By Chris Emma

By Chris Emma—

(670 The Score) Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.

On countless occasions, Bears tight end Zach Miller has heard the familiar phrase. In the world of professional football, it’s there as encouragement after a bad drop, a missed tackle, a heartbreaking defeat. For Miller, the message now means something different.

Miller nearly lost his left leg during a late October game in New Orleans after an awkward landing caused a torn popliteal artery. He was rushed in for emergency vascular surgery, with an NFL medical staff’s awareness and the heroic efforts of those at a level-one trauma center saving his leg.

Miller walked his first steps without the aid of crutches Sunday. In the weeks since his injury, he has brought himself back to that day in New Orleans and realized how fortunate he was. Some 1,700 miles away in Temecula, California, there’s a 16-year-old quarterback named Alex Ruiz who suffered a similar injury and will endure a different fate.

A junior quarterback for Linfield Christian School, Ruiz was running a zone-read option and opted to keep the football. He was caught up at the line of scrimmage but tried to step over the pile. His right leg snapped, and he went down in pain and panic. Ruiz recalls every detail from that moment – Oct. 6, 7:30 p.m. PT, the 15th play of a game against Ontario Christian – when his life changed forever.

Ruiz was rushed to a hospital, where his dislocated knee was popped back into place. The belief was that he was OK. Twelve hours later, there was no pulse in his right foot. He, too, had torn the popliteal artery, but it was discovered too late. In the coming months, Ruiz will have his foot amputated and replaced with a prosthetic.

He spent nearly seven weeks hospitalized and underwent two procedures. There’s now constant treatment, maintenance and rehabilitation leading to the prosthetic. During his time in the hospital, Ruiz watched the awful injury to Miller unfold live. He never imagined what it could be until news came out that Miller would undergo emergency vascular surgery – a successful procedure that saved his left leg.

Miller received an incredible outpouring of calls, texts and messages from friends and strangers around the world. There was one in particular that moved him. It was direct message of Ruiz’s mother, Shirley, who reached Miller’s Instagram with Alex’s story. On Nov. 24, three days after Miller left a hospital and returned home, Ruiz received a surprise text message from Miller.

I’m going through this with you!

I’ll probably be leaning on you more than you’re leaning on me!

Well we are in some tough times. But we will get through it!

Keep on doing your thing and win the little victories each day!

Tough times don’t last, brother. Tough people do.

“It was kind of a surreal moment,” Ruiz said after he re-read Miller’s words.

With one lengthy and encouraging text, a unique friendship was sparked between a 33-year-old NFL tight end and 16-year-old high school quarterback leaning on each other during extraordinary challenges. Miller has spent the month since their first correspondence getting movement back in his left knee, which has since endured eight procedures. Ruiz is waiting for his amputation and the return of normalcy to his life.

Ruiz was forced to choose between living with a right leg limited in function or amputation and a prosthetic. The choice was clear – he wouldn’t be restricted to anything.

“I don’t look at it as I’m losing my leg,” Ruiz said. “I’m getting the opportunity to do the things that I love. That’s really how I think about it. I look at people with prosthetics now and I don’t think of them any different. They live a normal and happy life, and I don’t see why I can’t do that.”

Miller had texted Ruiz on Tuesday afternoon. Their conversations are frequent each week, often daily. The common theme is hope. They update each other on progress in their recoveries and push each other in their rehabs. Miller leans on Ruiz. Ruiz leans on Miller.

They’re inspirations for each other.

“I appreciate him more than words can describe,” Ruiz said. “He helps me so much.

“He is always there for me.”

Added Miller of Ruiz: “Remarkable young man.”

Ruiz will have a different holiday break than usual. He’s stuck making up classes missed during his weeks in the hospital. In the meantime, he goes through extensive physical therapy to restore motion in the leg and keep his body active. Ruiz often finds advice and comfort by texting Miller. So often, when he needs the push, Miller is there with a message.

For Miller, Ruiz is every bit the inspiration. He sees a 16-year-old kid with an incredible perspective on life and plenty of advice of his own. After all, Miller said he would lean on Ruiz more than Ruiz would lean on him.

“I tried to tell him it gets better,” Ruiz said. “Our body adjusts to certain things. I try to uplift him with that because there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Ruiz will soon find his light with the amputation – something he looks forward to. Reaching the decision wasn’t easy, though the inspiration of those close to him eased his mind. He wears an extensive brace on his right leg, navigating the house with a walker and moving outside with a wheelchair.

Ruiz now has a different respect for the day-to-day tasks like getting dressed and moving up inclines, types of tasks that limit him now before the upcoming amputation.

“I didn’t want any restrictions to my life and how I’d have to function,” Ruiz said. “I wanted to be as mobile as I was before the injury. I thought the prosthetic gave me the best chance to do it.

“I never thought I’d have to make that decision in my life. But with the help of my friends, family and mentors I talked to, they don’t know me as somebody restricted to anything.

“Honestly, everything is (good) in my mind. I’m kind of tired of my leg right now. I want it off.”

The inspiration of a mind at peace came from countless people in Ruiz’s life, including such an unlikely source in Miller.

Days after Ruiz suffered his injury, he laid in a hospital bed as Miller hauled in a touchdown pass on Monday Night Football – one that benefited Ruiz’s fantasy football team. Their paths would soon cross through daunting circumstances and unwavering support of each other.

Two incredibly strong individuals vowed to be there for each other every step of the way.

“Our stories are the same, but with different outcomes,” Ruiz said. “But that doesn’t change anything. I’m still going to be able to walk and have a life, just like he is.

“I want to be walking with him.”

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670 The Score 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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