St. John Bosco defensive lineman Sal Spina works to get back on the field after a knee injury

on Aug20

There were dozens of college football recruiters wandering around the practice field at Bellflower St. John Bosco on a spring showcase day. The Braves have more than 20 players with scholarship offers, but there was also a free barbecue with free beer afterward, so the recruiters should have been put under oath to swear why they were really there.

Wearing a backpack and shorts was 6-foot-3, 280-pound defensive lineman Sal Spina. He also was wandering the field but wasn’t allowed to play. There was a three-inch scar on his right knee that was a hint to his absence.

On Halloween, he underwent surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Talk about nightmarish scenarios for an athlete. He was home for close to two weeks lying on the couch and thinking about his future. Is football over? Can I still get a scholarship? How much work will it take to return at full strength?

For any athlete, let alone a teenager, those are big, uncertain questions that require maturity to move forward and a strong determination to turn adversity into triumph.

“I could barely walk,” Spina said of those early days following surgery. “It was hard. I wasn’t able to go to a lot of practices. I had to go to therapy for most of the rest of the season.”

The injury occurred in the second quarter of a game against Santa Margarita.

“It popped,” he said.

So began Spina’s ordeal and test of will. By all accounts, he is coming back stronger, faster and wiser. And he has always been pretty wise: He has a 4.4 grade-point average.

“It’s a lot of hard work to get back to where I am now,” he said. “I’ve got more work to go but it’s a motivation for sure. It’s more than just coming out to practice. It’s kind of a 24/7 thing for me. You have to be careful about it and stretch more than I’ve ever stretched before.”

Spina was a key run stopper for the Braves before his injury. He missed out on St. John Bosco winning the Southern Section Division 1 title and CIF Open Division title. He’s expected to be cleared for competition late this month and is changing his focus.

“I put on some weight last season to play nose tackle and I took it off for my rehab,” he said. “I’ll be a faster player this year and more disruptive in the backfield.”

There is little doubt that Spina is a throwback to the days of years ago, when players made a decision about what school to attend and stuck to it through the inevitable ups and downs. His father, Jim, attended St. John Bosco, but Sal lives in Pasadena and was friends with lots of Loyola High players.

His father told him he could choose his school under one condition: Once there, there would be no turning back even though there were 16,595 sports transfers in California in 2016-17.

“We weren’t going to participate in the transfer show,” Sal Spina said. “We were going to be there four years regardless if I played or didn’t. If I didn’t like my friends, regardless of anything. I like having a second home and family.”

His mother ended up driving him to school every day until he got his license as a sophomore. That’s a 50-minute drive one way. That’s a lot of gas money he owes Mom.

“Oh my God, way more than that,” he said.

He has a dozen scholarship offers and surely more will come once he proves his health during a game this fall. Coach Jason Negro said he will be treating Spina like a pitcher coming back from elbow ligament replacement surgery. The Braves will bring him along slowly to make sure he’s in top form by the playoffs in November and December.

Most importantly, the injury taught Spina that life can’t just revolve around football. But while it lasts, he intends to enjoy every second.

“It definitely revived my love for it,” he said.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

Follow Eric Sondheimer Twitter @latsondheimer



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