There was something that came with being a football player from Conway Springs, something basic, that Mason Pauly was labeled with the moment he stepped inside the Friends locker room.
“Everybody thinks you’re this kind of machine, like you’re impervious to pain and you’ll work through anything,” Pauly said. “And I embraced that when I first got here. Nobody even called me by my name for the first year. They all just called me ‘Conway’ instead.”
Maybe that’s why, when Pauly showed he was very much human two years ago, that he took the measures he did to protect that reputation.
Running to cover a punt during the Falcons’ final scrimmage before the 2012 season, he stepped wrong and heard a pop in his right knee and crumpled to the turf. All after the 5-foot-11, 225-pound defensive lineman had shown signs of becoming a star during his freshman year with 38 tackles, including six tackles for loss.
“That was my season,” Pauly said. “Tore my ACL.”
Pauly made up his mind quickly that he was going to take a different route in his rehab. He’d seen players hurt themselves and limp up and down the sideline during practice for the rest of the season. Throw a jersey on for game day and stand on the sideline, crutches propping them up.
That wouldn’t be him.
“Nothing against doing it that way, but that wasn’t going to be me,” Pauly said. “For a couple of reasons. First, I think it would’ve been too hard for me. I don’t know how I would’ve dealt with having to watch from the sideline.
“The other reason is that I wanted to leave everything I’d been as a football player behind. I wanted to come back as a new guy, as a new player. I wanted to rebuild myself from scratch. I thought that if I stuck around, the idea when I came back for a lot of the guys would be, ‘Oh, there’s the guy that hurt his knee and came back.’ I wanted to be something else.”
And that’s where Pauly’s work ethic kicked in. He attacked rehab like an animal.
“Well, I still saw him, every single day in there working with the trainers, working in the weight room,” Friends coach Monty Lewis said. “Kids from Conway Springs, man ... they start them with the weights and the work ethic at a very young age. His desire to return to the team was so great, you knew it was going to happen.”
Pauly was working out with the team by the spring, although he was held out of the spring game as a precaution. By the time training camp rolled around in the summer, it was time to go.
“Physically, by that point, I knew I was ready,” Pauly said. “It was just between the ears that I was worried about. You’re thinking about taking that first hit to the knee and how you’ll react.”
It happened quickly. Pauly lay on the turf for a second and popped back up. He never thought about it again, taking back his spot on the Falcons’ defensive line and leading the team with 6 1/2 sacks on his way to second-team All-KCAC honors.
“He articulates everything we want in this program, that’s why he’s a captain, that’s why he’s such a great leader on and off the field,” Friends defensive coordinator Matt Welch said. “I don’t think I give him enough credit because he’s doing the right thing, all the time, so you don’t think about it as much. He’s an outstanding young man.”
The Falcons, who haven’t won a KCAC title since 2008, are ranked No. 19 in the NAIA preseason poll and open the season at Doane on Sept. 6.
“The thing I like about playing for (Lewis) is that he’s never satisfied, he’s always telling us that if we accomplish something that it’s time to start thinking about what the next thing we can achieve is,” Pauly said. “I know he’ll never be happy with just doing OK. He wants more than that. He wants us to want more than that.”