Hayden His high school athletics career presumably over, Hayden High School senior Ryan Domson gave up his dream to play and did his best not to ask “what if.” Instead, he walked — hobbled, at first — out from the locker room with his team at every football game through the fall and gathered them together on the sidelines before kickoff.
Domson was to be the elite bruising running back on that championship-caliber squad, and even though that wasn’t going to happen, his voice still was loud, his words still respected, and as painful as it was to watch his friends and classmates preparing for games without him, the thought of not being involved at all stung even more.
He pulled his team together and before every game and they prayed.
“Dear Lord, the battle we go through in life, we ask for a chance that’s fair, a chance to equal our stride, a chance to do or dare.”
Even Domson wasn’t optimistic enough then to voice his hope for his own chance to “do or dare,” not after his left knee was shredded in a summer workout and his recovery was set between nine months and a year.
Against all odds and most medical logic, however, a chance is exactly what he earned Saturday.
Ryan Domson won the 182-pound division at the regional wrestling tournament, and when he suits back up Thursday at the state tournament in Denver, he’ll do so with a chance to win a state championship.
It was an audible “pop” on a hot July afternoon that all-but ruined Domson’s senior season.
The Tigers didn’t usually participate in summer team football camps because “someone will get hurt,” coach Shawn Baumgartner said.
But Hayden only was a month away from its first season of 8-man football, and while coaches and players thought they had a handle on what adjustments were required, it was the kind of switch that could change a man’s mind about a summer camp. So Hayden invited teams from across the region for several days of full-pads scrimmages.
It happened on Hayden’s very first offensive play.
“I was running to the right side. I cut, and one of their middle linebackers jumped on my back and I locked my knee out,” Domson said. “Then one of their corners hit my knee. I heard it pop.”
That one hit crushed Domson’s knee, ripping an alphabet soup of ligaments: ACL, PCL, FCL and, for good measure, the popliteus tendon.
Only one of the four major ligaments in the knee survived, but every doctor Domson and his parents, Rick and Rose Domson, consulted offered the same conclusion. He was out nine months. That meant April, at the least.
In a flash, football was gone, and even wrestling as the state tournament then seven months away.
Making the most of it
Rick Domson is like many fathers, beaming with pride for his son, reciting praise from teachers and stories of a hard working child as evidence of a well-rounded offspring.
He said he and Rose were wrecked by Ryan’s injury and all it could have meant.
Domson always had been an excellent wrestler, winning and placing high at state and national tournaments throughout his childhood, compiling a room full of medals.
It was wrestling that drew Ryan from Craig to a strong program Hayden for the end of junior high and all of high school.
As a high schooler, he made state twice and last year only a last-second mistake kept him from the championship match.
Still, in the summer before his senior season, football dominated Ryan’s life, and it was football that seemed to dictate his future. He’d been mailing out tapes from his 1,100-yard, four-touchdown junior season and letters from colleges were filling the mailbox.
Domson was days away from attending camp at Mesa State University in Grand Junction.
It seemed like a perfect opportunity.
“I never went to college,” Rick said. “Hardly anyone in the family has gone to college. ... It'd mean the world for me to see him go, if that’s what he wants.”
That was before the knee injury, however.
The family settled on the world-renowned Steadman Clinic in Vail for surgery, but the prognosis remained the same: nine months. At the least.
That’s a hard thing for a high school star on the verge of his biggest season to digest.
“Me and his mother, we were both sick, worried that he would just go off and get into trouble, start doing, ya know, bad things and not finish high school,” Rick said.
That’s not what happened, though. Instead, Domson devoted himself to the football team he couldn’t even play on, becoming its biggest cheerleader as it qualified for the state playoffs.
Rick said his grades actually improved. On the sidelines, Ryan did things as mundane as fetching water, as helpful as offering pep talks and as profound as leading the team’s pre-game prayer, borrowed from University of Nebraska.
“If we should win, let it be by the code, faith and honor held high, if we should lose, we’ll stand by the road and cheer as the winners go by.”
Earning a chance
While Domson helped lead the football team from off the field, he slowly recovered from surgery that had come at the hands of Dr. Robert LaPrade.
He ditched his crutches after six weeks, just before school started, and began working with Erin Monger-Rosso at Forever Fit in Steamboat Springs, at first four times per week.
He was cleared to run two weeks before that development was scheduled and as time passed he began to rebuild strength and endurance working at the gym, sailing with Monger-Rosso through kettle ball workouts, jumping routines and long stretches on a treadmill.
“I give her a lot of credit,” Rick said. “She’s the one who really got him going.”
Slowly, an idea started to take hold in the back of his mind.
Nine months to recover? That wasn’t set in stone, right?
When he returned to Vail for a December checkup, Domson broached the subject with LaPrade.
“He said, ‘I’ll make you a deal. If you pass an endurance test when you come back in January, I’ll release you to wrestle,'” Ryan said.
“I don’t think LaPrade thought he’d be able to pass the test or else he probably wouldn’t have told him that,” Rick added.
Ryan did pass the test Jan. 23, completing a series of timed routines with weighted belts.
Suddenly, a lost senior year had hope. Just 22 weeks into a supposed 36-week recovery, Ryan Domson was cleared to wrestle again, in time for the last meets of the season and the all-important state-qualifying regionals tournament.
The prayer begins with players on a knee, but ends with them on their feet, pushing together in a huddle, rising from a whisper to a shout.
“Day by day we get better, until we can’t be beat. Until we won’t be beat.”
In August, Domson hoped to inspire his teammates, but now he’s the one back in competition, and he has the best chance of any Routt County wrestler of bringing home a state championship at the tournament, which runs Thursday through Saturday at the Pepsi Center in Denver.
He didn’t come back quickly, waiting a week after he was cleared to take the mat. When he first did, wrestling in the Routt County Triangular on Feb. 7, he won his matches but was gasping for breath as he left the mat.
“At first I thought I was really out of shape,” he said. “Then I realized I was holding my breath for the entire match. I was so nervous.”
He said the work at Forever Fit helped prepare him to hit the mat running. He won twice before making the finals of last weekend’s regional tournament, and there he faced Paonia’s Morgan Reider, state runner-up in the division a year ago.
Domson beat Reider in last year’s regional tournament, too, winning a thrilling match after he fell behind 7-0. He was so exhausted afterward, he could barely walk away and he threw up in the hallway.
On Saturday, he built a lead early and held on to it, winning 7-3, remembering to breath the entire time.
“And it went three periods,” he said. “I wasn’t winded at all.”
The win was huge and it set him up with the No. 2 seed in the state tournament.
The knee has forced some change in style. He used his left leg extensively as a junior, but plans to retool to focus elsewhere this time.
That will matter, but only so much.
“Ryan is really intense, but his mental toughness is what makes him a great wrestler,” wrestling coach Chad Jones said.
Domson’s now has lived the prayer.
He won the battles in his life.
“I can’t believe it,” Rick said. “Nobody thought he’d be wrestling. It’s unbelievable, but he was strong enough and had enough will to work to get back to this point, and he never gave up.”
Now he has a chance to do or dare.
“He can finish as high as he wants,” Jones said. “He’s proven he's a champion off the mat, and now he can be a champion on it.”
Day by day he got better, and now, he plans to not be beat.