McGahee Recovery Inspiring ex-Pace Star

Original Publication: May 1, 2003

There wasn't much chance that Larry Piediscalzo was going to be drafted by an NFL team.

That kind of thing happens in fairy tales: A kid from a small school like Pace going up to the podium and putting on an NFL jersey and hat and mugging for the cameras. "I knew I was a long shot, coming from a Division II school,'' Piediscalzo said.

But he had a dream, which topped out in the NFL, at least for a tryout, but in reality had him playing some level of pro football, perhaps in Europe or the Arena League. "I believe I could have played somewhere, that there was a place for me to play,'' he said. That dream was wrecked along with his right knee during Piediscalzo's senior season, on Oct. 27, 2001.

And this past weekend, when Willis McGahee was drafted 23rd by Buffalo despite having the same devastating type of knee blowout, Piediscalzo must have appreciated McGahee's remarkable recovery as much as anybody.

"He hurt himself Jan. 3 in the national championship game, and he's already squatting and running a little bit, and he was the first running back picked in the draft,'' Piediscalzo said. "I was like, 'Wow. It's been a year and a half for me, and he's gone farther in those four months.' "It's also, that's his job. I have to make a living for myself, so I do have to work also, not just rehabbing.''

Piediscalzo, now 23, tends bar in Westchester and continues the grueling therapy, with his eye still trained on resuming a football career.

Before the injury, Piediscalzo was quite the player, Division II or not. He was twice named All-American, and at the time his collegiate career ended he was leading the country in kick returning, and was third in Division II in all-purpose yards.

A halfback, he had the two longest runs from scrimmage in school history (96 and 90 yards); the second- and third-longest kickoff returns for TDs (97 and 96 yards); had a Pace-record 7.7 yards per carry one season; and ranks second in school history in touchdowns (25) and third in rushing yards (1,599).

He had been to an NFL scouting combine at Hofstra, and one team, Arizona, expressed interest. Then came the crash. Piediscalzo can tell you all the details. It was the first series of the game against American International, the seventh play. He jumped to catch a pass in the flat, planted his right leg to turn upfield, and a safety clobbered his leg with helmet and shoulder pads. He said he knew it was serious before he hit the ground.

"It was a little bit of everything,'' he said. "I've never felt any pain like that before. And it was rough because it was right up the sideline and my whole family was right there on the sidelines — my grandfather, aunts, uncles, nephews, my mom, my girlfriend — everyone was right there. I was scared to even think. I knew it was pretty bad. All that stuff came into my head: I was done playing. That was it.'' Piediscalzo suffered a torn ACL, torn MCL, torn posterior cruciate ligament, torn cartilage — almost identical to McGahee's injury.

"Yeah, that's one for the ages,'' said Dr. Gregg Cavaliere of Hudson Valley Bone and Joint in Tarrytown. "You don't see them very frequently. There aren't many combination ligament injuries like that, although they do happen in trauma, like in car accidents or motorcycle accidents.''

Dr. Cavaliere used donated tendons from cadavers to rebuild the knee. A second, arthroscopic procedure was done to get back Piediscalzo's range of motion. Dr. Cavaliere figured his football career was over, too. "You certainly portray that side,'' he said. "Dr. Maddalo did a guy who wound up an Empire State wrestling champion 10 years later. Generally, you'd expect that would be a career-ending injury.'' It takes patience, because with the rarest of exceptions like McGahee, time is required.

Piediscalzo could run a 4.47 40 in August 2001. Two weeks ago, in his first outdoor sprint attempts after the long winter, Piediscalzo was clocked at 4.8. He figures he can get that down to 4.6 just by getting out and regaining his regular running condition. His strength is almost the same as it was pre-injury. He still dreams about playing pro football every morning when he awakens, every night when he goes to bed, and with every repetition in the gym. He hopes to work out with the semi-pro Orange County Bulldogs, maybe even spend the summer season with that team, to get a better idea where his dream stands. And if it's still alive then, perhaps 10 months from now he'll be back at the combines, trying to catch somebody's eye. Trying to start over.