Oct. 9, 2009
By Larry Watts
When Jason Yeisley led the Penn State soccer team with nine goals and 24 total points in 2005, the sky seemed to be the limit for the promising freshman forward from Allentown, Pa. But the next three years combined couldn't even match his rookie output thanks to an incredible series of injuries.
Seven games into his sophomore season, in the Big Ten opener against Michigan State, he planted to take a left-footed shot. As his leg was extended, a Spartan defender slid in from behind and the collision left Yeisley with a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
Following surgery and three months of rehab, Yeisley was back on the field in the spring. As he was preparing to depart for the Under-21 National team camp during the final week of school, he took an awkward step in a rut while working out and broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot, resulting in surgery and a screw being placed in the foot to make sure the bones aligned properly.
"I had been having some pain in my foot during my workouts, but I thought it was nothing serious," he says. "It turned out I had a stress fracture and now it had completely snapped. I've always been a little bow-legged and that was causing me to put a little too much pressure on the outside of my feet."
More time on the crutches and more rehab, but Yeisley was back on the field in time for the 2007 preseason workouts. Even though he was behind his teammates in conditioning, through 11 games he led the Nittany Lions with six goals and 16 total points.
But in the 12th game at Boston University, Yeisley had to start at center back because of an injury to one of the Penn State freshmen. In the 10th minute, he went to clear a ball with his right foot. A Boston University player came right at him in the opposite direction and the two went flying to the turf.
"I knew it was bad right away, but I had no idea to what extent," he says. "I immediately thought it was a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), but the diagnosis on the field was a sprained posterior ligament. I spent the next 80 minutes on the bench in the most excruciating pain and then still had to make an eight-hour bus ride back to State College. The pain was so bad I couldn't even sleep that night."
The MRI the next day revealed the injury was much worse than anyone had thought. Not only had he torn the ACL, but he had also torn the lateral collateral ligament and his hamstring. Not only was the rest of the 2007 season wiped out, but the 2008 campaign was off the books as well.
His six goals and 16 points not only held up to lead Penn State, but Yeisley was also a first team All-Big Ten selection despite only playing in three conference contests.
Yeisley was back on the field to play with the Nittany Lions last spring and participated in their 10-day trip to Brazil. But while playing for the Reading Rage in the Premier Development League upon his return, he felt a pain in his right foot.
"It was similar to the one I had felt in my left foot a couple of years earlier, so this time I decided to have it checked out right away," he says.
Again he had a stress fracture. This time he was given the option of having a similar surgery to correct the problem or rest, then participate only in light practices at Penn State and play in the games.
"I didn't want to take any chances and went with the surgery," he says. "The surgery would sideline me for six to eight weeks, but I would be playing again. With no surgery, it meant three months of doing nothing and then I could only go through light workouts. I wasn't about to do that."
After four surgeries and losing so much time on the field, not only at Penn State but at the national level as well, it would be easy for an athlete to feel sorry for himself. But Yeisley, who is a nominee for the Lowe's Senior CLASS Award, has managed to stay positive and has taken advantage of his free time not only to excel with a 3.6 GPA in business management but to assist a family back in Allentown with fund-raising to battle a rare disease.
"Sean Recke is a technology education teacher I had back in sixth grade at Salisbury Middle School," he says. "The Salisbury school district has always supported me in my career and when group of the teachers came here for a football game in my freshman year, they told me about Sean's 6-year-old son Adam being diagnosed with Type C Niemann-Pick Disease."
There are approximately 500 diagnosed cases of Type C worldwide. According to Yeisley, it's a child's form of Alzheimer's and nearly always fatal.
"I really don't do anything compared to what the Salisbury community has done," he says. "They have a 5K race every year and I try to gather stuff from all the sports teams at Penn State and take it back for their silent auction. They do a golf outing, poker night, field goal kicking contest at the high school and a cruise in order to raise money. The Recke family is such a great family and it's a shame they have to go through all this."
Yeisley brought Adam Recke out to one of the games to serve as honorary team captain. The following year, Adam served as honorary captain along with his older brother and sister. He's hoping to have Adam back as the honorary captain for the Oct. 31 game with Wisconsin.
"One of the most heartbreaking things is to look at Adam, he appears to be just like any other normal kid," Yeisley says. "You wouldn't know something was wrong. That's the toughest part."
His concern for others is probably a big reason why Yeisley has been selected as a team captain three times. Even when he was sitting out the 2008 season, he was always on the bench giving encouragement to his teammates, especially the younger ones.
"I'm really humbled by the honor of serving as captain of this team," he says. "When it comes down to it, I'm just another player on the team because everyone is contributing equally. When I was injured, I just tried to stay involved by building relationships with the underclassmen. It was tough not being on the field, but I thought it was important to be a mentor and share my knowledge."
If there were any doubts about Yeisley's health, he quickly put them to rest in this season's opener, when he scored two goals during a 5-0 shutout of St. Francis. Through nine matches, he has scored four goals and has collected four assists, sharing the team lead with 12 points.
Yet, in typical Yeisley fashion, the fifth-year senior downplayed his 2009 debut.
"I got lucky; they were just one-touch goals right in front of the net," he says. "All the credit should go to the guys who passed me the ball. Those were some brilliant passes and I just happened to be in the right position."
Once the soccer season has ended, Yeisley plans to take the dental admission test and head on to dental school. He has put a heavy emphasis on science classes the last couple of years while obtaining his business degree.
"I talked to my dentist back in Allentown and he told me the one thing he regrets is not taking some business classes in college because he has had to pay a lot of people to do the business side of things," he says. "I had always wanted to do something in the medical field, so I changed my major to business management with the hopes of going into dentistry."
Although his soccer career will be over, through all his rehab work, Yeisley has developed another long-term goal to go along with dentistry. He wants to get into marathons and triathlons, eventually completing an Ironman.
"I still have a lot of work to do on the running," he says. "One of the reasons I got interested was because of all the swimming and biking I had to do during my rehab work. I love running, so I hope to start training soon."
So in essence, Yeisley has taken adversity and turned it into positive motivation.
"It's been quite a road, not one I'm especially proud of, but it has helped to shape me as a person," he says. "I've learned to deal with adversity.
"I'm really glad to have been part of all this. That trip to Brazil was an amazing experience, the first time I have ever been to South America. It was great for team chemistry to be there with each other and helped us grow. I wouldn't necessarily go back and change anything because everything happens for a reason."