"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."
Montalvo and his wife know that they are not alone, considering the debate that is going on in many households about the safety of playing football and the inherent dangers involved when it comes to brain injuries.
"If you have a kid in high school who's ready to play football and you ask your pediatrician, they'd say, 'What are you, crazy?'," Ralph Montalvo said. "You're dealing a lot with that already. On top of that, you had an injury he's recovering from.
"The bottom line is that after a year, if he doesn't have symptons and he doesn't have pain — and he hasn't taken as much as an Advil since he got out of the hosptal — he can play. The doctors tell him that, so even if I wanted to take it away, it's his decision."
Montalvo said that ever since his oldest son opened his eyes in the hospital, smiled and declared he was hungry, playing football again has been sort of an emotional lifeline to push him through the tedious hours of rehab and subsequent testing.
"He's come such a long way," Ralph Montalvo said. "If football has helped him get through this whole process, I'm not going to take that away."
As Navy gets ready for its Dec. 14 game against Army at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Rafi Montalvo knows that he would have likely dressed for the game had he been cleared around Thanksgiving — two freshmen back up starting quarterback Keenan Reynolds. Instead, Montalvo will be in the stands with the rest of the midshipmen.
Still a quarterback
Ralph Montalvo said its a positive sign that his son still thinks of himself as a quarterback, despite Reynolds establishing himself as one of the best in Navy history.
"That's a good indication about how good he feels," Montalvo said. "Without taking anything away from Keenan, who's phenomenal, in a humble way, Rafi feels he's good enough to play [quarterback]. Coming from NAPS, he wasn't the best student in the world. They had to let those kids acclimate. He had talks with [offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach] Ivin Jasper and was told, 'Spring's going to be your time to compete.' He was still looking forward to the spring when the accident happened."
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said he admires Montalvo's resolve to get back on the field.
"He's a tough kid," Niumatalolo said recently. "To be able to go through what he's gone through, he just comes out here and keeps doing what he's supposed to be doing. He's a very disciplined young man. You don't have to hold him by the hand. He knows what he wants in life, he knows what he needs to do academically and working out. Sometimes you forget because he's not practicing, but he's doing what he's suppposed to do."
Navy teammate Colin Osborne recalled the day he found out that his best friend at the academy had been critically injured. Osborne, who had gone home to Glenelg for Thanksgiving, thought it strange that he had not received a text message or two that day from Montalvo. He then heard from another teammate about the accident.
Osborne visited Montalvo in the hospital during winter break last year, and now sees a person not much different than before the accident.
"He's still goofy, still cracking jokes, it's like he never left, honestly," Osborne said recently.
Osborne had his own adversity earlier this season, though not as life-altering as Montalvo. Osborne had emerged as a potential starter at slotback after spring practice, but suffered a season-ending knee injury two weeks before the opening game.
"It was as if God was saying, 'You can't play until Rafi plays,'" Osborne said. "It's like we're meant to get on the field together."
If he gets cleared for the spring, Montalvo could have a shot at being Reynolds' backup the next two seasons and could compete tostart as a senior. To get on the field sooner, he could move to safety, a position he played in high school. But Montalvo isn't thinking about a position change yet.