There’s Alex Ruiz, the quarterback at Linfield Christian School in Southern California, where Burns coaches, on his back at the 35-yard line Oct. 6, 2017. His knee bent at a 90-degree angle the wrong way. He couldn’t feel his right foot.
“I’m never playing again,” Ruiz told Burns, who tried to wedge his body between Ruiz’s leg and his eye line.
“No, no, no, don’t say that,” Burns said. “We don’t know that. We’ve seen worse.”
Ruiz, a junior, kept the ball on a running play and was stacked up by defenders at the line of scrimmage. He right foot stuck in the ground as he tried to wriggle out of a tackle, and the weight on his back popped the joint out of its socket, then ruptured an artery that circulated blood to his foot.
A month later, he had the limb amputated below the knee.
And now Ruiz is again his jovial self and a big man on campus at Linfield. He’s part of the Lions’ coaching staff while he undergoes further treatment. A local car dealership donated a brand new GMC Terrain, which he learned to drive left-footed.
A pair of Division III colleges offered him financial aid packages to join the team as a student coach, if he can’t play, or suit up at quarterback, if he learns to play with a prosthesis.
And about that: The Challenged Athletes Foundation donated his walking prosthesis. Drew Brees, the quarterback Ruiz has modeled his game after for years, presented him with the new leg May 11. As for his athletic prosthesis, Brees will pick up the tab for that, he said.
“God is all over this,” Burns says now. “You see that something is meant here. This isn’t happenstance. There’s a bigger reason.”
And yet Burns, who played at Southern California and was part of Steve Spurrier’s coaching staff with the Washington Redskins, cries when considering the enormity of the incident, when thinking about a 16-year-old making the decision to sever his own limb in pursuit of a normal life.
Doctors told Ruiz, if he kept the limb, that he would spend the rest of his life walking with the help of a boot and crutches. He would never be able to run or play sports again. He likely wouldn’t regain feeling beyond his knee.
The resident surgeon told him while he was playing “Call of Duty” in his hospital bed. He turned the game off, put headphones on and bawled.
“They said it was my decision,” he remembers. “The doctors weren’t going to make it for me. My parents weren’t going to make it for me. I had to decide for myself.”
A week later, his friends visited over the weekend, and he told them he had made up his mind. The leg would go.
“I decided,” he announced, “this is how I wanted to do life.”
“We sat there and cried and held hands,” he says now. “They made me realize, me without a leg, I’m still me.”
“When we spoke,” Burns said, “and he told me about his decision, he had to pull me through it, honestly. I bawled like a baby, and he just stopped me. And he said: ‘Coach, I need you to stop. It’s my decision. It’s something I want to do. I want to be able to play with my kids and run and do all that, and if I don’t get this done, I won’t. And don’t treat me differently.’ ”
Burns tries not to, but it’s hard. He has been around the game long enough to see a lot of injuries. His playing career ended in college with a neck injury. And he watched his son go through rehab and get on with his life.
The pair spoke at a community leadership breakfast recently about the ordeal. Ruiz went first and announced, unexpectedly, that if a future reconstructive knee surgery went well, he would try to play his senior season with the prosthesis.
“I had to step into the other room and gather myself,” Burns said. “I think it’s the totality — there was a limb that was removed. That changes things, whether you want to agree with it or not. That changes things. He’s 16 [now 17] years old. He won’t be able to run his feet in the sand or shower the same way or clip his toenails.”
And even though seemingly everything after the injury has gone right — the surgeries have been successful; Ruiz has formed a friendship with NFL tight end Zach Miller, who suffered a similar injury but without amputation; donations, including Brees’s, have poured in — Burns still sometimes stares into space and wonders why it all happened, and why he didn’t stop it.
“I don’t sleep well,” he said, “because I feel responsibility. It happened on my watch. I was the head coach.”
For a while, Ruiz was similarly distraught. What if he had handed the ball off? What if he had just gone down on the first hit?
“You can’t beat yourself up on it,” Burns told him. “Only him and God know how it happened on that play.”
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