ORONO, Maine — Football is supposed to be a grueling game.
You’d never know it watching Donte Dennis romping excitedly around the University of Maine practice field.
The senior linebacker has plenty to smile about these days, since he has returned to the Black Bears’ lineup after missing the 2011 season because of an injury.
“It feels great. It’s a blessing just to be out there again with the guys,” said Dennis, who will lead the defense onto the field at 6 p.m. Saturday in UMaine’s home opener against Albany at Alfond Stadium.
Dennis is again wreaking havoc on opponents from his middle linebacker position. He leads the team with 20 tackles through two games.
There is no place the 6-foot, 220-pounder from Rahway, N.J., would rather be.
“We’re so fortunate to have him this year,” said UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove. “Last year’s misery [for him] is this year’s comfort.”
Dennis found a new perspective on things after enduring a frustrating 2011. He sat out the Black Bears’ 9-4 season, including a trip to the Football Championship Subdivision national quarterfinals, after undergoing Tommy John reconstructive surgery on his right elbow.
Some of his close friends and teammates moved on to the National Football League, including Jerron McMillian, who is with the Green Bay Packers.
After undergoing surgery in March 2011, Dennis began the recovery and rehabilitation process. He learned some important lessons as he watched his classmates play without him.
“That was really tough. I had to realize that it’s not about me, and it never was about me,” Dennis admitted. “I have to do anything I can to help the team so we can do good. It’s all about the team.”
The setback came after he was injured Oct. 16, 2010, in a game against Villanova. He already had suffered a torn ligament in his left thumb during training camp.
Undeterred, he finished the season with a team-leading 108 tackles and earned All-Colonial Athletic Association third-team recognition.
“He’s a tough kid and he likes to play downhill,” Cosgrove said. “He’s got a rambunctiousness about him. He works hard at being technically sound and mentally on top of things. He takes pride in his work.”
Dennis spent last season contributing in other ways and tried to take advantage of his new role. At first, it was on the sidelines. Later, he participated on “scout” teams during practices.
“He never sulked,” Cosgrove said. “Some people in life, when they have something taken away from them, they learn how much they miss that special something. He loves this game.”
Dennis came into the 2012 season with renewed enthusiasm. He graduated in May with a degree in child development and family relations, with a minor in sociology. He is now doing graduate work in professional counseling.
He said he worked harder than ever preparing himself physically and mentally for the season. He’s taking nothing for granted.
“I’m really hard on myself now, so I don’t make mistakes and so I can play to my full potential,” Dennis said.
As a fifth-year player, Dennis believes he has a responsibility to be a leader. For him, that means preparing, practicing and playing the best he knows how.
“I felt like I needed to be the example for everybody else, all the younger guys on the team,” he said, “to see how we do things here.”
Dennis played football and basketball at Rahway High School. He said he was fortunate to have the love and support of his mother, Adrianne Simmons-Dennis, and the encouragement of his older brother, Antoine Simmons.
UMaine was the only school to offer Dennis a scholarship, and he was determined not to be a financial burden to his mother.
Dennis has garnered interest from NFL scouts, who are following his progress this season. Cosgrove conceded Dennis has the kind of ability and passion for the game that translate to the next level.
Dennis has dreamed of playing in the NFL since he was a kid. Ultimately, he knows football can be taken away from him in an instant.
“I don’t think too much about it because it’s not here right now,” he said.
“I feel like all you can do is get better every day,” Dennis said. “I feel like I’m a growing man, not a grown man.”
As his senior season progresses, he plans to keep his priorities very much in order.
“It’s a lot of fun out there,” Dennis said.
“I’ve got one more chance now, so I’m trying to make the best of it.”