Torn: Carrasco’s journey back from ACL injury
By Tom Mulherin
The attention of the group was geared toward the upcoming game, but one player could hardly stay focused.
In a crowded locker room at Nusenda Community Stadium in Albuquerque, the Lovington football team intently listened to head coach Anthony Gonzales give a pregame speech. The Wildcats were about to take on St. Pius X in the only state playoff game they would play this past season, and the mood of the room was energetic and just ready for competition.
That is, outside of senior lineman Arturo Carrasco.
Contrary to the rest of the team, Carrasco needed to pass up the pads for street clothes. It’s what he’s had to do since summer training started because of major damage to his right knee. Carrasco’s sorrow from sitting out rarely showed throughout the season, though there were some moments where he couldn’t help it. Gonzales’ pregame speech for this playoff game was one of those moments.
All Carrasco could think about was how much he wanted to play. At one point, he deadlocked eye contact with Gonzales, and the coach went on to use him in his speech. Gonzales told the team that Carrasco would kill for just one more snap, and he then asked what the team would do for a guy like Carrasco. His teammates erupted. But as fellow senior lineman Elijah Cesareo looked over at Carrasco, he didn’t see joy, but saw the eyes of his normally stoic friend start to water a bit instead.
Not much was different after the team lost a couple hours later.
“It crushed (Carrasco),” Gonzales said. “That’s a guy you don’t see show emotion a whole lot. … I can remember going up to him and giving him a great big hug after that (St. Pius) game, and he said, ‘Coach, I guarantee you nobody wanted this more than me. I wish I could’ve taken a snap for you.’ You know, stuff like that. It just really kills you.”
The major knee damage that kept him off the field for the whole season was a completely torn ACL with damage to his meniscus, compliments of open gym several months before football.
Back in April of his junior year, Carrasco – who also plays basketball – was on a fast break during a pickup game when he planted wrong on a shot and took a tumble. Wildcats assistant/junior varsity basketball coach Mark Teel watched the whole thing, saying it looked more “quirky” than significant. But he and Carrasco both knew immediately what happened.
“I tried to stop real quick, and when I planted my foot, I felt it,” Carrasco said. “It just felt like my knee twisted and, like, grinded the bottom half and top half. I just remember I was just on the floor, on my back with my leg up. It hurt so bad I couldn’t even straighten it.
“I just laid and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this really just happened.’ I knew what I did.”
While he knew what the injury was from the way it felt and swelled, Carrasco didn’t want to believe it. After all, he had so much to lose.
Before the football season even started, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound defensive end already had an offer from Eastern New Mexico University. The student-athlete was in excellent standing academically for a football scholarship, and he was also about to enter his final year playing with his closest friends in Lovington.
He couldn’t afford to have a torn ACL, so Carrasco didn’t go to the doctor right away.
Months passed, and Carrasco even tried to play summer basketball on his busted knee. Carrasco said he was fine playing on it with the exception of one moment where he might have made the initial injury worse. He even considered just playing his senior year without any medical treatment.
But it eventually became clear to him that football was too physical for him to play through it, and he felt he might as well just get surgery.
So, in July, an MRI in Mexico revealed the official diagnoses of the tears, and his uncle helped him schedule surgery in Roswell a month later. Come August, he was officially out and needed to rehab before playing again.
“I was just frustrated that it happened,” Carrasco said. “That’s the only emotion I had. I was just frustrated all the time.”
Carrasco said the actual rehab wasn’t really all too arduous. It was upsetting when he’d think he was ready to be cleared for walking and wasn’t, but that was the only thing. Instead, most of his emotions just came from missing football.
Back in the summer, even before Carrasco underwent surgery, he met with Gonzales to say that he wouldn’t get to play his senior year. Gonzales recalls that as an emotional conversation he won’t ever forget.
Gonzales sat and talked with Carrasco about the situation, ensuring him that the team wouldn’t give up on him just because he couldn’t play. He urged Carrasco to accept this as a challenge to improve himself as a leader and person, and that’s exactly what Carrasco did.
