MERCED – Ryan Kraft’s football life began as a youth player in the Calaveras County AMA program. He then moved on to Bret Harte High School, where he threw more varsity touchdown passes than anyone else in the history of the school and left in 2018 as perhaps the best to ever play the position wearing a Bullfrog uniform.
Once Kraft graduated from Bret Harte and entered the junior college level, his luck began to change. In 2019, Kraft enrolled at Cabrillo College and was primarily a backup quarterback. He got into four games, but had his freshman season cut short as, for the second time in as many years, Kraft suffered an ankle injury that required a “tightrope procedure,” which uses a bungee cord instead of screws in the ankle.
While rehabbing and putting his focus into the 2020 season, the world changed as COVID-19 put everything on hold, including college football. With one eye on Covid, Kraft kept his other on the 2020 Cabrillo season.
Unfortunately for Kraft, the Cabrillo program was suspended for two years in May, 2020 after violating conference rules. The school’s board of trustees voted to cancel the program after the school reported a violation of players receiving improper benefits to the California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA).
With no place to call home and COVID-19 putting a major question mark around the future of sports, Kraft had a decision to make: continue to pursue his football dreams, or accept defeat and be appreciative of the great career he had.
For Kraft, that was a simple decision.
Now, nearly two years after having his freshman season ended at Cabrillo, Kraft is back on the football field at Merced College and not only is he the starting quarterback, but he seems to have picked up right where he left off at Bret Harte.
“There was never a doubt that I wasn’t going to play again,” Kraft said. “I never thought that I’d hang it up, because I knew that everybody was going through the same thing. I wanted to do the best with the situation that I was given. I’m super grateful that we are able to play this year and I’m just trying to make the best of it.”
Kraft isn’t the only one who is happy that he’s playing in Merced. Head coach Bob Casey knows how good of an athlete he’s got at quarterback and has enjoyed the production he has seen from Kraft after six games.
“He’s a competitor and he’s a leader, and that’s what he brought being a little bit older, and that’s the biggest part of what he brings to the table,” Casey said. “Obviously he’s got a lot of talent and at the same time, he brings a different dynamic with his age to help lead this group.”
A blessing in disguise
When it comes to playing quarterback, Kraft isn’t afraid to take a hit. Because Kraft doesn’t shy away from contact, he has suffered a number of different injuries that have had lasting effects. During his senior year at Bret Harte, Kraft played on an injured ankle that required surgery. And then there was the other ankle injury he suffered at Cabrillo. Kraft has had plenty of injuries that have taken a toll on his body.
When COVID-19 hit and caused the 2020 season to be canceled, Kraft, for the first time since he was in elementary school, didn’t take a pounding on the football field. So, for the first time in over a decade, his body got the opportunity to rest and recover.
“Having that time off gave me the opportunity to heal up,” Kraft said. “It was really a big blessing in disguise. But there were thousands of those times where I was questioning if it was worth putting my body through this, and will it pay off? I just had to trust myself and make the best decisions I could make. For me, that’s just playing. If I get hurt, I get hurt, and I can’t control that.”
With a fresh body, a sharp mind and unwavering determination, Kraft was ready to tackle the 2021 season. But for the first time in his football career, Kraft had to battle for his position.
From the youth level to his four years at Bret Harte, there was no question that Kraft was the boy with the golden arm. At Cabrillo, for the first time in his life, he wasn’t the No. 1 quarterback on the depth chart, but he knew that his time would come and to just be patient.
At Merced, he earned the No. 1 spot, but felt that with each mistake he made, he was one play closer to being replaced. It wasn’t until a conversation he had with his coaches that Kraft felt comfortable with his job.
“When I came here, it was tough to trust the coaches and it literally took them to pull me aside and say, ‘Listen, we didn’t choose you for nothing; we believe in you,’” Kraft said. “Before that, I would make a mistake and I had doubts in myself. Once I realized that they are starting me for a reason, then it took a lot of weight off my shoulders and I felt much more confident.”
Even though Kraft is the starting quarterback, he still has a backup who is fighting for playing time. He also hears it from vocal fans when he does something wrong on the field. For offensive coordinator/quarterback coach Frank Borba, it’s Kraft’s ability not to dwell on the negatives that seem to be one of his biggest strengths.
“He does a great job of being a duck and letting the water just go off his feathers and taking the next series out there and competing like nothing happened,” Borba said. “To be a quarterback, you have to have a short memory and forget when things go wrong.”
Enjoying the moment
Through six games at Merced, the Blue Devils are 3-3, with two of their losses coming from a combined four points. During that time, Kraft has thrown for 1,109 yards and 10 touchdowns and is averaging 184.8 yards per game. In a 54-7 win over Los Medanos, Kraft was 14 for 22 for 245 yards and four touchdowns. He’s also rushed for 209 yards and two scores. Being a dual-threat quarterback has always been an advantage for Kraft.
“The thing with Ryan that makes him so good is his competitiveness,” Borba said. “My challenge as his OC and quarterback coach is getting him to understand the times he needs to be that guy and the times he needs to stay within the system. He’s done a great job as we’ve progressed through the season knowing the times he should be the gunslinger and knowing when he should stay within the system.”
Kraft has four more games scheduled at Merced and at the end of the season, his junior college life will be complete. Kraft is getting his AA at the conclusion of the fall semester, and he plans on attending a four-year university where he will once again find himself on the football field.
But when it comes to what uniform Kraft will be wearing in the fall of 2022, he said, “At the beginning of the year, I was really putting a lot of pressure on myself trying to figure it out, but the coaches talked to me and took that weight off my shoulders. All I can do is ball-out here and I can’t be stressed out as to where I’m going to go. I need to focus on getting good film first. My focus shifted to being here, getting my best film, winning and doing this together as a team.”
From his time learning to throw a football at AMA, to being the big Bullfrog in the small pond and breaking records at Bret Harte, to having multiple surgeries and fighting back for another opportunity to play, Kraft has always done it for one reason: he loves football.
“I just love it,” Kraft said. “I love this game, and I love the relationships it builds. One of my favorite aspects of the game is the relationships you build with people from all over the country. It’s just a lot of fun.”