Sports is almost all about wins and losses. But every now and then, one of those seemingly inconsequential moments means everything.
Zach Mesday had paid the price. All he wanted to do was get on the field. Saturday afternoon against Cincinnati at the Linc, Temple's redshirt sophomore walk-on finally did. Even if it was only for one play at the end, and even if it wasn't as a linebacker but at fullback instead.
"I'm No. 57," Mesday said. "I didn't even think it was legal to be 57 and play fullback. We were on offense (leading 34-13), so I didn't think there was any way. I was talking to one of the defensive players and all I heard was, 'Mesday, go in.'
"I'm like, 'What are they thinking?' I didn't even have time to say anything to anybody. By the time I got out there, there were like 10 seconds left on the play clock. They said the play, and I looked at (backup quarterback) Logan (Marchi) and said, 'What am I doing?' He told me just run to the left. So I ran left and hit the first person I could. I believe we gained like three yards. I didn't even have time to think.
"It just seemed like any normal football game. I just blocked everything out and played. Everything slowed down. In prep school, like five parents showed up to watch and that was it. It was like practice. This was actually in front of people. The rest of the guys were saying, 'It's about time, bro.' My mom was crying when she hugged me after.
"I feel like so much weight came off my shoulder."
Imagine how he's going to feel if he gets to play more, which of course is his goal. But when you've had to come back from two serious knee injuries in as many years, there has to be a first step.
"For him, it was a big first step," said coach Matt Rhule, a onetime walk-on linebacker at Penn State, whose Owls (6-3, 4-1) play at Connecticut (3-6, 1-5) on Friday night. "When you prove that you can battle back, anything's possible. My job is to win games and graduate players. But my purpose is to work with young people, everyone from Tyler (Matakevich) and Muhammad Wilkerson down to the Matt Rhules of the team. Guys just getting their chance. Seeing them make huge strides in their life is important.
"It wasn't him getting on the field, it was him handling adversity the way he did. He just got a taste of why he did it. That, to me, is what makes us tick. You always want to reward courage and perseverance."
Mesday, who played at Nottingham High School (Hamilton Township, N.J.) followed by a postgraduate year at Canterbury School (New Milford, Conn.), had never been injured before he came to North Broad. Then, while running downfield with the scout team on a kickoff in preseason camp, he went to cut around a blocker and his right knee "completely" gave out.
"I knew something was wrong," Mesday recalled. "I knew what an (anterior cruciate ligament) tear was. I obviously didn't know what it felt like. They gave me an MRI. I came back the next day and they said, 'We can't even find your ACL on the MRI.' "
So he began a nine-month rehabilitation. But last September, during the bye week, a teammate got tripped up and fell on the same knee while he was being blocked. This time, the diagnosis was a torn meniscus.
"I woke up from surgery and they said the ACL was pulling away enough from the bone that it wouldn't allow me to play anymore," Mesday said. "So they had to fix that again, too."
Following another extensive rehab, he finally got the clearance to resume contact just two weeks ago.
At some point, did he ever think about giving up the dream? An elementary-education major, he got his first student-teaching experience last spring in a kindergarten class. Yet as much as he enjoyed it, that will always be there. Football won't.
"They were surprised to see such a big kid," the 6-foot, 238-pound Mesday said of the kindergartners. "They all wanted to take their picture with me . . . I think a lot of people think the easier route would be to just concentrate on school. But I wouldn't be able to wake up every morning knowing I just gave up because of an injury. I could never walk away, if in the back of my mind I knew I could play one day. If I'd done that, I'd never be in this position right now."
He was an undersized defensive end in high school who had two partial FCS scholarship offers and two more from Division II programs.
"What it came down to was, I would still have to pay the same amount to come to Temple," he reasoned. "If I'm going to pay, I might as well play at the highest level. I just wanted the opportunity. There are times when it's raining out and my knee really hurts, but I think of everyone that's done so much for me and have put so much into this and it's just not a good enough reason (to quit)."
So here he is, with everything still very much in front of him.
"I even said to him, 'Are you sure you want to do this again?' " Rhule said. "It takes up a year of your life. And he said, 'Absolutely.' He did it. I didn't do it. I remember the first time I got to play (in college). It's like a release, for all you've been through. We talk to our guys about that all the time. Here's a real-life example. They were going crazy on the sidelines for him. Here's a kid who's here every day, no matter what."
Because he wants to see just how far he can take it. And maybe even get his tuition taken care of.
"(Rhule) pretty much made it simple: 'If you produce, we have a scholarship waiting for you,' " said Mesday, an Oakland Raiders fan because he likes their colors. "There's nothing he can do for me right now. I don't plan on stopping until my eligibility is over. Even if I don't make it, at least I can say I tried. (Rhule) texted me after the game and said, 'I'm proud of you, and how far you've come in your journey. Just keep grinding.'
"I'll play any position, just to get out there. I've been hearing hints of playing on the other side of the ball. Stuff happens sometimes. The second time I got hurt, they told me they'd never seen an ACL heal faster than mine. Only 1 percent of high-school football players get to be here. I'm in that 1 percent, playing in a conference game this late in the season, getting to hit someone as a walk-on with two surgeries. That's something I could never even think of . . .
"This is just the beginning."