BOSTON -- His 47-year-old legs were visibly shaking, dissolving from exhaustion as he stood on the ice. Yet Dana Marek held to one thought while he willed his trembling muscles to be calm: Keep going.
He had been away from the game of hockey for 30 years, and the reality of how his body had aged was now feeding his doubts about whether he could restart his collegiate career.
He had not told anyone he was trying again -- not his parents, not his kids, not even his wife. He could walk off the ice during this team practice at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and no one would ever know.
"My quads were moving my pants because they were quivering," Marek recalled. "But I refused to quit."
Weeks later, Marek pulled a game jersey over his head for the team's season opener -- and became an instant role model for middle-aged former athletes who swear they've still got it.
Marek thought he was done with the sport forever when a knee injury ended a promising career in junior hockey in the early 1970s. Now he's competing against players younger than his 19-year-old son, being coached by a man two years his junior, and loving every minute of it.
"I won't say this is a dream because I really didn't dream this," he said. "I thought this part of my life was over. I think it's more of a gift."
When Marek returned to school in 1999, playing hockey wasn't on his mind. Setting an example to his kids was.
Marek, a mechanic and Snap-On Tools franchise owner from Stoneham, had dropped out of Boston University after the 1971 season to pursue his hockey career. As his kids approached college age, he felt like a hypocrite when he told them to continue their education. So Marek decided to become a full-time student, with biology as his major, while keeping his full-time job.
But Marek was thinking of quitting school to spend more time with his father, who'd just had open heart surgery, when he wandered into the Beacons rink this fall while trying to kill some time. Marek, a youth hockey coach, had his skates in his car, so he asked UMass coach Joe Mallen if he could join the team for its informal practice.
Thus began a most unlikely comeback in collegiate sports.
Mallen was in dire need of players, and Marek had obvious though faded skills. So Mallen invited Marek to join the team.
"We were kind of in desperate straits," Mallen said, noting that the Beacons had just eight eligible players at the time.
Team captain Derek Trainor admits he thought it strange to lace up with a guy his father's age. But he also knew the team couldn't be real choosy.
"The way I looked at it, I didn't care who it was," he said. "We needed players."
Marek kept a tight lid on his comeback, enduring the painful practices and their aftermath in silence. But his venture became more difficult to hide when he dropped 20 pounds. His mother was convinced he was sick. One relative asked if he was having an affair.
Marek finally broke the news to his family after the team played a couple games. When the skepticism wore off, they were delighted.
"My first thought was, 'You can't do that,"' said Marek's wife, Colleen. "I kind of thought it was insane."
But she eventually decided it was a great opportunity.
"My feeling is, 'Go for it,"' she said.
On the ice, the 6-foot, 200-pound Marek is a fluid skater, indistinguishable from his teammates -- but for the patch of gray hair jutting from under his helmet.
Marek has seen limited action as a forward this season, picking up two assists through the first 17 games while rotating in on the third and fourth lines.
"He's got a good hard shot, he talks a lot on the ice and he's good on the bench," Mallen said.
He's also shown a willingness to mix it up, leveling a player at center-ice in a game against St. Anselm, and taking some punishment himself.
Marek's heard some taunts, and a couple guys went after him in an early game. But his teammates have stepped up to defend him when necessary.
Part of being accepted also means enduring some barbs in the locker room about his relatively ancient body. Trainor says Marek learned to give back what he gets.
Marek makes it clear that as soon as the Beacons have a full roster of college-aged players, he's gone. He's also aware that he may leave the game involuntarily again.
"I'm truly one hit away," he said. "If my knee collapses again, it's over."
But while it's continuing, Marek is having a ball. He knows he's the envy of middle-aged hockey players everywhere, and has accepted his share of congratulations from peers, who are proud to see someone their age competing with college kids.
Even if his hockey career has a limited future, his college career doesn't. Marek intends to get his degree in pre-med, and see where it takes him.
The lesson he said he'll take from his return to school -- and his return to the rink -- is that it is never too late to change your life.
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