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— Scoli­os­is ended Mat­thew Ragan's foot­ball ca­reer at North­east High School. Now, he's eye­ing a third straight lacrosse title.

North­east High School lacrosse cap­tain Matt Ragan re­cov­ers from scoli­os­is sur­gery last Ju­ly. (photo cour­tesy of Mat­thew Ragan)

Start­Frag­ment

Even though he re­fused to show it, Mat­thew Ragan was ter­ri­fied.

It wasn’t so much the up­com­ing sur­gery to fix the curve in his spine that scared him; rather, it was the pro­spect of po­ten­tially nev­er be­ing able to play sports again that really jarred Ragan. His new­found med­ic­al con­di­tion had already robbed him of his first love of foot­ball, and now it was threat­en­ing to take away his ad­op­ted pas­sion of lacrosse.

Still, he faced the spin­al sur­gery head-on with a fierce de­term­in­a­tion, re­fus­ing to let it ru­in the best time of his life.

“I was scared, be­lieve me, but I didn’t want any­body to be more scared than I already was,” Ragan said dur­ing a re­cent chat at his Bustleton home. “Plus, once it’s there, it’s there; there was noth­ing I could really do, you know?”

Ragan re­cently com­pleted his ju­ni­or year at North­east High School and is now al­most a year re­moved from the op­er­a­tion last Ju­ly that changed his life. When he was a fresh­man, Ragan was dia­gnosed with scoli­os­is, a med­ic­al con­di­tion in which a per­son’s spine is curved from side-to-side. In­stead of ap­pear­ing as a straight line, the spine of someone af­flic­ted with scoli­os­is more closely re­sembles an “S” or a “C,” de­pend­ing on how ex­treme the curvature is.

Nor­mally, people with a mild case of the dis­ab­il­ity can live their whole lives without re­quir­ing treat­ment or show­ing any no­tice­able ef­fects. However, in Ragan’s situ­ation, his spine’s curve ex­ped­ited quickly to more than 50 de­grees and re­quired sur­gery, nor­mally a last re­sort. The pro­ced­ure would end his foot­ball ca­reer, and his lacrosse fu­ture was up in the air, too, just weeks after lead­ing the school to a Pub­lic League cham­pi­on­ship.

“We hon­estly had no idea (how bad it was),” said Matt Ragan Sr., Mat­thew’s fath­er. “I’m bow-legged my­self, so we just figured he walked funny.”

The Ragans tried everything to fix Mat­thew’s prob­lem, from fit­ting him with a brace to send­ing him to a chiro­pract­or dur­ing his sopho­more year. He con­tin­ued to play foot­ball and lacrosse, as the Vik­ings won Pub­lic League crowns in each sport that year. But the curve grew worse, and doc­tors had no choice but to op­er­ate. They used a tech­nique called pos­teri­or fu­sion in which an in­cision was made in the teen’s back and a met­al rod was in­ser­ted to en­sure the curve didn’t get any worse. Ragan car­ries about a foot-long scar from right be­low the shoulder blades all the way down to his lower back.

“From the look on his face, you wouldn’t even know he was get­ting sur­gery,” Ragan Sr. said. “My wife and I were nervous wrecks, but it didn’t even seem to both­er him.”

The young­er Ragan put on a brave face be­fore and after the sev­en-hour sur­gery, but deep down he was con­cerned. Six months of re­cov­ery time fol­lowed, which took him pain­fully close to the start of the lacrosse sea­son. Hav­ing been named a cap­tain of the team the pre­vi­ous year, just one year after play­ing or­gan­ized lacrosse for the first time, Ragan Jr. re­fused to let the scoli­os­is beat him.

Be­cause the re­cov­ery called for post-sur­gery rest and not ex­tens­ive re­hab­il­it­a­tion, he was able to ease back in­to his routine. With­in a week, he was sneak­ing out to the back­yard with his lacrosse stick, much to his moth­er’s chag­rin. Slowly but surely, he re-gained his strength, and his doc­tors gave him the green light to re­sume his lacrosse activ­it­ies at North­east. Ini­tially hes­it­ant when he got back onto the field, Ragan Jr. grew con­fid­ent again.

“Things were still a little iffy when I got back,” he said. “The first couple of prac­tices, the first thing on my mind was to not get hit in the back to make it any worse. But if you play scared, there’s a big­ger risk of get­ting hurt again. I tried to go out there as if noth­ing ever happened.”

Nor­malcy had re­turned to his phys­ic­al con­di­tion, but an­oth­er chal­lenge soon presen­ted it­self. Ragan Jr.’s lacrosse coach, Frank Ker­wood, was laid off due to budget cuts, leav­ing the Vik­ings without a coach just weeks be­fore the start of the sea­son. All of the hard work Ragan Jr. had put in to be­come a cap­tain and bring the pro­gram a title was in jeop­ardy of fall­ing apart.

North­east’s haphaz­ard search for a new coach ul­ti­mately led them to JV foot­ball coach Joe Blee, who had nev­er coached lacrosse be­fore. In fact, he wasn’t fa­mil­i­ar with the sport at all. But with Ker­wood and oth­ers ad­vising from afar, as well as with the help of Google, Blee learned quickly. It also helped that he had a bon­afide lead­er on his team who wouldn’t ac­cept any­thing less than a second con­sec­ut­ive cham­pi­on­ship.

“Matt is a coach’s dream, and he’s been a great per­son for me to have around to help me learn the game,” Blee said by phone on Monday. “Some days he might not have been 100 per­cent phys­ic­ally, but in games you would think there was noth­ing wrong with the kid. He’s been out­stand­ing in every as­pect of be­ing a stu­dent-ath­lete. He’s had a lot go wrong, but I’ve nev­er heard him com­plain once.”

As Blee even­tu­ally dis­covered, Ragan Jr. is not the com­plain­ing type. Feel­ing lucky just to be able to suit up and get out on the field was a gift, and that’s the way he vowed to treat every sub­sequent prac­tice and game fol­low­ing his sur­gery.

“I love this team,” Ragan Jr. said. “I’d do any­thing for them. It was hard com­ing off sur­gery, but when I was on bed rest the guys kept me up­dated and I saw how ded­ic­ated they were to get­ting bet­ter. Wheth­er I was in pain or not, I just wanted to keep go­ing for them.

“What this taught me was that you can nev­er give up,” he con­tin­ued. “If one thing goes wrong then something else is go­ing to hap­pen to make it right. One of the worst things I ever had to do was give up foot­ball, but I was lucky to find something else that I really liked.”

Seated just a few feet to his son’s left, Ragan Sr. in­ter­jec­ted: “He just took the hand he was dealt and nev­er ques­tioned it. I find that re­mark­able. Ima­gine be­ing a kid and be­ing told you can’t play foot­ball any­more after play­ing your en­tire life…luck­ily for him, one door closed and an­oth­er opened. He’s a great kid, and my hero.”

Ragan Jr. was cer­tainly re­war­ded for his per­sist­ence and nev­er-say-die at­ti­tude. This sea­son, the Vik­ings went 13-3 and de­feated ar­chrival George Wash­ing­ton in the title game for the second straight sea­son, a 4-3 over­time thrill­er won by team­mate John Liebig.

“What a mo­ment,” Ragan Jr. said. “Dur­ing my fresh­man sea­son, it was like prac­tice for those guys when they played us. Win­ning that game already has us so pumped up for next year.”

Ragan Jr. said he ex­pects his seni­or sea­son to be his best one yet. The Vik­ings will re­turn al­most their en­tire roster from this sea­son, and a three-peat is very much on their minds. Ragan Jr., who car­ries a GPA above 3.0 and hopes to play lacrosse in col­lege, will work on en­han­cing his skills in sum­mer leagues.

He’s also already start­ing to re­cruit play­ers for the fu­ture. While Ragan Jr. has rid­den the biggest wave of lacrosse suc­cess in the pro­gram’s brief his­tory, he is fo­cused on mak­ing sure the ex­pect­a­tion of win­ning every year is main­tained even after he is gone, the sign of a true lead­er and school am­bas­sad­or.

“We’re go­ing to be a lot bet­ter…I’m go­ing to be a lot bet­ter,” he said. “Half the team is go­ing out for sum­mer league teams, and we want to take what we learn and bring it back to the new guys so they can get bet­ter, too, as time goes on.

“It’ll be my seni­or year, and I want to re­mem­ber it,” he con­cluded. “I’d like to rack up goals and points and do the best I can, but at the same time what I really want is for this pro­gram to con­tin­ue grow­ing. That’s what’s really im­port­ant to me.” ••

End­Frag­ment

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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