Teammates noticed the frustrations and sadness Carrasco felt at certain stages of the year. As the Wildcats doubled their win total from the previous season through just the first three games, Carrasco had to play cheerleader. Lovington beat Goddard for the first time since 2003, and Carrasco was on the sidelines for it. He missed a lot of big moments, and Carrasco would have weekly conversations with Cesareo about how much he wanted to be out there.
Other guys on the team saw it too.
“You could tell he really wanted to be out there,” said Isaiah Hinson, who also plays football and basketball. “After every game he was happy for us, but there was that little bit of sorrow.”
Then again, Carrasco didn’t really miss any big moments.
It’s hard to when you show up to every single practice and game, and emerge as more of a vocal leader. After all, his teammates voted him captain before the season started. He had a job to do, and he did it well.
Carrasco made sure everyone stayed excited on the sidelines. He’d yell at teammates if he caught them goofing off when they needed to be serious. Gonzales and Cesareo were both proud of the way Carrasco handled his situation, and though he had lost his offer from ENMU, Carrasco made the best of what he could do for his brothers on the Wildcats football team with no complaints.
“Most people who get hurt, they would stay in (the athletic training room) and then, when the season would start, they would just give up,” Cesareo said. “But him, he went to every practice, he went to every game. It didn’t matter.”
“You can use (injury) as motivation for yourself to try to find a way to get better as a person and be a good leader for your team. And I felt like that’s what he was,” Gonzales also said of Carrasco’s response. “That kid, even though he never was able to practice, he was at every single practice. Was at every single meeting. I’d turn around right in the middle of a game, and he’s right behind us jumping, hooping and hollering for us. He tried to help our team, and he did in every way possible. … Speaks volumes about his character.”
For obvious reasons, he missed football. But finally, around five months after the surgery took away one sport, Carrasco was cleared for another.
One day before the Lovington boys’ basketball team played at home against Portales on Jan. 9, Carrasco was a full go for practicing and playing. It would have been nice for his debut to come in front of a Lovington crowd, but the dressed senior had to wait a couple more days for his first game.
On Jan. 13 against Los Alamos, with a brace hugged around his knee, Carrasco’s wait was over. He played, he thrived, and finished with 11 points in a win.
Teel gave him a hug, told him “welcome back.” First-year Wildcats head coach Ezau Rios finally got his second dominant big man to rotate with Colby Vancleve. Teammates showed support by congratulating him on a good effort, and Carrasco was pleased everything was nearly back to normal.
“I was ready,” Carrasco said. “I was so happy. Finally my hard work had paid off.”
“The next practice, when he came back, he was really excited. Everybody was happy to see him back,” added other football and basketball teammate Isaiah Brown.
That joy is clear to anybody that pays any attention to him, even in games where things aren’t going so well.
Midway through the third quarter of a Feb. 2 home matchup against Roswell, Lovington trailed by double digits. The Coyotes had rocked the Wildcats all game, and things were so bleak, the normally raucous Lovington crowd had even lost its fight.
But there was Carrasco, sprinting his way down the court on offense. He found his way to the right block, back to a defender. Once he got the ball, he spun to his left, setting up a contested one-handed shot that banked into the basket off the glass. Carrasco instantly hopped into a jog down the court, smiling as much as his modest personality would let him.
And that knee brace that takes up a large chunk of his meaty right leg? It didn’t bother him one bit. Carrasco was playing, and he had just started a rally that nearly saw Lovington come back for a win.
“We didn’t know if he was going to get released or not … we didn’t know he was going to be able to play again this season,” Hinson said. “It’s just a blessing for him, for all of us actually, for him to get to play the rest of his senior year.”
It’s now a few weeks later, and Carrasco still isn’t really 100 percent back. Well, at least to Teel, anyway.
Carrasco moves fine. His confidence that the knee will hold up is fine too. Teel has just known Carrasco for a very long time, and he says the 50-60 percent shooting he’d have on the block before isn’t there right now. Carrasco was automatic before, and now seems 50-50. Teel believes there will be that one moment where it will click for Carrasco as the Lovington boys’ basketball team gets ready for the playoffs. But it hasn’t happened yet.
Either way, the senior big man isn’t just a voice anymore. He’s back in action in a big role, and those around him believe nobody deserves it more.
Finally, Carrasco is back to normal.