St. Mary’s athlete looks ahead after tragedy, loss and injury

KEVIN CARMODY Updated: January 1, 2013 at 12:00 am • Published: January 1, 2013

He cracks a smile when thinking about the year ahead. For St. Mary’s junior Robert Ralston, smiles have been pretty hard to come by lately.

Perhaps 2013 will provide plenty of highlights, showing faith, determination and perseverance can pay off as he works back to the football field. And normalcy.

“I’m excited and a little nervous to finally get back to doing what I usually do,” Ralston said. “Everything that’s happened, it tests your spirit and strength.”

It starts on New Year’s Day when he and his mom, Doris, partake in the family’s longtime tradition of eating black-eyed peas.

That tradition dates back to their home on Courtney Drive, which burned to the ground June 26 in the Waldo Canyon fire. And it included Grant, Robert’s father, a former lieutenant colonel in the Air Force who died unexpectedly six years ago at the age of 51 while on a Cub Scout trip at Farish Recreation Area near Woodland Park.

One month after the trauma of losing his house, Ralston figured he could leave those memories, and others, behind while on the football field. But on a defensive drill, he suffered a torn ACL and two meniscus tears in his right knee. He underwent two surgeries and physical therapy three times a week. Now he’s aiming at putting the knee to the test for track season this spring.

“He’s been better about this than I have,” Doris said. “He’s been through a lot. In less than six years, he lost a father, two grandfathers and a home. And with the house, for him it was like losing his father all over again. But we made it, and we’re determined to move forward.”

His off-the-field contributions have not been lost on the Pirates. Despite finding himself on the field for a only a handful of plays on special teams as a sophomore and relegated to a spectator last year, his teammates gave him the ultimate vote of respect and leadership, choosing him as one of two captains for the upcoming season.

“That was probably the highlight of my season, at the banquet when he was announced captain,” Pirates senior Aiden Tiernan said. “He deserves it more than anybody. He’s had a tough life and is the most humble person I’ve ever met. He is unanimously loved by everybody at the school.”

Tiernan even changed his number, from 11 to 28, to mirror Ralston’s No. 82.

“It was my way of letting him know he was still very much part of the team,” Tiernan said. “When I got tired last year, I’d look to the sidelines, see him and get motivated. Nothing compares to what he’s been through, and that definitely puts everything in perspective.”

The decision not to rebuild in Mountain Shadows meant bidding farewell to a lifetime home, but the opportunity to move into another home nearby before school started gave the family a big step in a return to normalcy.

Piece by piece, their new home on Solitude Lane in the Peregrine subdivision began to take shape. Some things were salvaged from the ruins, such as documents, pictures and even Grant’s American flag he received upon his retirement from the Air Force. Ironically, the stable that accompanied the nativity scene burned, but all the figures survived. They, like the Ralstons, found a new shelter.

“There’s no form of adversity that he can’t overcome,” St. Mary’s football and wrestling coach Nic Olney said. “I’m sure he’ll definitely overcome and exceed all our expectations. He’s a heck of a football player and loves being out there for the guys. Even though he blew out his knee, he was at every single practice after that. That’s why the kids rally behind him.”

They rallied to replace some of Ralston’s items lost in the fire. Following a team trip to Denver to visit a children’s hospital as part of a school charity event, they joined forces at Dave & Buster’s Restaurant, earning and redeeming about 70,000 tickets for a PlayStation 3 and a poker table.

Ralston, who was helping put his new home together after Doris closed on the house Aug. 10, had no idea such an effort was under way. He was presented the gifts at practice the next day.

“The support has been wonderful, and no one ever thinks any of this will happen to them,” Doris said. “I speak for Robert when I say I’m looking forward to a new start, in this house, and for the new year to bring new blessings.”

The thought of that makes both of them crack a smile.

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