If there was a low point, Adam Breneman said, it came in August 2014, when he learned he would be unable to play football for the second time in three years because of a knee injury.
That was definitely a tough couple days, Penn State's tight end said Tuesday morning, during a conference call with reporters.
To hear him tell it, he didn't stay down for long. To hear him tell it, he has been on an uptick ever since.
Yes, he had to undergo surgery again -- this time on his left knee, after having his right ACL repaired two years earlier, costing him his senior season at Cedar Cliff High School.
And yes, there was a long rehab. He knew all about that, of course, and now he had a fellow rehab addict, linebacker Ben Kline -- he of the torn Achilles -- with whom he could compare notes. He also had coaches and trainers and teammates to buck him up, if ever there were a temptation to backslide.
But he would like to believe he has come out the other side, better than ever.
The one thing I've learned through the two knee injuries is this is all part of a big process, he said.
Process is a word he throws around a lot, and one he believes in. You have to have patience, have to follow a plan, have to realize everything is not going to happen, all at once.
Redshirting last fall was not the worst thing, he decided, in that it helped him grow in every way -- notably physically. Limited only to upper-body work in the weight room for a long stretch, he added 60 pounds to his bench press and 10 pounds to his 6-foot-4 frame, leaving him at 256 and making him better able to meet the in-line demands of his position. As head coach James Franklin said at the beginning of spring practice, improving the tight ends' blocking is a major focus at present, and Breneman believes he has made big strides in that area.
But his year off was beneficial in other ways, too.
I'd say I learned how to live with myself without football for a while, he said. It was kind of interesting.
“I'd say I learned how to live with myself without football for a while. It was kind of interesting.”
Recall that he was an early enrollee, arriving on campus in January 2013 and becoming a bigger and bigger on-field factor as that fall wore on. He finished with 15 receptions for 186 yards, and scored a touchdown in each of the last three games -- the most notable a 68-yard catch-and-run from Christian Hackenberg in the season-ending victory at Wisconsin.
From the moment he came to PSU, Breneman said, I was all about football, thinking about football all the time. Having a year off kind of gave me the opportunity to kind of think about school.
Then he caught himself.
Not that I wasn't thinking about school before; Coach Franklin will kill me if he hears I said that, he said. But it was neat to have a season where I was redshirted. Didn't have any football responsibilities and could focus 100 percent on the classroom.
He said he earned a 3.9 grade-point average during the fall semester, and was ticked about not getting a 4.0. All the same, it was nice to just kind of be able to focus on that kind of stuff, and to focus on stuff I wouldn't be able to focus on if I were playing football last season.
The bottom line?
I guess I learned a lot about myself, outside of football, he said. That was kind of neat for me. Obviously I wish I would have been playing, but just to have that year, I think I took advantage of it in the best way I could.
Breneman, who will be a redshirt sophomore in the fall, is right back in the middle of a tight end mix now, along with veterans Kyle Carter, Mike Gesicki and Brent Wilkerson. And he was always a prominent part of the team, even as he was rehabbing.
This whole year, as trying as it was on him, he (has been) one of the most positive, optimistic, completely 100-percent bought in leaders that we have, Franklin said earlier in the spring.
Breneman said he began asserting himself as a leader late in his freshman year, and difficult as it might have been, continued to do that even as he sat out.
I was still with the guys a lot, he said, just trying to stay positive and lifting those guys up, and just being there if they needed to talk about anything.
Not for nothing, then, was he among those players chosen for the 25-man Leadership Council, as announced on Monday. He called that a great honor and the ultimate sign of respect. He also understands that the best way to lead is by producing on the field, and he continues to make strides in that direction.
He said he has been a full go this spring, if only to a point. There are still limitations, he said, still times when he has to gear back.
I have taken a lot of full-speed, full-go reps this spring, he said. It's being cautious about how much I do it.
All part of the process, he said again.
Right now, I don't feel as athletic as I know I can be, he said, just because I haven't been back for that long, which is another reason this summer is such a big summer for me, because it's a summer I can go out and train with no restrictions and get back to where I want to be athletically.
That was not the case last summer. Last summer his left knee bothered him off and on. He declined to reveal the exact nature of the problem, and said it wasn't the result of any one incident but rather something that developed over time: He would be fine for a while, then have pain and swelling.
Finally, he said, It really wasn't honestly a choice that I had: I needed the surgery. But I knew that it would be something I needed to play football at a high level. I'd need it to be able to play for a long period of time.
It came in late August or early September; he can't remember which.
Now he hopes to build on the promise he had previously shown -- as a pass-catcher, yes, but also as a complete tight end. Former coach Bill O'Brien, something of a maestro when it came to creating mismatches with his tight ends, had recruited Breneman because of his receiving abilities. Franklin obviously looks at the position somewhat differently.
A tight end on the field that's not a threat to cause problems in the running game, he said, is basically a slow wide receiver.
In reality, Breneman said, O'Brien was on him about his blocking during his freshman year.
It kind of took me until halfway through the season to learn how to be nasty, he said. It's really a mindset.
A mindset that according to tackle Andrew Nelson began to pervade the entire group as far back as the Pinstripe Bowl, and continues to do so now.
We came out the first day in pads, he said, and the tight ends looked like guys we had never seen before blocking.
That too is a process. Adam Breneman knows all about such things.