Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Capital linebacker endures 3 knee surgeries, returns to shine on field | Sports

They were wails that still linger with Jaguars defensive coordinator Rob Yardman, even a year later.

The Capital football team was going through drills at half-speed during practice in September 2021 on the territory south of Jaguar Field it used since the main field was in use. It was generously called an auxiliary field, because it was more of a minefield, in reality, due to the gopher holes that littered it.

Of all the people to find one of those holes on that day, it had to be sophomore Fabian Ryan.

When his leg dipped into the hole, Ryan felt that dreaded, but all too familiar, pop in his left leg and knew almost immediately his anterior cruciate ligament was torn.

As the trainer examined Ryan’s knee and confirmed his suspicions, a worried look gave away to painful cries of frustration.

“I could see he was so broken up about it,” said Yardman. “He was like, ‘Not again. Not my knee again!’ We were just trying to calm him down, but that was really sad. I mean it sucked.”

For the third time, Ryan had torn that ligament.

For the third time, Ryan had to go through rehabilitating the injury and preparing for next year.

Fast forward 13 months and Ryan is back on the field, feeling better than he ever has after the injury. An offseason in the weight room — which was the first time he did that after the injury — made Ryan stronger but leaner.

That has helped unleash the athleticism Ryan always had. He is normally the Jaguars’ starting outside linebacker, but he also has played safety and a slot corner this season. It’s as much a sign of the talent he possesses as it is the confidence the coaching staff has in him — even after the third tear of his ACL since he was 8.

“That just speaks volumes about him,” Capital head coach Joaquin Garcia said. “He is a great kid who puts in the work and he is so passionate about the sport. He’s been playing it since he was a little kid, but, golly, he’s just had some bad luck. At the end of the day, he’s coming through it.”

But why would a teenager put himself through the ordeal of rehab for a third time, knowing full well it could happen again?

“I just love this sport,” Ryan said. “I can’t get away from it. I’ve never thought I didn’t want to do this. Just, ‘I’ve got it stronger, get better.’ ”

The first time Ryan suffered the injury, he was an 8-year-old playing in his age group’s championship game of the Northern New Mexico Youth Football League.

“It was raining pretty bad, and I remember running the ball,” Ryan said. “I think my leg just got caught at an awkward position, and I kinda spun and it, like, stayed planted.”

Ryan screamed in pain on the ground before he was carted off the field. He and his family visited several doctors, who initially diagnosed it as a knee sprain. But Ryan said he knew something wasn’t right because he still felt pain.

Eventually, his family went to the University of New Mexico Hospital, where imaging revealed a tear, and surgery was performed.

“Nobody in Santa Fe wanted to touch me because I was so young,” Ryan said. “That’s why we went to Albuquerque with Dr. [Gehron] Treme [an orthopedic surgeon who is also on UNM’s athletic training staff].”

Ryan was in a wheelchair for two months and didn’t start playing again for a year. He admitted he was scared when he started competing in sports again, but his fear waned as the years rolled by.

Then came his eighth grade year at Ortiz Middle School in fall 2019. Ryan was finishing a long touchdown run when a defender jumped on him right after he crossed the goal line.

“My knee was extended and it just buckled and stopped,” Ryan said. “My adrenaline was high, so I got up and started celebrating, but when the adrenaline wore off, I just dropped down in the back of the end zone.”

Just like that, Ryan was on the shelf. Another surgery and a seven-month rehab. Ryan said the knee did not feel as stable, nor as strong, after the second surgery, but he ended up with plenty of time for it to heal because the coronavirus pandemic hit, throwing the world into chaos.

He saw some action with the junior varsity in spring 2021 as the team played two games, but he finally got an offseason of weight training and conditioning that summer.

Yardman envisioned Ryan as his starting middle linebacker, but he struggled with calling plays and getting his teammates into position. Yardman said it was a sign of Ryan’s inexperience in the system, especially since he was playing for a new coaching staff and system after Garcia was hired in June 2021. A move to outside linebacker eased some of the burden, but then came the injury. Then the injury came in practice after the Sept. 10, 2021, loss to Santa Fe High.

Still, Yardman said Ryan’s potential was hard to miss.

“My defense is centered around the two safeties and our middle linebacker,” Yardman said. “You wanna push toward those three players in the box, and I saw him as a central player could conduct everything. I mean, he had the speed.”

However, the coaching staff was uncertain what kind of player Ryan would be after a third surgery. But Ryan was driven to get himself into the best shape of his life and worked hard in the weight room in the offseason.

“I knew I gotta get it as strong as I can before the season so nothing bad can happen to it again,” Ryan said. “And I feel like this year I’ve got it to its strongest before I got released [to participate in mid-August].”

When the preseason began, Garcia said Ryan looked muscular, but lean.

“He’s definitely gotten stronger, but I think he’s gotten more athletic, as well,” Garcia said. “That’s something you can see in just the way he moves. It’s just a different kid out there, and it’s crazy because of all the injuries he’s had. You would think it would slow him down, but he’s gotten better.”

Yardman said the first time Ryan practiced on the scout team in preparation for the

St. Michael’s game Aug. 26, Ryan filled the gap from his middle linebacker spot and popped the runner with a hit that resonated on the field — and in the coaches’ minds.

“We had a moment where we were excited for him,” Yardman said. “And we were excited that we still had a player at his level. I was excited to see him listen to something we instructed him on and he executed it.”

Yardman said Ryan still needs more game experience to reach his full potential, but he has offered glimpses of it. When Capital struggled to a 24-0 deficit 14 minutes into a game against Albuquerque Atrisco Heritage on Sept. 22, Yardman moved him to a slot corner position.

Ryan struggled initially, but quickly became comfortable at defending Atrisco’s quick, shifty receivers and helped slow down the Jaguars’ offensive attack, even though Capital lost 44-21.

Garcia said the coaching staff has plans to use Ryan on the offense, even though Capital has a glut of capable running backs. He might get that chance Saturday against Albuquerque High in a District 5-6A game that has playoff implications for the Jaguars.

“I tell the kids, ‘We can’t hold anything back; it’s a whole different season,’ ” Garcia said. “We are trying to beat everybody and we got to pull out all the stops. The great thing about Fabian is that he’ll step in wherever we need him.”

Ryan said he is happy to do whatever the team needs and feels appreciative of the opportunity afforded him. Ryan added, he also makes sure he takes care of his body.

He is almost religious in warmups, taking his time to make sure he properly stretches his body.

“Sometimes, I go so slow in the warmup lines, guys are waiting behind me to go,” Ryan said sheepishly.

Garcia doesn’t mind that. In fact, he took his own step to ensure the rest of the team’s safety. After Ryan’s injury, he took the Jaguars to the baseball field whenever Jaguar Field is unavailable.

While it does make scrimmaging challenging, the coaches no longer worry about endangering players.

“I’ll never practice on that field again — not unless it’s turfed,” Garcia said.

Ryan might be back and better than ever, but those cries of anguish still linger.

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