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Not even rare injury can hold down Dylan Murphy’s competitive nature

Photo by Meagan Garton, La Habra Journal
Photo by Meagan Garton, La Habra Journal

by Nathan Percy
La Habra Journal

On a relatively cool September night at Whittier College, Dylan Murphy was playing a typical game at strong safety for the Whittier Christian football team despite a lopsided score favoring its opponent, St. Margaret’s.

The senior was once again leading his team’s defensive unit in tackles, flying all over the field in a weekly quest to shut down his opponent’s skill players.

In the fourth quarter, Dylan was in motion to make his team-leading 15th tackle of the night on St. Margaret’s quarterback Josh Davis while he was scrambling out of the pocket and finding space to gain yards.

Trying to avoid contact, Davis slid while Dylan dove in. Davis’ knee – lifted off the ground – made contact with Dylan’s outer left thigh.

“When I hit him, I thought it hurt a little bit, but I thought it was just a dead leg,” Dylan recalled. “When I came back in, I realized something wasn’t right, so I pulled myself back out.”

What couldn’t be seen by the naked eye that night, was just how much damage had been done by that one seemingly insignificant amount of contact, which would send Dylan through a two-month long journey that started with his playing career in jeopardy and ended with a clear vision and a reassurance of his faith.

A PROMISING SEASON

Dylan came into his senior football season at Whittier Christian with some lofty expectations, the result of an outstanding junior season that landed him the Olympic League’s Defensive Player of the Year award.

Playing strong safety, Dylan was known by Heralds’ head coach Sergio Gradilla as a well-rounded member of the Heralds’ secondary who was as strong at stopping the run as he was tackling receivers.

“Going in, we knew we were going to be good defensively, it was the second year running our system,” Gradilla said. “But we also went in knowing that the one person we couldn’t afford to lose was Dylan. He was bound to have a great year and he started it that way.”

Indeed, Dylan was off to a blazing start during the first three games of the season, leading the team by a wide margin in tackles and forcing a pair of fumbles.

He took it a step further against a much tougher opponent in St. Margaret’s, on Sept. 20, 2013.

Already with 14 tackles, a sack and an interception by the start of the fourth quarter, Dylan noticed Davis running in his direction.

However, at the last second, Davis slid to avoid contact. Dylan, already in motion to make a tackle, landed on top of him.

“You almost never see a high school quarterback slide,” Gradilla said. “But he did and his knee went right into Dylan’s thigh.”

Later that night, Dylan confided in his mother, Denine Ryder, saying the injury may prevent him from playing in his club soccer game the following morning.

Ryder, having seen Dylan go through minor injuries in the past, didn’t initially think much of the condition.

“When it happened, I was thinking ‘Oh, you’re fine’, but he was thinking he wouldn’t be able to play in his soccer game,” Ryder said. “I didn’t think it was an issue, so I just told him to shake it off, let’s not make it an issue if it’s not one.”

After a painful night with little sleep, Dylan went to the Heralds’ morning film session, followed by a trip to watch the junior varsity team play.

Dylan then went to his club soccer game, watching from the sidelines, before returning home at approximately 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013.

“When he got home, I saw it and went ‘Oh my gosh!’” Ryder said. “It looked like it had doubled in size.”

A SUDDEN TURN OF EVENTS

After seeing how severely Dylan’s left leg had swelled, Ryder rushed him to urgent care at Presbyterian Hospital in Whittier.

Shortly after being admitted, the two were introduced to Dr. Amir Rounaghi, who played a pivotal role in getting timely treatment for Dylan.

After conducting a test to determine the amount of internal bleeding, Dr. Rounaghi diagnosed Dylan with Compartment Syndrome, a condition where severe swelling cuts off the flow of blood and oxygen to the affected muscle compartment.

An hour later, Dylan was rushed into surgery.

“[Dr. Rounaghi] told us that if this was his child, he would say do it, don’t hesitate,” Ryder said. “When he told us one hour, my jaw dropped, but before I could say anything, Dylan said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I was so amazed that he handled it in such a mature manner.”

In surgery, Dr. Rounaghi cut open the muscle to alleviate the pressure in Dylan’s leg due to the swelling and inserted a wound vacuum to drain the internal bleeding.

During the procedure, Dr. Rounaghi also removed five large blood clots from Dylan’s leg.

Had he waited four hours later to get checked, Dylan risked losing all function of the muscle. Had he waited until the next morning, he risked having his leg amputated.

“God definitely knew what He was doing and knew when it was the right time for me to go in, it was definitely Him,” Dylan said. “To speak on the rarity of the injury, [Dr. Rounaghi] said it was the first time in his career that he had done that surgery.”

Despite an initial recovery time of at least 3-5 months, Dylan made it a point to be there for every football game, even showing up to Salesian High School in a wheelchair less than a week later, the wound vacuum still attached.

“To me, it showed that he was dedicated and he loved the sport,” said Mitchell Neller, a teammate of Dylan’s in both football and soccer. “We all know that he was the most competitive player, but even when he wasn’t suited up, he would be on the sideline giving us pointers on how to fix mistakes.”

