Miles Dieffenbach received the crushing news and considered the worst-case scenario.
An MRI revealed Dieffenbach had suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament and sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee during practice.
After hearing the diagnosis with coach James Franklin and offensive line coach Herb Hand in the Lasch Building, Dieffenbach allowed doubt to pervade his thoughts. Am I going to make it back for the season?
“Probably the worst moment of my life when I realized that happened,” Dieffenbach said. “That was tough.”
It was five months before Penn State’s season opener, and George Dieffenbach was driving to State College to be with his son without knowing the diagnosis on March 28. He was about an hour and 15 minutes from campus when Miles called to relay the results.
Miles was very emotional, shaken by the sudden uncertainty surrounding his senior season.
The offensive lineman knew a six-to-seven-month recovery is characterized as quick for the major injury. It would take a little bit of luck and a grueling rehab process to be back on the field within that time frame.
Dieffenbach returned to the field more than seven months after his injury and will play in his third game this season Saturday at Illinois.
His coaches offered encouragement the day he learned his medical fate in the Lasch Building. His parents did the same on the phone. His roommates were in the building and piled on more positive thinking.
Miles knew he had to get rid of the doubt swirling around in his head. He couldn’t worry about what his first major surgery would feel like. He needed to believe he’d be back on the field in the fall and stay true to his positive, upbeat personality.
When his father arrived, he had already set aside his emotions and started to rehab.
“Miles took on the approach that every day counts,” George Dieffenbach said, “so by the time I got into that training room, there he was on the bike.”
But while his father was with him after the injury, he knew his son was hurting.
The words still ring in George Dieffenbach’s ears nearly eight months later.
“Dad, I just want to play football.”
The pain was evident as he wrestled with the question of whether or not he’d finish his Penn State career on the field with his teammates or as a spectator on the sidelines.
Dieffenbach knew he had a chance to return for the second half of the season. But nothing was guaranteed.
He had to make every day count.
Dieffenbach was injured at practice on March 26.
“I just kind of got rolled up under in practice and I knew something was wrong,” Dieffenbach said. “But I didn’t know it was my ACL.”
He went for an MRI at Mount Nittany Medical Center.
And two days after his injury, his father said, Dieffenbach learned he had a torn ACL and a sprained MCL. That meant he had to work to strengthen the MCL before he could undergo surgery on the ACL.
Franklin ingrained in Dieffenbach that day that his return was possible, telling him his teammates and coaches needed him. His roommates — Mike Hull, Jesse Della Valle and Brad Bars — lifted his sprits at his “lowest moment,” telling him he’d be back and better than ever during the season.
“That’s all Miles needed,” George Dieffenbach said. “He needed hope at that point, and when you have hope, you have everything.”
He didn’t waste any time starting the process, hopping on the exercise bike that day. It was a critical moment in his rehab. A delayed reaction would have delayed the surgery and pushed his return date back.
Dieffenbach underwent surgery to repair his ACL — performed by Dr. Scott Lynch — at Hershey Medical Center early in the morning on April 23.
After surgery, Penn State staff drove Dieffenbach back to campus and he went straight to the training room to get to work with head athletic trainer Tim Bream.
“That’s amazing,” his father said. “Just amazing the fast response after that surgery.”
He had to make every day count.
To accomplish that, Dieffenbach took a disciplined and meticulous approach to his rehab.
There were two-a-days in the summer. He’d go through strength and flexibility exercises and ice in the morning. He’d go through aerobics exercises, running and an upper-body lift in the afternoon.
He lived in the training room for more than six months, working to get stronger with Bream every day.
“It’s a grind every day,” Dieffenbach said. “You got to wake up and rehab all day. The hardest part, to be honest with you, is just kind being away from the team and your teammates during practice. And when they’re outside working out, you’re inside rehabbing.”
His prime motivation was to play alongside his teammates again.
He followed the doctor’s orders and soaked in instructions from Bream and strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt.
