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

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 for Thanksgiving. Father Ralph is to his right, mother Ivette and his two brothers. (Handout photo)

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."

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.

"I'm taking it in steps and making sure I'm healthy enough to get back on the field," he said.

The father hopes that his son, who threw for over 2,000 yards as a senior in high school, will get a chance to play the position he was recruited for.

"I'm more worried about if he's not given the opportunity to play [quarterback], what the repercussions of that outcome for his motivation would be," Ralph Montalvo said. "But he loves those guys, he's really wants to be part of that."

Finally, a well-deserved break

Before going home for Thanksgiving break, Rafi Montalvo said he was looking forward to a few days to relax.

"I feel like it's going to be a way to recharge my batteries, it's been almost a full straight year of rehab and therapy and I feel like I really deserve this break," he said. "Just seeing my family again will be great. I feel like this year has gone back really fast. Every minute I'm working just to get better."

Ralph Montalvo said Sunday that his son spent most of the past few days working out with trainers he has used since high school, playing basketball with his brothers and throwing the football "harder than I've seen him throw it before."

As he was being dropped off for his flight back to Baltimore from Fort Lauderdale International Airport, Rafi Montalvo hugged his parents and left them laughing.

"He said, 'I'm in the bonus round, I made it farther than I did last year,'" Ralph Montalvo recalled. "It's fantastic."