For a brief time after the surgery, the injury took a toll on Dylan mentally, as he reflected on the possibility of the end of his high school playing career.

However, the faith he and his mom share, along with the overwhelming support of family, friends, teammates and school administrators, lifted his spirits quickly.

“There wasn’t a day in the hospital where half of his teammates weren’t there, we got so much support from everybody,” Ryder said. “Even through social media, we had an outpouring of emails and messages from people who were praying for him.”

Two weeks after his first operation and seeing that the wound was healing much quicker than expected, Dylan underwent a second operation by Dr. David A. Lewis, a colleague of Dr. Rounaghi, to close the wound.

Dylan Murphy was on the field for the coin toss in the Heralds' game against Valley Christian, a week after his second operation. Dylan was on the sideline for every Heralds game this season.
Dylan Murphy was on the field for the coin toss in the Heralds’ game against Valley Christian, a week after his second operation. Dylan was on the sideline for every Heralds game this season.

THE ROAD TO RECOVERY

From the first possible moment after his second operation, Dylan was doing light exercises to help rehab his left leg. That first possible moment was the day after the operation.

In addition, Dylan would visit Ryan Hartshorn at Fullerton Physical Therapy and Sports Care twice a week for two-hour sessions.

It was during his second session that Dylan really began to believe that he could make it on the field much sooner than anticipated.

“I was already on a bike,” he said. “The first time I did it, I wasn’t able to get [my leg] all the way around because I couldn’t bend it that far, but after getting through the bike and working, I thought ‘I could do this’, I just have to work hard at it.”

As if that wasn’t enough, Dylan also worked out at a local gym after sessions and on off days.

While he knew the extra work would pay off, he admitted that there were times where it tested his patience.

“I wasn’t angry, but I was frustrated because I knew I could make those motions, but my brain wouldn’t let me,” Dylan said. “It was really tough.”

After a month-and-a-half of intense physical therapy, Dylan rode on the bus with the Heralds’ soccer team for its season opener at Western Christian in Upland on Nov. 19, 2013, one day short of two months after the injury.

It wasn’t anticipated that Dylan would play, but during the second half, he walked up to his coach, Matt Rojas, and requested to be subbed in as a forward, rather than his usual spot as goalkeeper.

“I think that was more shocking to everyone else than it was to me, but looking back it was a little surprising,” Dylan said. “Running felt weird. It felt like one leg was on eight cylinders and the other was barely going, it was the weirdest feeling.”

Dylan wore a brace on his left knee to help distribute the pressure on his leg while running, but the move didn’t come without a scare or two from the outset.

“The first play he went in, he got slide-tackled on the same leg and I was worried,” Neller said. “But he got right back up and got the ball back and that pumped me up, I thought to myself, ‘I guess he’s all right’.”

A week later, Dylan opted to switch to goalkeeper to defend a penalty kick and did so successfully in the Heralds’ home opener, another big step in getting back to 100 percent.

Over a month later, Dylan was battling the flu in a road game at Heritage Christian. After deciding to sub in, the senior aggressively went after a loose ball and suffered a head-on collision with an opposing player, knocking both to the turf for several minutes.

Dylan started the Heralds’ next game.

“That in a nutshell is who he is,” Rojas said. “He wasn’t feeling good, he had a headache, but he’s not one to just sit and he said he was ready to go. He went out and challenged for every ball.”

A RENEWED VISION

While Dylan’s competitive spirit and playing style have not been altered by his injury, the senior admits that he has gained from the experience.

What Dylan takes away most is to be appreciative of his abilities and not just in athletics.

“It was a wake-up call to appreciate the things I have,” he said. “I have the ability to play sports, while there are others who don’t have that ability. I’m more appreciative of the things I’m capable of.”

In addition, he has a clearer vision of where he wants to go in life.

In October, about a week after his second operation, Dylan received confirmation that he was accepted to Grand Canyon University, according to Ryder.

Dylan said that he is thinking about trying out for the men’s soccer team as a walk-on athlete, but added that he was so inspired by the work of Dr. Rounaghi and Dr. Lewis that he wants a career geared toward orthopedic surgery.

“They had an impact in getting me back to where I am,” he said. “I want to help out others the same way that they helped me.”

Dylan attributes his character to his mother, who is his biggest role model.

However, she believes that she may have been even more inspired by the way he handled the entire process of the injury.

“He’s a fighter, he’s got passion and he put a lot of trust in his faith, but I think it helped him grow in his faith,” Ryder said. “He never went into that dark space and I attribute that not only to his faith, but the massive amount of support that he had from the moment it all started.”

The senior will have one final chance to play football before moving on to bigger things. In October, Dylan was sent an invitation by the Down Under Sports Competition on the Gold Coast of Australia to participate in an All-Star Football Tournament in Australia in June.

“I was surprised by it, I didn’t think that would be an option or an opportunity for me,” Dylan said of the invitation. “Considering my season was cut short, I thought it was something I needed to do. I’m really stoked about it, the chance to get out there one more time before I’m done.”

Started in 1995, the La Habra Journal is an independent community news source serving the cities of La Habra and La Habra Heights.