"Don't give up," he said with a look in his eyes of mourning and loss. "I had to ask myself how bad I wanted it."
Two years ago, Mike Ragone was a regular special teams contributor during his freshman season, catching only one pass for seven yards. He looked to be poised to be the main contributor at the tight end position especially with the departure of an Irish great and only a pair of freshmen coming into the fold. Then, at some point last summer, the sophomore was participating in non-contact, 7-on-7 drills when he was running a hook route that tore ligaments in his left knee. Once he planted his foot, he instantly knew something was awry. For as much as he wanted to compete in hopes of assisting his teammates, Ragone figured that surgery was inevitable, and at that point, a necessity.
"Playing my freshman year, and then watching John Carlson and seeing everything that he did, sort of being that freshman, that little rookie, and then going through spring, I was by myself, which also was tough," he said. "But I learned a lot. I feel like I'm ready to do this, and then, boom, things happen. Getting over sitting out the whole year, watching the games, watching my teammates, that was so tough and I just thought that I could be out there helping, being a part of it. And not being a part of everything, just makes me want to work harder and harder. It's hard to describe to you."
As fate would have it, this would be the second time that he has had to deal with injury keeping him out of playing football. During his senior season at Camden Catholic High School in New Jersey, the tight end sat out his entire senior year, rehabilitating an off-season injury to his knee. That is why the day that he decided to opt for surgery and forego his second year in the program was particularly devastating.
"Sad," was the only word he could find to describe that day. "Just heartbroken, I guess. Twice in like four years, it just hurts. It hurts mentally. It takes a real big toll on you."
Being his second major knee injury in such a short span of time, there was brief moment when Ragone thought that maybe his football career was in jeopardy. Then he remembered his commitment to the sport and what it would take to return to the field.
"Yeah, well at first," he said whether he thought his days of competitive football were numbered. "So many emotions went through my mind, every curse word in the book, and all that. I cried, and I never cry. I'm a pretty emotional dude, but, it just really hurt. It hurts more than anything in this entire world. Football is everything to me. It was just really, really heartbreaking."
In fact, the last time he ever recalls crying was prior to his freshman season at Notre Dame when he was forced to leave his parents, his two younger brothers, Matthew and Anthony, and his girlfriend, Kristin back at Camden, N.J.
The day he decided that he wouldn't play a down of football as a sophomore, however, brought a flood of emotional uncertainty that Ragone couldn't suppress. All he could do was to take a stroll down to the lake and contemplate his life for some time in isolation.
"I just sat down by the lake and just chilled and watched the lake and everything," Ragone recalls of that moment. "Just thought a lot about what was going on in my life."
That mid-summer afternoon is so vividly engrained in his mind, that the sophomore tight end can still picture his every step.
"I was there a couple of hours at least," he said. "I couldn't really eat, because I lost everything. I lost my appetite. I can picture it, myself doing it, just really upset. I didn't talk to anybody."
Digging deep in his soul and searching for answers was a frustrating process that he knew he would have to endure. At the end of the day, however, Ragone had no doubt in his mind that he had figured out what needed to be done.
"Yeah, but I'm not a quitter, so, there's no reason to quit. Just keep going along with it," he said of his final resolution that day.
Now that he is back with the squad and cleared for full-contact, Ragone is still at the stage where he is undergoing rehab, as he builds his knee's strength back to where it was. The ordeal came with some pain, both mental and physical. Discomfort, however, is something that the tight end has grown quite accustomed to.
"Pain is pain," Ragone said. "It is what it is. I don't know, it's there. It's there with everybody. Everybody is going through pain. … Like you said, I've already been through this before, so if I'm not in pain, I'm not the same person. I'm like, ‘what's going on here? Something's wrong.'"
Thinking back to that day recalls obvious suffering that Mike Ragone has had to withstand. The entire, process, frustrating in nature, has clearly left some scars that become evident in his eyes and speech when he recollects those summer days leading up to a potentially promising season. It has also allowed him not to take anything for granted. Most importantly, however, it has taught him a great deal about perseverance and the determination that is necessary when attaining one's dreams.
"That I'm a fighter," he responded when asked what he has acquired throughout the pain. "That I didn't give up, but I could've gave up."