As Rafi Montalvo was recovering last fall from a brain injury he sustained in a near-fatal car accident, the former Navy quarterback talked with teammate Will McKamey about his own return to the football field. McKamey, then a freshman, became an inspiration for Montalvo during his rehabilitation.
When he was a senior at Grace Christian Academy in Knoxville, Tenn., in the fall of 2012, McKamey had collapsed during a playoff game and was hopitalized for several days after suffering from a blood clot that caused bleeding and swelling of his brain. No surgery was required.
“There were two different situations. Mine was a car accident and his was from football, but my brain was bleeding like his brain. I saw him coming back and getting cleared and playing football,” Montalvo recalled Monday. “All throughout fall, he was fine. I thought I should be able to play, too."
Montalvo recovered enough to return to the Naval Academy, but was never cleared to play by Navy doctors in order to resume his football career. He eventually left Annapolis in January and is hoping to resume college this summer near his home in Miami and return to competition as a rower.
But now Montalvo and his family plan to support McKamey and his family, just as they did for the Montalvos after a car accident on Thanksgiving night in 2012 left the then 19-year-old Montalvo in a medically-induced coma in a South Florida hospital.
McKamey, also 19, is in a coma at Maryland Shock Trauma after he collapsed again, this time on a practice field Saturday at Navy, as a result of another brain injury that required surgery to relieve bleeding and swelling. According to his parents, McKamey has shown “little response” since.
There has been an outpouring of support for McKamey from those at the Naval Academy as well as from around the country, with a flood of Facebook messages as well as visits from Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo and his assistants, athletic director Chet Gladchuk and his staff, along with McKamey’s current teammates.
Montalvo and his mother, Ivette, have reached out to McKamey’s parents via Facebook, and Montalvo said he plans to fly up to Baltimore next week to support his former teammate and his family “with prayers and comfort” at the hospital.
“I know his family supported me through my ordeal,” Montalvo said. “I wanted to go up there and help. You have to keep faith and keep positive and everything’s going to be OK. I know my family was devastated and went through very hard times [when I was injured].”
Montalvo said that he has also written a “three-page letter” that he hoped to send McKamey and his parents to offer his support and detail what he did during a lengthy recovery and rehabilitation process spent at hospitals and rehab centers in Florida, Virginia and Maryland.
Montalvo suffered serious head injuries when he was a passenger in a car that drove into a house at a high speed on a dark and foggy street in Miami. His parents were told at the time that there was an "85 percent" chance that he would not survive and if he did, a good chance that he wouldn't be able to function normally.
“Obviously, the doctors were wrong about what they thought I was going to be, and the end result,” Montalvo said. “They told my parents there was a 95 percent chance I was going to be a vegetable.”
Ralph Montalvo said Tuesday that he heard from Randy McKamey, the high school football coach at Grace Christian Academy, after the younger Montalvo's car accident. The elder Montalvo, who played college football at the University of Miami, said that he understands why Randy McKamey and his wife, Kara, allowed their son to continue playing after the first incident.
“As a parent, if Rafi was cleared to play football, I would have let him play football because I listened to the doctors,” Ralph Montalvo said. “I would have had 100 percent faith in them, especially the ones that are part of the Navy family, they’re the best doctors in the world and I wouldn’t have held him back from playing football.”
McKamey's parents said in a statement released by the Navy athletic department Monday that their son, a 5-foot-9, 170-pound slotback, collapsed during a light workout Saturday. They also said that he had been cleared to play by doctors in Tennessee after undergoing "4-6" CAT scans and MRIs following the first brain injury.
Ralph Montalvo said the support and prayers his family received after his son was critically injured helped his son pull through.
“What they’re going through is extremely difficult and we’re lucky to have a strong family, a strong community and to be part of the Navy family because the amount of support we got from everyone helped us get through the whole process,” Ralph Montalvo said. “They can be comforted in the fact that they will have a tremendous amount of support from Navy through this whole process. … Being part of the Navy family helped us get through it.”
After hearing from his former teammates about McKamey Saturday, Rafi Montalvo thought about their burgeoning friendship.
“I was just getting to know him, and we were becoming pretty [close] friends when I left,” Montalvo said. “He’s a really good kid. He was kind of like me. I’m kind of a quiet person, and he’s kind of the same way. He kind of reminded me of myself. He was a really hard worker.
"You need to have some good fortune with this injury. I remember when I came back, coach [Ken] Niumat[alolo] was saying that I was a miracle. I didn’t want to look at it like that. Hard work got me to where I’m at. All the work did, all the therapy I did.”
Montalvo said that his letter to McKamey and his family is about "just having faith, being positive, that everything's going to come out OK. No matter how bad it is now, the end when he gets out of the hospital, you can fully recover with the rehab. I wanted to let them know how I recovered, and how Will needs to come back from this."