Rafi Montalvo’s life changed forever last Thanksgiving. Then Navy’s freshman third-string quarterback after an in-season promotion from the junior varsity and scout teams, Montalvo was badly injured in a car accident that night in his native Miami. He spent 16 days in a medically-induced coma because of the trauma to his brain, another month in the hospital and nearly six months after that in often-intense rehabilitation.
But less than nine months after the accident, Montalvo is back in Annapolis. Coach Ken Niumatalolo, who visited the comatose Montalvo in the hospital, terms his presence on campus “a miracle” and called him “an inspiration to all of us.” Montalvo is back in uniform for preseason although he’s barred from contact until this Thanksgiving.
“When I woke up in the hospital and realized what had happened to me, I immediately started planning how I was going to get back here,” said Montalvo, who remembers five minutes before the accident and the subsequent helicopter ride to the hospital but not his friend losing control of the car on a tight turn on a foggy night. “I had a lot of support from my teammates and from other people from here plus my family and friends from home. That drove me to not let them down.”
As if that was possible.
“Rafi kind of embodies what we stand for: resiliency, not giving up even against all odds,” said starting quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who, along with his teammates, wore Montalvo’s No. 39 on their helmets during their victory over archrival Army 16 days after the accident. “When I feel like my situation’s bad, it kind of reminds me that it could be worse. If you put in the work, you can do what you want to do.”
Not only is Montalvo inspiring his coaches and teammates with his mere presence, he said the accident has made him a better person.
“It’s made me appreciate the very little things in life,” said the likely oceanography major who wants to be a fishing guide once he completes his post-graduation service commitment. “When I had just gotten out of the hospital, I was working out with my dad and I couldn’t lift very much weight, but I was so happy just to be able to do it. Then I set a goal, not just to get back to where I was before, but to get past that point. I’m in that process right now.”
That’s in such relatively fleeting matters as bench presses. In the classroom, despite a year at the Naval Academy Prep School, Montalvo’s grade point average was hovering just over a C when he was injured. This summer, Montalvo is repeating the Naval History course he was taking last fall. This time around, he has an A+.
“I wanted to come back so badly,” said Montalvo, an honorable mention All-State quarterback at LaSalle High. “I wanted to come back to the team. I didn’t want to go out that way. I didn’t want to be remembered that way. I wanted to be remembered for being able to come back. And I wanted to do better in school. I was disappointed in myself before, especially academically. It’s a lot easier now because I’ve learned how to learn.”
That happened during rehabilitation, a process that began not long after Montalvo awakened. At first, he couldn’t even recognize his family. And when reading aloud, he would get frustrated when he didn’t know a word, calling himself “stupid.” Today, Montalvo isn’t just a smarter student. He’s a smarter person.
“I’m anxious to get back with the team, but I have to be smart, I have to be patient,” he said. “I’ve learned to be patient throughout this whole process. That’s not my nature at all.”
As is still evident at times.
“He came in last night after the meetings and said, ‘Coach. I didn’t get pads or a helmet yet,’ “ Niumatalolo said. “I said, ‘Rafi, I’m just grateful that you’re here. That in and of itself is a miracle. We’ll get you the helmet eventually.’ “
That would be for the Army game on Dec. 14, a contest for which the coach said Montalvo will likely suit up given the medical OK.
“That’s my goal,” Montalvo said with one of his frequent smiles.
After what Montalvo has accomplished since the accident, who can doubt him?
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin