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