There was an aura of invincibility when Justin Fargas carried the football for Notre Dame High. He'd hurdle linemen, barrel over linebackers, run away from defensive backs.
"I didn't think my bones could break," he said.
Everything changed last November in Ann Arbor, Mich. Fargas, a freshman tailback at Michigan, broke his right leg just above his ankle running the ball against Wisconsin.
"It was like somebody fell from a five-story building or had been in a major-car accident," Fargas said. "It was bad."
He had surgery two days later and spent three months on crutches. But the crisis was only beginning. The swelling wasn't dissipating. An X-ray taken just before Fargas returned home for spring break confirmed his worst fears--the bone was not healing properly.
Fargas underwent a second surgery at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in March. Two metal plates were inserted into his leg. There were whispers that his football career was over.
"There's always people watching and wondering what's going on when you're not on the field," he said. "That gives them more reason to think, 'He can't do it.' What I have to do is take my work ethic and my determination to another level. Those same people who are doubting me are going to be wide-eyed when I'm back doing my thing."
Sitting on a sofa chair in his parents' Encino condominium, Fargas had a steely look as he talked about a freshman year that tested his faith and challenged the surest of assumptions.
He came to Michigan fit and feted. He was the most prized freshman tailback in the nation after rushing for 6,293 yards and 76 touchdowns in three seasons at Notre Dame. He was the fastest running back from California, a former state 100-meter champion.
His injury was something he was unprepared for. At first, he thought his broken leg was a minor setback. He'd heal in three months and be back in time for spring practice.
Then came the second surgery. It left him reeling.
"It really got me down," he said. "Then I learned I wouldn't be able to play the next year. It's something I've never experienced before. It was one of the toughest things I've had to deal with."
After surgery, he rested at home, surrounded by family and friends. He felt comfortable--maybe too comfortable. There was a real question whether he would board a plane back to Michigan.
"I could have folded and been like, 'Man, I can't do this' and feel sorry for myself," he said. "But I finally got my motivation up and decided I was going to work real hard."
He got on the plane, returned to finish his classes and began his rehabilitation. After three more months on crutches, he is walking on his own.
A third surgery is scheduled for Thursday in Los Angeles to repair a tendon in his toe. After that, he'll be able to start running again. By January, he plans to compete in indoor track. By September of 2000, he intends to be Michigan's starting tailback.
"I know I'm the same football player that was highly recruited out of high school," Fargas said. "Whatever [recruiters] saw, I still have that in me."
Fargas has a better appreciation for the little things in life.
"I saw how quick the game can be taken away from you," he said. "I'll never take for granted running, walking, getting juice from the refrigerator. Those are things people don't realize how lucky we are to be able to do."
On Tuesday, Fargas went on a fishing trip with his father, Antonio, who caught a 35-pound halibut.
Justin caught nothing.
"I'm going to retire from that game," he said. "I wish I could have caught a boot, an eel or something."
But spending eight hours on a boat with his father gave Fargas, 19, time to reflect on the past and point toward the future.
When fall football practice begins next month at Michigan, Fargas won't be on the field. He said he'll be in the weight room strengthening his leg. When the team is on trips, he said he'll be in the weight room working on his stamina.
Sweat, blood, tears--whatever it takes to return, Fargas vows to do it.
"God willing, if I heal up correctly, it's going to happen," he said. "I'm going to be a better football player when I get back on the field."
Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422 or firstname.lastname@example.org