It was Week 3 of the 2012 high school football season and things couldn’t have been going much better for Paul Yeager.
The Avon junior tight end was in his first year as a starter and was enjoying a breakout season.
But in a home game against Lorain, Yeager was blocked below the waist on a kickoff. At first, he didn’t think anything was wrong.
“When I got hit, it felt like if you banged your shin really hard against something,” Yeager said. “I tried to get up, and when I did, I felt the two bones move in my lower leg.”
The diagnosis was a fractured tibia. But it wasn’t your average broken leg. No, Yeager discovered he’d need surgery just so he could one day have regular use of his leg again.
Playing football? Few people thought that was a realistic goal.
But after having a steel rod and screws interested in his leg and a grueling rehabilitation that took virtually the rest of his junior school year, Yeager is back in uniform.
Even better, he was voted a co-captain and is once again starting for an undefeated Eagles team that is ranked sixth in the state in the latest Associated Press Division II poll.
And better still? After moving to offensive tackle to replace a sick player, Yeager will be back at his familiar tight end position tonight when Avon hosts Midview in a key West Shore Conference game.
“Honestly, the driving force behind my recovery was that I had to get back to play football,” Yeager said. “But I had a ton of support from family, friends, coaches and teammates all the way through. Also, I have to give the biggest credit to my relationship with God. After this whole experience with my leg, my relationship with God got a lot stronger within my family and teammates and coaches. Through him, all things are possible, and I live that motto every day.”
After the surgery, Yeager began aquatic therapy, walking slowly in a pool as often as he could. But he ran into another obstacle — an emergency appendectomy around Thanksgiving.
“I couldn’t do much for a month after that surgery,” he said. “I couldn’t get into the water and I couldn’t lift very much. It wasn’t until January that I was green-lit to resume my therapy.”
Once he got the OK to start rehab again, he went at it hard, gradually walking faster in the pool to walking on land to running on a treadmill in the pool to running on land.
“I didn’t fully get back until May, right around the end of track season,” Yeager said. “I was only allowed to compete in one event, and that was because they didn’t want me to overextend myself and risk getting reinjured.”
Avon coach Mike Elder said Yeager was champing at the bit to resume any athletic activity after missing the rest of the football season and the entire basketball season.
“Unfortunately, it was a big fight every day with him and our athletic trainer to get him cleared to run track,” Elder said. “It was kind of like keeping a bull in a cage. He did eventually get back, but his injury was so significant that he wasn’t 100 percent.”
Elder called Yeager’s broken leg one of the most gruesome injuries he’d ever witnessed on the football field.
“That young man is as tough as anyone I know,” Elder said. “He did well on JV as a sophomore and was entrenched as a junior starter at tight end in Week 1.
He scored a big touchdown against (Avon) Lake and had another nice game against Wellington the following week. He had some breakaway speed and is physical and tough.”
When Yeager was cleared to resume playing, he suddenly had a battle for his old starting spot with junior Chris Maxwell, who had stepped in for him last year and excelled.
“He ended up in a situation where the rod made him change his gait, and he battled hamstring injuries throughout our training camp,” Elder said.
But fate intervened once again. When one of the starting offensive tackles went down with mono just before the season opener against Avon Lake, Elder and his coaches thought Yeager would be the perfect choice to step in.
So they asked Yeager about making the switch.
“I’ll never forget his response, and it was the same when we told him he could switch back to tight end,” Elder said. “He said, ‘Coach, I’ll play wherever this team needs me to play.’ The fact that he’s even suiting up, let alone starting, is a small miracle. But I’m convinced that if anyone could do it, it was Paul.”
Yeager showed he was up to being a captain when he stood up and addressed his teammates during their pregame meal before the Avon Lake game. While most of the talk centered on the rivalry, Yeager’s message was simple — “What I think everyone needs to do is simply play for the love of everyone else in this room.”
“I love hearing what he has to say before the games,” senior co-captain Braeden Friss said. “To be able to get back into the swing of things after taking most of the season off — to come back from that type of injury says a lot about his dedication to the team and to football. We all get each other fired up, but Paul’s the one who picks everyone up. He’s definitely a motivator.”