Not quite back to normal, Navy's Rafi Montalvo still plans return to football

Montalvo was seriously injured in a car accident last Thanksgiving

  • Navy football player Rafi Montalvo (left) at home with his family for Thanksgiving. Father Ralph is to his right, mother Ivette and his two brothers.
Navy football player Rafi Montalvo (left) at home with his family… (Handout photo )
December 01, 2013|By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

The conversation between father and son seemed like hundreds they had before. Ralph Montalvo can't remember the specifics of what he talked about with his 21-year-old son, only how Rafi Montalvo sounded on the other end of the cell phone.

After getting off the phone one night a couple of weeks ago, the elder Montalvo recalled telling his wife, Ivette, words that he never thought he'd say again after what happened to their oldest child near their South Florida home a year ago on Thanksgiving night.

"He sounds exactly the same as he did before the accident," Ralph Montalvo said.

A single-vehicle accident on a foggy Miami-area street left Navy football player Rafi Montalvo critically injured. A passenger in a car driven by a high school friend making a late-night run to McDonald's, Montalvo was taken to a local hospital and placed in a medically-induced coma to reduce the swelling on his brain.

After coming out of the coma, Montalvo spent months in rehabilitation, first at a hospital near his family's home and later at a Naval facility in Richmond, Va., before returning to the academy in late July, a few days before the football team opened preseason practice.

Months later, life is not quite back to normal for Montalvo, who continues to be tested on a weekly basis at one of two Navy facilities in Bethesda. His measured speech pattern might be the same as it was before, but Montalvo hasn't yet returned to football.

A quarterback who as a freshman last season worked his way from the junior varsity and scout team to the verge of traveling to his first Army-Navy game as a third-stringer at the time of the accident, Montalvo was initially told by doctors that he would have to wait a full year to be cleared to play.

The timetable has been pushed back a few more months, probably until the spring.

"Throughout this whole process, what I've learned is that everybody is trying to be really safe," Montalvo said after a recent practice. "At first I tried to really go against it and prove I was doing well. But now I'm making sure that I'm cautious as well. I have more time to rest, I guess."

Montalvo must repeat his freshman year, after falling behind the friends he came into the academy with from the Naval Academy Prep School. He has been separated from them socially since plebes are not allowed to visit in the rooms of upperclassmen.

Being around the football team this season, attending practices and working out in the weight room at the same time has allowed him to keep up some of those friendships. But it is not the same as playing.

"It's been really tough, I try not to look at it like that, I try to stay positive," Montalvo said. "I look at the very little things like just being able to go to the gym with the team and work out. That kind of really motivates me.

"When I go to Bethesda [for continued testing], I'm starting to get really good news from them. Being a freshman again, I'm just making new friends, a ton of new friends within my company and within my class. I feel like it's really been helpful making new friends."

Harnessing frustration

Ralph Montalvo can hear the frustration in his son's voice at times.

"That whole grateful to be back, grateful to be alive, he's past that," he said. "He's doing the whole plebe year over, watching the football team play and the football team travel – he traveled last year – it's very hard on him. He feels like he could be playing right now."

If there's a postive, Ralph Montalvo said, "He's harnessed that frustration into working out. He's working out like I've never seen him work out before."

Ralph Montalvo said that the academy's decision to have his son take one fewer credit this semester so he wouldn't be considered a full-time, sport-eligible student has helped.

"They didn't want that temptation, leaving that carrot out there," the father said. "He's like a horse champing at the bit. The fact that he can't and they won't let him is probably a good thing right now."

The most competitive Montalvo gets these days is when he sits down for a game of chess. Part of Montalvo's therapy for his Tuesday visits to Bethesda is playing a game he had only rudimentary knowledge of being the accident.

"I started off playing solitary chess and then playing chess against the therapists, and I was beating the therapists every time I was playing them," Montalvo said. "I'm really good at strategizing how to beat the other person."

While Montalvo has few concerns about playing football again, his parents remain conflicted. They are happy that their two younger sons chose safer sports: 18-year-old Nicholas is a competitive rower being recruited by Ivy League schools; 13-year-old Marcus plays travel league basketball.

Ralph Montalvo, a former walk-on offensive lineman at the University of Miami who has a business selling boats in South Florida, said that "whole dilemma is something that we wrestle with every day, literally every day."

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