Dieffenbach’s plan included monitoring his rest and diet closely. He ate lean meats and chicken along with plenty of fruits and vegetables.
“As soon as it happened, he knew exactly what his vision was for himself,” Hull said. “And he made sure he got at least 8 to 10 hours of rest every night, so his body could recover. He was working out really hard in the weight room and in the trainers’ room all year long.”
Dieffenbach was going to do everything he could to rejoin his teammates.
His emotional response to his injury almost immediately turned into a resolve that carried him through rehab. He attacked the process with a positive attitude, gradually making progress toward his comeback.
“I know that Miles is a fighter,” Della Valle said. “I saw the improvements that he made each and every day. He worked his butt off to get back on that field and to be able to get back there and play with all of us, and I couldn’t be prouder of him.”
Watching and waiting
For the first eight games, Dieffenbach spent his Saturdays watching from the sidelines.
He tried to contribute in a coaching role each week, helping his teammates study film and analyze the upcoming opponent. He provided insight on teams he faced and picked out the mistakes made by the offensive line.
But he couldn’t contribute on the field.
“That was tough seeing your teammates out there you just want to be out there battling with,” Dieffenbach said. “So that made you itch to get out there bad, but I knew we had to take care of my knee and make sure I was 100 percent before I stepped out there on that field.”
Dieffenbach constantly talks about his teammates when discussing his injury. More than anything, he wanted to be there for his team. He just wanted to play football, and that meant clearing paths for running backs and giving quarterback Christian Hackenberg time in the pocket to help the Nittany Lions win on Saturdays.
For the first eight games, he wasn’t able to do what he loved.
But his closest teammates, his three roommates, never treated him any different. They’d go out to dinner, and they’ve spent the last two months playing Mario Kart and NFL Blitz on Nintendo 64.
“It’s like major battles between guys just yelling at each other and it’s ridiculous,” Dieffenbach said. “We’re playing this old game system on this huge flat-screen TV.”
They’ve kept track of records, too.
Dieffenbach is undefeated in NFL Blitz. Hull and Bars are close in Mario Kart.
His roommates were supportive from the start of rehab through the challenges of the season as Dieffenbach worked his way back.
“That’s the kind of guys that have always been here the five years that I’ve been here,” Dieffenbach said. “That’s why I couldn’t be more thankful for my teammates. We have probably the closest team in the country and I love them to death.”
Back in action
Dieffenbach felt “complete joy and happiness” when his return was officially set in the middle of the week going into the Indiana game on Nov. 8.
In that moment, he knew his career was not over. That Saturday, he’d be on the field in pads, getting ready to play football. It’s what he worked for since he learned the severity of his injury more than seven months earlier.
His father was at Memorial Stadium, keeping a promise to his son that he wouldn't miss a game when he earned a starting spot two years earlier, to see his return.
Dieffenbach played 10 snaps, easing back into action as Penn State beat Indiana 13-7. Last week, Dieffenbach played extensively and contributed to the Nittany Lions’ best rushing performance of the season in a 30-13 victory over Temple to secure bowl eligibility.
“To come back and play like he’s playing now, it’s a miracle,” George Dieffenbach said. “It’s a miracle to look at that kid out there.”
It took more than seven months of hard work to salvage his senior season. He did it with the help of his coaches, teammates, doctors and trainers.
His resolve gave way to happiness as his return felt complete last Saturday. His father saw it his eyes after the game. His teammates did, too.
“That was the most excited I’ve seen him in a long time,” Hull said. “Once you get out there and get a full game or most of a game under your belt, it kind of all comes back to you all those feelings that the game of football brings out in you.
“I think he was just real happy to be a part of everything again.”
Dieffenbach’s focus is now on preparing to help his team win games rather than on his rehab each week.
He made every day count.
“The body feels great,” Dieffenbach said. “The mind feels great. It just feels great to get back out there with my teammates.”