INDIANAPOLIS — When Frank Ragnow met Nick Saban near midfield on Oct. 8, 2016, their brief postgame handshake carried a terrible weight.
Ragnow, the starting center for Arkansas, had lost his father, Jon, to a heart attack one week earlier. Saban understood Ragnow’s grief. He, too, had lost his dad as a college athlete, so he made sure to approach Ragnow and offer some advice.
“He just told me to always remember the good times and hang in there,” Ragnow said last Thursday at the NFL combine.
But Saban was not done. The next year, he again sought out Ragnow after the game to say hello.
“We caught up and everything,” Ragnow said. “So it’s cool that he’s kept up with me and he actually cares.”
They first met when Ragnow was a coveted prospect at Chanhassen (Minn.) High School. Saban was unsuccessful in his quest to steer the center from the Midwest to the Crimson Tide, but Ragnow — impressed by Bret Bielema and the Arkansas campus — still made his way to the SEC.
Four years and two All-America seasons later, Ragnow is headed to the NFL, and he’s keeping his father’s memory close during the process.
“It was the toughest moment of my life,” he said of losing his dad. “It’s pushed me. I’ve really had to lean on football. I’ve really had to lean on my teammates, and everything like that. I’m just trying to make him proud. Every day is thinking, ‘How can I make my dad proud? How can I continue to play and continue to do what we were dreaming of?’ “
Ragnow played center and guard in college, but said he has the “length and footwork” to play tackle, too.
Draft analysts consider him one of the best centers available. Chris Trapasso of CBS recently went as far as to call Ragnow’s film “incredible” and said his “pass-protection skills … separate him from the rest of this loaded center class.”
Ragnow said teams have not been overly concerned about an ankle injury that sidelined him for the home stretch of last season. He previously considered leaving for the NFL in 2017, but following a discussion with his mother and Bielema decided to return for a final season in Fayetteville.
When his ankle gave out, he had a few fleeting regrets.
“It was pretty devastating, I’m not gonna lie,” he said. “It took me a few days to really get back up.”
But that fear soon ceded to gratitude. His NFL dream is alive and well, and he now has a degree in business and sports management.
“I still think I helped myself my senior year,” he said. “I feel like I’ve bettered myself as a football player over the offseason that year, so I’m happy.”
- Why has Arkansas struggled to compete in the SEC West? Ragnow offered up his thoughts on the 2017 season. “There’s a lot of things you can point at,” he said. “We had a lot of young guys in new roles. We had switched the defense up. Guys maybe weren’t ready for the limelight. So I’m excited for the future of the team. I think they’re gonna be pretty talented next year.”
- Ragnow wouldn’t mind if the Minnesota Vikings called on draft day. “It’d be pretty cool,” he said of a potential homecoming. “I’d probably live with my mom for a while. It’d be awesome, because I’m a Minnesota boy. I take a lot of pride in that state. I grew up cheering for them, so it’d be a pretty surreal moment.”
- In true Minnesota fashion, he recently lost his new iPhone X down an ice-fishing hole. He was using an app called Deeper to help him track his next catch, and when a fish bit he stood up in excitement, accidentally dumping the phone into the lake. “I screamed pretty loud,” he said.