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Ramona draws inspiration from fallen player

11/26/2012, 2:24pm PST
By Dennis Lin

Former Bulldogs star Ryan Morgan died in June after a motorcycle accident. Six months later, Ramona is playing for its first section title in 39 years.

Did I run like Ryan? Did I give it my all?

Those questions have crossed Javier Dominguez’s mind more than once this season.

Coming off the field after a long kickoff return. Pushing through practice on a humid afternoon. Grinding out a final set in the weight room.

And, now, standing on the edge of school history.

On Saturday, Dominguez and his Ramona High football teammates will face Lincoln in the San Diego Section Division III final at Escondido High. The Bulldogs have not played for a section title since 1973, when they were Class 1A co-champions with Army-Navy. It’s been more than four decades since they won their only outright section crown in 1970.

It’s been less than six months since Ryan Morgan, a 2010 graduate of Ramona and a West Point cadet, died June 3 from injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident. He was 21.

On Sept. 28, in a ceremony before a game against Orange Glen, the Ramona football team retired Morgan’s No. 10, presenting framed jerseys to his parents — Julie and Rheynard, an assistant coach for the Bulldogs.

Ramona won that night, improving to 4-1 — its best start since 2009, when Ryan, then a senior, led the Bulldogs to seven straight victories. After injuries derailed last year’s 1-10 season, they will enter Saturday’s final with an 8-4 record. This fall, the left sides of their helmets have featured a clear sticker with a “10” in white.

“We put so much blood, sweat and tears into this season,” said Dominguez, a senior defensive back, “and Ryan was our motivation.”

Dominguez was a freshman when he met his idol three years ago. Ryan was the team’s starting running back, about to embark on a senior campaign of 1,622 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. The following spring, he would be crowned the San Diego Section’s champion in the 400-meter dash and Ramona High’s Student/Athlete of the Year.

“I looked at him like he was a celebrity,” Dominguez said.

Except Ryan didn’t act like one. Instead of posing after running over opponents — the 5-foot-11, 165-pounder never shied away from contact — he helped them back up. Instead of sitting out with a broken toe or a bruised hip, he finished games without complaint.

“I know this drum can be beat a lot,” said Ramona football coach Damon Baldwin, “but his character was so solid. He treated everybody with such class and such respect.”

After accepting a football scholarship from the U.S. Military Academy, Ryan attended West Point’s prep school for a year while seeing time at running back and cornerback. Then, after arriving at the academy last fall, he was converted to wide receiver.

But even as he impressed in practice, Ryan struggled in West Point’s rigorous academic environment. Following his first semester, he and nearly 300 other cadets were dismissed for failing grades.

Only three cadets were offered “turn-back” contracts — a chance to regroup and return the next fall to redo their freshman years. Ryan was one of the three.

“His instructors unanimously said your son was a character kid among character kids,” a superintendent told Rheynard.

Last winter, Ryan returned home to Ramona. He worked for Rheynard’s business, San Diego Door and Hardware, and volunteered as an assistant for the Bulldogs track team, introducing a drill-sergeant’s intensity to practices. Sometimes, he wondered if his sprinters secretly hated him — once, he made a girl cry on the team bus.

Then, after the Bulldogs’ end-of-the-year banquet, he came home with gift cards to Red Lobster and Claim Jumper and Ruth’s Chris, as well as a card signed by the entire team. “Coach, you made me cry on the bus,” wrote the girl who’d shed tears, “but I still love you.”

Ryan was scheduled to return to West Point in August. But first, he wanted to get his motorcycle license. He’d dreamed of owning a motorcycle for years, ever since Rheynard started taking him dirt-biking in the desert.

On June 2, just weeks after earning his license and completing a safety course, Ryan purchased the motorcycle of his dreams — a black 2012 Yamaha R6. Rheynard co-signed the loan. Ryan and his brother, Nathan, two years his junior, took their bikes on state Route 78 and rode east to Santa Ysabel and back.

“He was,” Rheynard said of Ryan, “the happiest kid on the planet.”

The following day, Ryan attended an afternoon church service at Calvary Chapel Ramona. Afterward, he and former Ramona football teammate Justin Godes got on their motorcycles.

Around 5:50 p.m., Ryan was attempting to navigate a curve when he lost control of his motorcycle on Pamo Road north of Burma Road. Still wearing his helmet, he was ejected from the bike and landed in a drainage ditch.

Rheynard’s cell phone rang. He got on his own motorcycle and raced to the scene. There, Ryan, who had been knocked unconscious, came to for a few moments — long enough to look his father in the eye and squeeze his right hand.

Less than two hours later, Ryan died at Palomar Medical Center.

More than 3,000 people attended his memorial service at the Bulldogs’ football stadium that Saturday. Baldwin, his coach, is pushing to have the stadium named after Ryan. Godes, a fellow West Point cadet, had “Ryan 10” tattooed under his left bicep.

“All these things add up and make me a proud father knowing he did so much in his 21 years,” Rheynard said. “In a way, it’s OK, you know? It’s hard to say that, because I would give anything to have him back.”

Even with Ryan gone, Rheynard has stayed on with Ramona this season. He coaches the kickers, handles the equipment and coordinates video. He even rebuilt the weight room, the same room where Ryan, who had been helping with spring football, was working out the Friday before he died.

“If I didn’t fulfill my obligation to these boys and this coaching staff, it would tarnish my son’s memory,” Rheynard said. “That’s the way we are. You gotta finish what you started.”

On Saturday, the Bulldogs will finish what they started, even without a victory. They’ve already advanced further than any Ramona team in 39 years.

Winning a section championship, though? That would be something else.

“It would mean so much to us,” Dominguez said. “No. 10 will always be in our hearts.”

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