Yankey’s Road Back

Former TA Star Back Pitching After Car Wreck

By Matt Jones
Daily News Record

HARRISONBURG — Trapped inside his mangled 1999 Toyota pick-up truck at 5:30 a.m. on June 24, Eric Yankey was in excruciating pain.

The furthest thing from his mind, he said, was playing baseball.

While heading to his job at Lakeview Golf Club, Yankey’s truck got into loose gravel on the side of Hopkins Gap Road in Fulks Run, and the wet roads caused him to crash into a tree.

The result: a broken left femur that extended into his foot, a serious neck injury and a pinky finger that was hanging by a thread.

“I just couldn’t wait for someone to get there,” Yankey said. “I was just like, ‘I need to get out of here.’”

Eight months later, Yankey — a former Turner Ashby High School star — was back on the mound pitching for James Madison. The sophomore left-hander’s road to recovery hasn’t been easy.

At the time of his wreck, Yankey said he had no idea what to do. He was accompanied by a female passenger, who was uninjured; both were wearing seat belts, according to police. Yankey said he attempted to punch through the windshield, but ultimately had to wait until a passerby called for help.

He was flown to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville that morning, and was released six days later. The rest of his summer, he said, was spent playing video games — particularly NBA 2K and Halo — and playing cards with friends that would visit.

One thing remained constant: nearly everyone that spoke with Yankey, doctors included, told him he’d likely never step foot on a baseball diamond again.

“You always hear a little worse than what it was, but it was pretty bad,” said JMU sophomore pitcher Tucker McCoy, a Spotswood graduate.

Before his crash, Yankey was pitching for the Harrisonburg Turks, a college summer ball team. His last outing before the wreck was a two-inning, scoreless stint as a reliever on June 16 against Staunton.

Months of grueling rehabilitation later, Yankey was ready for Madison’s season-opening series against Bucknell. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Mount Clinton native struck out three over two innings on Feb. 20.

“A lot of us, even our trainer, were shocked that he was throwing as well as he was,” first-year JMU coach Marlin Ikenberry said.

Yankey, one of five Dukes from Rockingham or Shenandoah County, said it has been “quite the road” back to playing baseball. He said he vividly remembers the first time a therapist put a one-pound resistance weight on his foot at Advantage Physical Therapy & Sports Performance in Harrisonburg. The pain was so bad he could not lift it, he said.

Things as routine as sleeping, he said, were a chore. Constricted to a halo brace for three months, he said he came home and slept “probably 20 hours” the day the brace came off.

“When I got out of the neck brace, I was like, ‘OK, maybe there’s a chance I play again,’” Yankey said.

Still, Yankey’s left pitching hand was badly injured in the crash. His middle, ring and pinky fingers were broken, and his pinky was “just hanging by a tendon,” he said.

Finally, one day during physical therapy, Yankey took a ball and tossed it against a trampoline. Though is aim was “10 feet off,” he gradually built up strength and by early December was playing “light catch” with Ikenberry.

Though he still cannot close his fist and undergoes treatment on the damaged hand two to three times per week — “Literally they just push it [into a fist] until tears come out of my eyes,” he said — Yankey said his pitching touch has come back no problem.

“I don’t feel anything different from a pitching standpoint. It feels normal,” Yankey said.

Ikenberry, who recruited Yankey as a prep prospect while the coach was at VMI in 2014, spoke of Yankey’s arm speed and sharp curveball. Both those attributes have come all the way back, Ikenberry said, and Yankey’s only remaining hurdle is regaining stamina. The justice-studies major is currently working as a left-handed specialist out of JMU’s bullpen.

Through 19 games this season for JMU (9-10), Yankey has appeared seven times with a 4.76 earned-run average. He picked up his first win of the season on March 8 at VMI.

Yankey said it wasn’t until he began throwing late last year that he considered a 2016 comeback. Up to that point, the Conference 29 Pitcher of the Year as a senior at TA was mulling the prospect of a medical redshirt year.

“It’s amazing that he’s even pitching this year,” Ikenberry said.

McCoy, who was teammates with Yankey with the Turks last summer, marveled at Yankey’s push to return.

“The recovery process, he flew by,” McCoy said. “It felt like he was out of surgery and back in a couple months. The quickness that he came back it was unbelievable. He looks the same to me as he did last year.”

(20160321) - (Harrisonburg)  JMU sophomore pitcher Eric Yankey, a Bridgewater native and Turner Ashby graduate, works on his technique during practice. (Daniel Lin/Daily News-Record)
JMU sophomore pitcher Eric Yankey, a Bridgewater native and Turner Ashby graduate, works on his technique during practice.
(Daniel Lin/Daily News-Record)