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Michael Nicastro knew. The moment he was blindsided by a University at Buffalo offensive lineman on a simple screen in Albany’s September 5th, 2015 matchup with the FBS school, Michael Nicastro knew that his season was over. As he writhed in pain and clutched his right leg, the worst possible thoughts ran through his head. “I knew it was torn as soon as I got hit. I actually thought I had broken my leg. I couldn’t move it.” Nicastro recounts. In reality, a broken leg would have been an easier recovery. When he went to the hospital after the game, Nicastro was shocked that he was able to stand, and actually jump on his injured leg. That shock was soon replaced by fear and heartbreak, as doctors gave him a grim diagnosis, a torn ACL, MCL, and a small tear in his meniscus. “There were some tears here and there [after they told me the news].” Nicastro said as he remembered one of the darkest days of his athletic career.

2015 was supposed to be a banner year in Michael Nicastro’s career at Albany. He was named a team captain, and was poised to expand on a sophomore campaign in which he totaled 120 tackles, good for third in the CAA conference, and was a third-team all-conference selection. It certainly started the way he would have liked, as he recorded two tackles early in the game, including one that resulted in a loss of 16 yards for Buffalo. Then, the world came crashing down.

Rehab became “an all-day thing” for Nicastro. “I would wake up, go to the trainer, go to class, finish my rehab before practice, go to practice, and come back for more treatment after,” he recalled. Regaining the mobility he once had was the main focus. After three months, he was allowed to jog, but had to wait another three months to sprint, something that pained Nicastro, who admitted he isn’t one who likes to take things slow. His patience would be rewarded with a quicker-than usual return to full health.

Albany Head Coach Greg Gattuso speaks fondly of Nicastro, a redshirt junior, calling him “a leader” and someone who “loves the game.” Gattuso even placed the early-season success of his team on the shoulders of Nicastro, declaring that he is “not sure we’d be 2-0 without him…his impact in every single moment of the game is big.”

Nicastro routinely lines up in the middle of the Albany defense, patrolling the field with a kind of swagger and leadership reminiscent of great players at his position. With his long blonde hair exposing itself underneath his helmet, the Clay Matthews comparisons are completely unavoidable. He’s a little undersized, listed at 5’10” 220 pounds, but he sure doesn’t play that way. Even in practice, his athleticism is on full display, right to the final conditioning drill. He is currently second on the team with 15 tackles, and leads the team with 2 interceptions. The unquestioned leader of the defense, Nicastro and that unit has led the Great Danes to a number 25 ranking in the latest FCS polls, the first time the team has been ranked since 2014.

Nicastro isn’t mad. The time off allowed him to advance the mental aspect of his game, and he believes it has made him a better leader. He doesn’t hold a grudge against Buffalo. But, that doesn’t mean that this year’s victory wasn’t sweet. Heck, it just happened to be just under a year since the injury happened, at the same place and against the same team. But it wasn’t a personal vendetta, but rather a team that was looking to avenge the opening day blowout from the year before. In a full-circle moment, Nicastro, at almost the same exact spot on the field where his previous season ended, intercepted a pass from Buffalo quarterback Grant Rohach. To solidify his comeback, it wasn’t a plain old interception, but an acrobatic one, showing the range of motion in his knee has returned, and with it, the player that fans waited and hoped to see again. Nicastro ended the game against Buffalo with 11 tackles, tied for the team lead in the game. As if to prove that game wasn’t a fluke, he followed that performance with 4 tackles and an interception which he returned for a touchdown in Albany’s week 2 victory over fellow-CAA opponent URI.

For Michael Nicastro, he doesn’t care about personal accolades this season, another example of his leadership growing. All he wants is a CAA championship, and the chance to go to the FCS playoffs, something that hasn’t been done by Albany since 2011, where they were bounced in the first round by Stony Brook. Oh, maybe one personal goal, staying healthy.

The old cliché goes, “Good things come to those who wait.” Ask Michael Nicastro, and I bet he will agree with you.

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