Zach Mesday had been waiting three years for the moment. After a redshirt season and two ACL tears, he hadn’t played in a game since November 2013.
But when graduate assistant John Loughery yelled, “Mesday, you’re in,” the redshirt-sophomore linebacker was confused.
“What do you mean?” Mesday responded. “We’re on offense.”
Lougherty insisted once again, and Mesday ran onto Lincoln Financial Field for the first time on Oct. 29 against Cincinnati with less than a minute to go in the game.
“Logan, what am I doing?” Mesday asked redshirt-freshman quarterback Logan Marchi when he got to the huddle.
“Just run left,” Marchi answered.
So that’s what Mesday did. Lining up at fullback, he ran left, hit the first person he saw and knocked him over.
To some, the result of the play was a meaningless three-yard run late in a game Temple had already wrapped up. For Mesday, it meant much more.
“Only 1 percent of high school football players get to be here,” Mesday said. “To say that I’m part of that 1 percent, and I got to play in a Division I football game, in a conference game this late in the season, and hit somebody, as a walk-on with two knee surgeries is something I could never even think of.”
Mesday first tore his right knee as a freshman. He was running on the scout team kick coverage unit, and his right knee gave out as he tried to make a play on the returner. Since he was redshirting already, the injury wasn’t too big of a deal for Mesday. It was supposed to take nine months for him to recover from the injury, but after five months, he was already back.
That was the first test of his patience. Then, it happened again.
During a practice in the Owls’ bye week last September, one of Mesday’s teammates fell into the same right knee. After an MRI, he was initially told the injury was a meniscus tear. When the doctor went in to fix the meniscus tear, he discovered the ACL was tearing off the bone.
This time it would take 18 months before he was back on the football field.
“The second time I tore it, there was a moment where I thought, ‘Wow. This could be the end,’” Mesday said. “The second time, sometimes people don’t recover for like a year and a half and by that time I’ll be a senior, I’m going to get on with my life. By that time they’ll probably just move on from me.”
He was eventually told that it would only take about a year until he was back on the field. With the ability to return during the 2016 season, Mesday wasn’t ready to give up.
Mesday went through the tedious rehabilitation process again. This time he worked out at Edberg-Olson Hall with defensive linemen Jullian Taylor and Sharif Finch, who were both recovering from ACL injuries as well. He meticulously followed each routine his physical therapist assigned him.
Six months in, Mesday said his knee felt better than it did before the injury. The doctors told him they’d never seen a knee heal as quickly as his did.
“This is what he dreamed to do his whole life,” his mother, Sue Mesday, told The Temple News. “If they told him, ‘You can never play football again,’ then that would be somebody else’s decision. He worked too hard and went too far. He had a lot of obstacles along the way, and he was not gonna give up then because he would always think, ‘What could have happened?’”
Mesday almost never got the chance to play Division I football. He transferred from Bordentown Regional High School in Bordentown, New Jersey to Nottingham High School in Hamilton, New Jersey before his junior season. He played seven different positions at Nottingham just to get on the field as a junior.
He carved out a role at defensive end for Nottingham during his senior season, when he was invited to play in New Jersey’s premier high school football all-star game, the North-South Classic. Mesday played against his future teammates Phillip Walker and Keith Kirkwood in the game.
But he didn’t receive any attention for his play at defensive end, so he took a prep year at the Canterbury School in New Milford, Connecticut to play linebacker. He received a few offers from Division II schools, but no full rides. He figured that if he was going to have to pay to play football at school, why not do it at the highest level?
He ended up at Temple because of the university’s elementary education program and the football team liked the highlight film he sent.
“I never really thought I’d be able to play Division I football, but just growing up I knew that I wanted to play at the Division I level it was just a matter of getting the opportunity,” Mesday said. “Once I got the opportunity, I was going to take full advantage of it. I just knew I that I would never give up until my eligibility was over.”
Every day Mesday receives a text from his mother that says, “Good luck at practice. Make it your best practice.” It pushes him to continue trying to get back on the field.
Sue was in the stands two Saturdays ago against Cincinnati. She’s been there every home game, even the ones her son couldn’t play in.
When she saw him get into the game for the first time in his college career, she was overtaken by emotion.
“Besides the tears running down my face, I don’t know,” she said of her reaction. “You do good things yourself, but when your kid tries so hard and has to wait to so long. I don’t know if there is even a word to describe it.”
Owen McCue can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Owen_McCue.