By Dan Gilles
Midway through Avon’s 40-14 win over visiting Lorain in Week 3 last season, then-junior tight end Paul Yeager had been enjoying a breakout season as a first-year starter for the Eagles.
During a kickoff, Yeager was blocked below the waist by a Titans player. 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 for Yeager. He would need to undergo surgery just to be able to have regular use of his leg again. Playing football? Few people thought it would be realistic.
But, after surgery that required a steel rod and screws interested in his leg and grueling rehabilitation that took virtually the rest of his junior school year, Yeager found himself back in uniform, voted a co-captain, and starting for the Eagles once again this season.
Even that had its caveat, as Yeager was first used at offensive tackle to help replace a sick player. However, when Avon hosted West Shore Conference rival Midview Sept. 27, Yeager was back at his familiar tight end position.
“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 that really supported me 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.
“On the way to the hospital that night, the thought that my career might be over did kind of cross my mind because they showed the X-ray and it was completely broken in half. I thought, ‘That can’t be too good.’ But, I told myself I was going to whatever it took to try to get back for my teammates for my senior year.”
The first obstacle was the surgery itself. But, once the surgery was completed and deemed a success, Yeager began aquatic therapy, walking slowly in a pool as often as he could. But then, Yeager ran into another obstacle.
“Around Thanksgiving, I had to go back to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy and have my appendix removed,” he said. “I couldn’t do much for a month after that surgery. 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 Yeager resumed the therapy, he hit it hard. He went from gradually walking faster in the pool to walking on land to running on a treadmill in the pool to, eventually, 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 re-injured.”
Avon football coach Mike Elder said that Yeager was champing at the bit to resume any athletic activity after missing the final seven weeks 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 said that his injury was one of the most gruesome 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.
“He ended up having to have surgery and they had to put in a steel rod. The inspirational story really begins there.”
While he was recuperating, Yeager didn’t miss a practice or a game. While on crutches, Yeager served as an inspirational leader for an Avon team that once again won the WSC, went 9-1 in the regular season and reached the Division II, Region 6 finals against eventual state champion Toledo Central Catholic.
“Even though he suffered that serious injury, he never quit on this team,” said senior and fellow co-captain Braeden Friss, one of Avon’s starting wide receivers. “Especially when it gets late in the season, you’ll see players going home after suffering serious injuries. But Paul stayed on the sidelines with us. You could tell he was doing mental reps to get ready for this season.
“He’s a big motivator. He always kept his chin up. Seeing all your best friends being able to out and play on Friday night while you have to stand there and watch had to be tough. But he always stayed positive and kept people fired up, and that was huge.”
When Yeager was cleared to resume playing, he suddenly had a battle for his old starting spot with the player who stepped in for him last year and played very well, junior Chris Maxwell.
“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. “Meanwhile, Chris Maxwell stepped and did a really good job of it last year. The injuries put him behind Chris and he had to take a backup role, even though he was voted one of our captains.”
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 that Yeager would be perfect choice to step in. But, first, they had to ask Yeager if he wouldn’t mind moving from tight end to tackle.
“I’ll never forget his response, and it was the same when we told him he could switch back to tight end – he said, ‘Coach, I’ll play wherever this team needs me to play,’” Elder said. “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.
“Paul Yeager is the epitome of Avon Football. You know how hard it is to deal with any type of adversity and stay positive? If you don’t have the right mindset, it can define you and control you. But, from the moment he was hurt, he was like, ‘I’m going to attack this issue.’ No one is a bigger fan of him than I am. He’s probably the most inspirational athlete I’ve ever coached.”
Yeager said he loved playing tackle, but that tight end is his favorite position. He and Maxwell will line up a lot in Avon’s two-tight end sets.
“I’m going to do whatever I can do to play football,” Yeager said. “I love to play and I love to win. Whatever takes to win, I’ll make that position change any day of the week. I actually loved (offensive tackle). It was a lot of fun. But, I love playing tight end.
“To come back and play in this big game is a big deal for me. I’d rather play in a lot more adversity from the get-go instead of playing against a lesser school. I embrace that challenge. Coming back from this, I feel like Superman, like I can do anything on the field.”
Yeager showed he was up for the challenge of 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,” Friss said. “To be able to get back to 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.”
Yeager plans on returning to basketball, track and rugby this season after football is complete. He even took up some MMA fighting before his injury and is thinking about returning to that after his senior year is finished.
“I never did any hand-to-hand stuff before I took MMA lessons, and I really enjoyed it,” he said. “But I’ve got unfinished business here before I attempt that again. You bet I’m going to play all four sports this season. I’d be bored if I didn’t.”