Injury, appeal won’t slow Santiago’s drive

Tribune Chronicle / John Vargo Youngstown State University basketball player Francisco Santiago works out as he rehabs an ACL injury.

YOUNGSTOWN — There are words one shouldn’t use around Francisco Santiago.

No. Cannot. Quit. Those are not in his vocabulary.

The 6-foot-1 point guard has a hard time comprehending where others fall short. It’s in the Youngstown State basketball player’s DNA.

Santiago tore his ACL during a summer-league game in 2017. He was told numerous times he couldn’t get an extra year of eligibility. The NCAA wouldn’t grant it. So, instead of opting for surgery, tried to power through on one leg. His quick, slashing moves and insatiable aggression on the court seemed all but gone. Santiago wouldn’t submit to the negativity.

That late-November game against Robert Morris, with a protective brace precariously guarding his wounded knee, couldn’t stop the blunt force trauma of a devastating blow by the opposition. The season ended for the senior guard.

He had the surgery more than one month later. The process began.

“I had no doubt in myself going out there on one ACL,” Santiago said. “I just tried it. Probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. I believe in myself. I have a great support system from my family, all the way out here.”

His mother, Janet Montoya, her son’s biggest advocate, even to this day is furiously researching any possibility for his sixth year of eligibility, which was initially denied. They are waiting for the appeal.

They are not taking no for an answer, not even from the NCAA. It’s Santiago’s nature.

He recently graduated from YSU and walked across the stage, something that wasn’t fathomable a couple months ago. Then, he hobbled around on crutches, something that wasn’t going to define the Cleveland native.

The clunky, black brace is gone, so are his walking aids. He takes stairs wherever he goes and doesn’t ride on short trips when he can walk.

YSU Assistant Athletic Trainer Todd Burkey, who has worked with Santiago in every step of this process, sees the swelling in the knee has disappeared. The right leg can fully straighten.

Doctors at UPMC gave the all clear to amp up the training regiment — to an extent. No basketball, high-intensity jump, intense sprinting or running at this time.

“We’re still allowing for his knee to heal along the process,” Burkey said. “He’s progressed far enough and long enough that we can start doing heavier loads and working at high speeds and jumping at high speeds. That’s going to come later on this summer.

“We have to take time to make sure the structures they’ve repaired in there are fully healed. He may want to advance quicker than that, but we have to be cautious.”

Santiago is working on his upper body with some 50-pound dumbbells, powering them harder each time. He tests the strength of the resistance bands inside the YSU weight room as his knee becomes stronger with each passing day.

Speed training follows at the WATTS, with 150 meters light sprint and 150 walk.

Whenever he’s cleared to do something, Santiago goes at it full force.

“Looking down at my legs, see how fast they’re moving right now, I was just happy to be able to do that,” he said.

He’ll get an MRI in July to see his leg strength. The ultrasound on May 7 was quite favorable.

“I should be really excited how it looks four months out,” Santiago said.

By then, he should have an answer. If the NCAA denies him again, he’ll look to play overseas or, if he’s not ready for that step, try to be a graduate assistant for YSU.

Penguins coach Jerrod Calhoun said it’s a possibility.

The YSU mentor is happy to see Santiago hasn’t skipped any steps in his rehabilitation. Mentally, there’s no way he would be denied.

“He’s a strong-willed kid,” Calhoun said. “You have to credit his parents for that.”

Now, is the NCAA going to be the dark cloud in Santiago’s progress, denying what this organization promotes — a student-athlete?

Santiago keeps praying every day this appeal is in his favor, but realizes there are other possibilities.

“My family and I have been through a lot over the years,” he said. “I see how mentally tough my family has been, their ups and downs. I have no choice to be just like them. They give me a lot of hope, a lot of encouragement.

“That’s why I stayed level-headed.”

If you haven’t figured out why Santiago won’t quit trying, shame on you.