Making Their Way Back From Serious Injuries

Times Staff Writer

As the emotional leader of San Gabriel High's defense, Kevin Harris always exhorted his football teammates to push themselves hard and hit opponents harder -- and reveled in showing them how to do it.

However, the player nicknamed "Superman" provided even more inspiration by returning to the lineup for the Matadors' regular-season finale Friday, just seven weeks after sustaining multiple gunshot wounds.

"I always let them know what was on my mind," said Harris, a senior middle linebacker and team captain. "Now I can talk and play, and hopefully, inspire them both ways."

Similar sources of incentive abound, because Harris' comeback is just one of several remarkable recoveries by football players who suffered serious injuries -- some of them life-threatening -- in the last few months.

Michael Rivas, a junior running back for Westlake Village Oaks Christian, used to run around or through tacklers. Now he is learning to stand and walk on a prosthetic leg.

He tried one for the first time on Wednesday.

"Up to now, I've thought about it and tried to think what it might be like," said Rivas, whose left leg was amputated just below the knee as a result of injuries he sustained in a car accident.

"Well, this was the first time there was no imagining things anymore. It's real. My leg's gone, and this is how it's going to be for the rest of my life."

Felix Munoz, who was starting at quarterback for Santa Ana High, underwent brain surgery to remove a blood clot. He is under doctors' orders to wear a protective helmet.

"I think I'm extremely lucky. I thank God because he helped me out, you know?" said Munoz, who collapsed as the result of the clot during a game against Westminster five weeks ago.

Nick Zemke, a junior defensive back for Reseda High, also collapsed during a game as the result of a blood clot. He remains hospitalized but has regained movement in his limbs after suffering a stroke while he was in a coma. Two weeks ago, he spoke his first words since he was injured during a game against Woodland Hills El Camino Real on Sept. 19.

Agustin Galindo, a quiet, hard-working junior lineman for Woodland Hills Taft, always listened intently to coaches in his constant quest for improvement and playing time.

Now, with a bullet lodged in his left shoulder, he settles for watching practices. He was part of a group of students hit in a drive-by shooting near campus Sept. 9.

Only Harris is back on the playing field, but all except Zemke have returned to their teams' sideline for at least one game.

Rivas was greeted by a standing ovation from players and spectators when he rolled onto the track in a wheelchair to join teammates during the second quarter of Oaks Christian's game against Malibu Kilpatrick on Oct. 17.

Game officials called a timeout and play was stopped so Rivas' teammates could join in the welcome.

"I think it was a real uplifting experience for him to see how much all these people cared about him," Oaks Christian Coach Bill Redell said.

Joe Giuliani, an Oaks Christian receiver, said his friend's experience has been a lesson in perspective for everyone.

"It was a big shocker when it happened," he said. "Now it's sort of a new way to look at things. I find myself not driving as fast as I used to and thinking about things like that a little more now."

Even if most of the injured haven't been able to return to competition, just getting back on the sideline has brought them closer to what had been their routine.

"It helped me feel like I made it, even though I wasn't actually out there," said Harris, who was shot seven times in the legs and chest as he tried to break up a fight during a late-night house party Sept. 28.

Rivas lost his leg because of injuries he suffered in a three-car accident when the van he was driving was struck by a drunk driver headed south on a northbound freeway on Sept. 20.

But, despite their struggles, these athletes know they were fortunate.

Harris' long-time girlfriend, Anna Vazquez, 17, was shot in the head and died in the incident at the party. Three people were killed in the crash in which Rivas was injured, including one of four passengers in his vehicle. Two other victims of the drive-by shooting in which Galindo was hurt have more severe injuries.

Ruben Garcia, a Los Angeles Fremont player who suffered a head injury during a preseason practice, did not survive, as Munoz and Zemke have.

"The worst part was just the helplessness of it," said Frank Alvarado, Santa Ana's athletic director.

"You're just sitting there, waiting for the ambulance to come, waiting at the hospital, waiting for the surgery to be over, waiting to see if [Munoz was] going to be OK."

All indications are that Munoz will be. Eight days ago, he walked to midfield for the coin toss before the Saints' game against Saddleback.

"That felt so good, going back onto the football field," Munoz said.

"The announcers said my name and welcomed me back again, and I felt like crying. I didn't know what to do. I was just happy to be there."

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