to pursue playing," the coach said, "but he loves to play the game. Football is important to him, and his teammates are important to him."
And the results on the field?
"You could see that he was a little bit rusty when he got back out there," Edsall said, "but he's a guy that works hard. He's a guy that has ability, and he's somebody that has to continue to get better.
"You can see that he still has strides to go because he's been out of it for a year and a half, but he's making some strides. It gets back to the point that he's just got to play a little bit lower, and he's got to continue to be a better technician at that right tackle."
One of the things Gilbert can lend to the Terps is the experience of being around college football for five years, even though his play to this point has been limited. The Terps need that because their team, particularly on offense, is so young. One area that doesn't worry Gilbert is quarterback, which is in the hands of true freshman Perry Hills.
"He's doing as good a job as you could ask a freshman quarterback to do," he said. "He comes out every day ready to go, he doesn't let things bother him. If he makes a mistake he wipes it out and goes to the next play. He's taken the reins and done a really good job and a lot of us are really impressed with him and proud of him."
Being on the sidelines for so long gave Gilbert time to think about how much he missed football and the camaraderie that goes with it. Coming back had as much to do with helping his teammates as it did for his own sake.
"Having to spend time in the training room and not out on the practice field, that was rough," he said. "You have it in the back of your mind, `maybe if I was out there I could have sprung a block and we would have scored a touchdown.' You're always thinking `I want to be out there helping,' and there's nothing you can do about it."
Now Gilbert is back in position to do something to help, and he doesn't want to waste the opportunity.
"For me, the biggest thing I want to accomplish is to see this team a success," he said, and I'm going to do whatever I can in my last eight games to make sure that happens."
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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