Vongni Yang, The Union Democrat

Gary Gellerman knew something was wrong when he woke up with back pain nearly every morning. But like most college football players, the middle linebacker at the University of Mary in North Dakota carried on and continued to play despite the aching pain.

"I'm not really one to say anything," said Gellerman, a 2010 Calaveras High graduate. "I try to be a tough person and not let any little thing affect me."

Gellerman started the first six games of the 2012 season for the Division II Marauders, and made an immediate impact as a junior college transfer from San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton. It was midway through that season in October when the back spasms started occurring, and the severe pain kept getting harder and harder to manage with each passing day.

"It just got so bad that I couldn't even play," Gellerman said. "It was just too painful. I spent the entire second half of the season trying to get back."

But Gellerman couldn't. He tried to play in a few more games, but he wasn't the same player at the kickoff of the season. He wasn't 100 percent.

"The rest of the year, I was pretty much out," he said. "I could barely make it to the end of the first half in week 10."

Soon Gellerman couldn't ignore that unpleasant feeling in his body any longer. It was time to see a doctor after the season for an MRI scan.

The results were devastating and shocking for Gellerman. After further tests, doctors diagnosed him with Staphylococcus aureus, a staph infection to his spine in November. The rare disorder required urgent surgery and could possibly end his career.

"It was really serious," Gellerman said of the staph infection. "It was growing on my spine. It was either I get surgery or that it can potentially kill me."

So on the same day that Gellerman went in for an MRI, he was prepped for surgery in the emergency room later that night to drain the abscess on his spinal cord and remove a small piece of bone.

"It was a pretty scary time," Gellerman said. "It's almost unbelievable."

The surgery was successful, but his doctor had advice for the 6-foot-2-inch, 235-pound linebacker.

"He told me 'It wouldn't be wise to continue playing from here on out. If you're able to suit up and play, then you can do so. But you probably will be limited. You won't be able to be as fast and strong.' " Gellerman said.

But for Gellerman, whose played football since he was 10, he couldn't imagine not strapping on the helmet and pads for one last time.

"It was a pretty nerve-racking experience," Gellerman said. "From then on out, I was wondering if I was going to be able to play again."

Doctors advised Gellerman, who spent three nights in the hospital after the surgery, to take it slow and not rush to get back onto the field. For the first six weeks, he was on antibiotics and wasn't allowed to do anything that required putting pressure on his spine. He needed at least three months to heal properly and fully from his medical procedure. That meant he couldn't participate in winter conditioning and had to avoid any strenuous physical activity.

Before Gellerman's symptoms, he was on pace for a breakout year. The junior linebacker recorded 55 tackles (37 assisted, 18 solo) with 2 1/2 tackles for loss. He also deflected a pass, forced a fumble and registered a half-sack.

After dedicating three months to extensive rehabilitation sessions and massage treatments, Gellerman was medically cleared by doctors and the training staff just in time for spring camp. He had the opportunity to play football again and eagerly signed his release.

Gellerman went out for spring ball, but he wasn't close to 100 percent. He had to get back into football shape to recapture his form. So he shifted his focus to rehabbing and strengthening his spine in the spring and summer to better prepare him for his final season.

"My motivational drive all offseason was to be able to suit up again," Gellerman said. "I'm just incredibly thankful that I get to play one more year."

Gellerman is doing everything he can to return to form. He is conditioning, exercising, stretching, and watching his nutrition closely to be able to challenge for a position on the first-team defense this month.

"That's definitely the ultimate goal for me," Gellerman said. "I'll be coming into fall camp not at the starting spot. That's been driving me all offseason to work out and get that starting spot back. That's the most important thing for me. I've always been a starter my whole life. I played a lot. Being called a starter is something that is a significant name to have. It's a pride thing for me."

Calaveras head football coach Jason Weatherby isn't surprised with Gellerman's recovery and overcoming his career-threatening surgery to play again as a senior.

"If I had to bet on somebody, I would bet on him," Weatherby said. "Just because of his character, his hard work and work ethic."

Gellerman said he was lucky to have strong supporting cast in his coaches and teammates to guide him through his situation. It also helped that he had a familiar face in 2007 Calaveras High graduate Scott Maldonado that he could lean on.

"Scott's my roommate," he said. "I came out here with him from the same junior college. He's my best friend out here. I think he's a really good guy - great teammate. One of the main people to keep me focus on having to compete this offseason to be able to come back. I definitely owe a lot to him. He was always there for me."

Physically, Gellerman feels he's near 100 percent. He's just as fast and strong pre-surgery and has regained all the weight that he loss post-surgery. When he returned home this summer to work out with the Calaveras Redskins football team, Weatherby didn't notice a difference about his former player.

"He looked really good," Weatherby said. "It didn't even look like he did anything - like anything happened to him."

It's just the mental aspect that Gellerman's worried about as he preps for his senior year. The Marauders changed their defensive alignment and scheme from a 3-4 to a 4-3 with two standup defensive ends. There are new concepts, and it's still a learning process for him.

"I just want to get to know everything on a snap or a split second," Gellerman said. "I need to know where my assignment is; where I need to align."

Gellerman hopes that he will be able to get up to speed and catch up mentally by the time the Marauders host their home season opener against Minnesota State University, Mankato on Sept. 7. But it's this month that will determine his fate on the gridiron.

"If I play how I know I can play during fall camp, I'll be able to start," he said. "It's the question of 'Will I be at the same level?' But I feel pretty confident I will be."

Gellerman did learn one big lesson throughout the whole ordeal, "It just makes me appreciate what I have," he said. "If I had to say anything to anybody, it's listen to your body."