It is Sept. 7, 2012, the third game of the season. Junior Paul Yeager is the Avon Eagle’s starting tight end. Under the lights on a Friday night: This is where Yeager has wanted to be since he was a little boy playing football in his back yard with his dad and the neighborhood kids. It’s the reason he snuck onto a tackle team in the third grade when he should have been playing flag. It’s why he asked for a punching bag for Christmas instead of a cell phone when he was 13 years old.
Avon kicks the ball off, and Yeager is blocked below the waist. His opponent’s helmet drives into his left shin as Yeager falls.
He lies face-down on the field, trying to push himself up on a leg that doesn’t respond. He is helped to the bench, where he tells his teammates to touch his dangling leg. “I can’t feel anything,” he says, and he waits to be taken to the hospital.
His tibia is broken clean in two.
Over the next year, Yeager will fight back in a way that Avon Eagles head coach Mike Elder has never seen. “He looked at it as a challenge and attacked it every day,” Elder says. “Honestly, I didn’t think that he would play football again, but that is not anything that ever entered his mind.”
What Yeager doesn’t know is that his leg injury is just the beginning. The next year will rain down setbacks, including an emergency surgery and more injuries.
Yeager will get back on the field for his senior year but, after what happened on the 30-yard line, he will never be the same player — or the same person.
For that, he will be thankful.
The physical pain came first and was easier to deal with. Yeager had to wait two weeks for surgeons to insert a metal rod inside his tibia, fastening it with one screw below his knee and two above his ankle. The goal was for Yeager to regain regular use of his leg.
The Friday after his injury, Yeager’s parents, Paul and Lori, took him to the Eagles game in a wheelchair. When they returned home, they watched the highlights on TV. Even today, Lori’s voice chokes when she remembers looking over at her son. “He never said a word, but tears just ran down his face. It was like it set in. I can’t play.”
After the surgery, Yeager’s hopes rose. “If something is wrong and I can fix it,” he says, “I’m going to fix it as soon as possible.”
He was scheduled to go to physical therapy once a week; he asked if he could go three. Then, on Thanksgiving morning, Yeager started vomiting at 6 a.m. and couldn’t stop. Unable to get out of bed, he texted his parents to come help him. His dad drove him to the hospital and, just after midnight, he had an emergency appendectomy. Yeager was told he could not train at all or lift anything for eight weeks. “Right when I’m trying to get back, I had all that taken away, too,” he says.
For the next two months, Yeager battled against the frustration of being able to do nothing to speed his recovery. The one thing he could do was pray. He asked for strength and for help getting back on the football field and knew that he was being heard. “You just get that feeling; it’s hard to explain,” he says. “You get that good feeling inside that I never really had before.”
Yeager’s recovery was finally on track, until football practice began and he discovered that his muscles had not yet adjusted to his new gait. He suffered chronic hamstring and groin pulls. The only solution was the thing Yeager despises most — rest. “I was extremely down about that,” he says. “I worked so hard to come back so I could at least play football again. All that was taken away from me. Even after all the stuff I went through to get there.”
But Yeager, who had just returned from a mission trip to Haiti (see Sidebar) would not allow his frustration to morph into pity, not after what he saw in the orphanages there. “I can’t feel sorry for myself,” he says. “Too many people have it so much worse.”
Once again, Yeager battled back. Someone else had filled his starting tight end position, but he stepped in as an offensive tackle and was named co-captain by his teammates.
Before the first game of the season against rival Avon Lake, the locker room was a frenzy of trash talk about taking the other team down when Yeager spoke up. “I have a good idea,” he told his teammates. “How about we don’t play for our dislike of Avon Lake, but we play for the love of everybody in this room?”
Avon won 41-10, and Yeager’s speech became the team’s rallying cry for the rest of its undefeated regular season. “He just has that ability to motivate his teammates,” Elder says.
In October, another challenge came. Blinding headaches, nausea and a loss of appetite made getting out of bed nearly impossible. After blood tests, a spinal tap and an MRI, doctors determined that Yeager had been hit by three things simultaneously: a previously unknown seafood allergy, a bad flu virus and a concussion. He missed three games.
Yeager returned to the field in time for the playoffs. The Eagles won their first three games before losing to Medina Highland on Nov. 22.
“Yeager played an outstanding game,” Elder says. “He played exceptionally well.” Still, the reality is he never quite made it back to his old self. If he had never been injured or sick he probably would have played the entire game. Instead, he only played about a third.
Yeager and his teammates linger in the locker room after the loss, talking about the season. By the time he gets home, it’s a little after 1 a.m. He goes into his parents’ room and kneels on the floor with his arms on the bed. The thing that started in his back yard so many years ago is over; he will never put the pads on again, and though that crushes him he is able to accept it. He is content.
Then he tells his parents why. “I never regret breaking my leg. I learned things in life that I never would have learned if this hadn’t happened to me.”
Before his injury, he considered studying business in college; now Yeager thinks he might want to be a nurse. But it’s not just what he wants to be. It’s who he wants to be and how he wants to live.
“My perspective on everything changed,” he says. “My relationship with God and my family and my coaches and my teammates is a lot more important than me being out there playing.”
When Paul Yeager went to Haiti last summer, he wasn’t prepared to see an orphanage where 26 children shared two beds and food and clothes were in constant demand. What surprised him the most, though, was the children’s reaction to him. “When we walked up, we had bags of candy; instead of reaching for the sweets they just ran up and gave you a hug,” he says.
Yeager made the trip to deliver supplies as part of the Love Haiti Fund, started in 2012 by Jeremiah Burns, then a senior Avon Eagles football player. This year, Yeager headed the high school arm of the nonprofit, raising $2,000 through T-shirt sales, while Burris raised the same amount at his new school, Bryant University. To learn more or to donate, visit lovehaitifund.com.