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Turning a corner

West makes strong comeback from difficult season

Posted: Friday, October 17, 2003

There isn't much in-between with Ryan West.

The Juneau-Douglas High School senior has put everything he's got into forging a stellar season for the Crimson Bear football team - an effort rewarded with all-conference honors and a berth in Saturday's state title game.

But to reach the ultimate pinnacle, West had to recommit himself to his family, friends, coaches and team after putting all he had into going the wrong direction last year. Following the death of his father in 2001, he got into trouble with alcohol, drugs and the law, and was suspended from football for most of last season.

"I didn't think before my actions," West said. "I let a lot of people down."

"When Ryan takes something on, he takes it on full force," Ryan's mom, Linda West, said of her younger son. "He really commits himself to things. ...

"That's why last year was so tough for him, because he let his team down. That's probably the worst thing he felt he could do at that point."

Over the course of a year - with his own determination, the help of others and an ever-present goal of rejoining the Crimson Bear football team - Ryan West made it back on the right track.

•••••

Ryan West started playing football at age 10 at the urging of his father, Bill, and to prove his athletic skills to his older brother, Bret.

"I fell in love with it," West said. "I dropped all my other sports to play it. I love the contact; I love how that for things to work, it has to be a team (effort)."

He played for the Juneau Youth Football League Chargers, and was with the team when they won a national title on a memorable trip to Las Vegas in November 1999. He was one of the youngest kids on the team, but former Chargers coach Rich Sjoroos said West held his own on defense - and was a dominant force the next season.

West worked up through JYFL, and in 2001 he fulfilled a dream by playing alongside his older brother on the Crimson Bears defense. Things were looking bright for West that season - until his father died of a heart attack on Aug. 20, 2001.

West continued to play that season, holding his life together because of the sport.

"Football was there for me, but I had a lot of problems; I couldn't handle a lot of things," he said. "Once football ended, I went through the roof."

West fell under bad influences. He'd always been a good kid, but he started breaking rules and getting into trouble. The situation spiraled downward until the 2002 football season came around.

At the urging of his football friends, West cleaned up for the first few weeks of practice. But after winning MVP honors in Juneau's season-opening win over Kenai, West went out to celebrate, got into more trouble and was kicked off the team.

He spent some time in custody, some in counseling, some out of town - and he spent all of those months working through his past and finding out who he wanted to be.

"I figured out a lot of things in life - that I want to play football, that I want to go to college," West said. "I was able to grieve for my dad and focus.

"I set up a big game plan. I decided to let it help me and grow from it."

•••••

West rejoined the Crimson Bears over the summer for a preseason camp at Western Washington University. While there, he faced strict guidelines from the Juneau coaching staff.

"We told him right away that it was a real test to see if we could trust him, and he had really good self-discipline down there," head coach Reilly Richey said. "There have been bumps in the road, but they've been minor things."

Perhaps the toughest part of the camp for West was gaining acceptance among his peers.

"I knew a lot of kids probably had doubts about me, (wondering) if I still had those bad habits," West said.

West persevered, renewed old ties and demonstrated his commitment to the program. He got up and spoke to his team a few weeks later at the Southeast football camp. When it came time to vote for captains, West was one of four selected by the team.

"The kids voted him as a captain because they respect his playing ability and they saw how much he was trying to turn his life around," Richey said. "Nothing ever turns around completely and perfectly, but he's making a good effort."

"During that week, he had proven to everybody that he had changed, and that he had put football high on his priority list," said Sjoroos, who is now offensive coordinator for the Crimson Bears.

"I was pretty shocked (about being chosen a captain, but) I've changed myself around," West said. "I'm being a leader, and being healthy. I crack down on people now when I hear they're doing something that's not right. ...

"I try to share what I've been through."

•••••

Ryan West returned to action on the Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park field for the 2003 season opener against Ketchikan.

While he had played almost exclusively on defense for much of his career, West got to try out the fullback position and scored a touchdown against the Kings.

"It felt awesome being out on the field again," he said. "Your heart starts racing so much; you just want to go out and lay some hits. ...

"It gave me a spark. (I thought) 'This is why I worked so hard. This is why I want to play again.'"

All season long, football has been a key part of West's road back.

"Football is the best way to release stress," he said. "It can change your attitude."

"The focus and the support is there," Linda West said. "The other kids on the team have been so close (to Ryan)."

Richey said that when a player gets into trouble, the ultimate responsibility for turning things around falls to that individual. But he thinks that coaches can spur players to examine and assess their choices in life.

"As a coach, sometimes it's our job to get them to slow down and think about where they're going," he said. "If we can get them to slow down from running in the wrong direction so fast, there's a lot of value to that. ...

"Ryan has turned around and is going in the right direction."

Last week, prior to Juneau's victory over Lathrop in the state semifinals, the all-Cook Inlet Football Conference teams were announced. West made it on the first team twice - on defense as a linebacker, and on offense as a guard.

"We wouldn't trade him for anyone," Richey said. "In our books, he's one of our very best players. Both ways, he's very worthy of all-conference."

West is anxious to put Juneau on the state football map in Saturday's title game against East Anchorage.

"I want to make history," West said. "I want to be on the team that shows Juneau has the capability of being a great program."

But no matter what happens, West said he's proud of the progress he has made over the past year, and he is looking forward to seeing his "game plan" through to graduation.

"I'm exactly where I want to be," he said. "No matter if we win or lose, coming home from this Saturday's game I'm going to be happy either way."

• Andrew Krueger can be reached at akrueger@juneauempire.com.



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