Friday, April 4, 2014
Yeguete's twisted road leads to Final Four
By Dana O'Neil
ARLINGTON, Texas -- There are ironic twists, and then there’s Will Yeguete's life, contorted both figuratively and literally into a sort of biographical pretzel.
Start with the literal -- the left foot that turned the wrong way, snapping into a break that sidelined him for the end of his sophomore season. Then there was the right knee that twisted so badly he had surgery on it twice; a minor scope on the first, an incapacitating microfracture on the second.
Then there are the figurative twists -- the brother named Happy (of all things), who happily flew all the way from their native France to see his kid brother play basketball only to arrive one day after said kid brother had knee surgery.
Florida senior forward Will Yeguete's road to the Final Four has hardly been a smooth one, but he's come out better on the other end.
And then the final weird turn of fate.
Just this fall, Yeguete, discouraged and disappointed that rehab on his knee wasn’t going well, sat down with Billy Donovan and the team’s athletic trainer, Dave ‘Duke’ Werner.
“He wanted to redshirt," Werner said. “He didn’t think his knee was coming around like he wanted it to. He didn’t think he could jump right. He was really down."
Fast-forward to the Final Four, the end of the road for a Florida season filled with injuries and suspensions.
Only one player has started in each of the Gators’ 38 games: Yeguete.
“I believed there were better things out there for me," he said. “It wasn’t easy, but that’s what I believed."
Yeguete is the Gators’ seventh-leading scorer and third leading rebounder. He doesn't have the physical presence of Patric Young, nor is he a savvy floor leader like Scottie Wilbekin.
But perhaps no one better embodies what this Florida team is all about.
These Gators succeeded not on the strength of one but on the effort of all, a collective team that might not have the NBA talent of those back-to-back national champions but embodies the same selfless nature.
That is Yeguete, happy to tend to the menial tasks, disinterested in personal successes.
“For me as a coach, I’ve always tried to talk to Will about how much I appreciate [him], because he really impacts winning," Donovan said. “He really impacts the game in a very, very positive way for us, and what he does is really, really rare. It’s hard to find. It’s hard to find guys that really kind of hang their hat on being kind of a dirty-work guy, and it’s hard sometimes because certainly it doesn’t give them a lot of headiness. He’s not a headline guy, but he really does a lot for our team."
Except, of course, when he physically couldn’t.
Yeguete first heard the telltale pop in his knee in January 2013 during a game against LSU. It swelled badly on the flight back home, and an MRI the next day revealed he had chipped a piece of cartilage. He was able to play, but he heard the sickening pop again seven games later.
This time it was worse, as the cartilage that had come loose weeks earlier lodged itself in his joint. But the timing of the injury was even worse than the pain.
Yeguete came to the United States alone, enrolling in Florida’s Air Academy in Melbourne as a 16-year-old in 2008. Finances and distance conspired to prevent his family from ever seeing him play basketball, but in February 2013, that was supposed to change. Happy Yeguete had a plane ticket and was coming to watch Will.
He did watch him -- sitting on the bench, crutches to his side.
“That hit me hard," Yeguete said. “We had been planning it a long time. He already had the plane ticket."
Just a day earlier, Yeguete had agreed to have arthroscopic surgery, a sort of Band-aid procedure that would allow him to return to the court for some of his junior season -- something Yeguete was adamant about after missing time as a sophomore with the broken foot.
Eventually, Happy returned to France and Yeguete to the basketball court. Yeguete played in 10 more games, including the Gators’ run to the Elite Eight, but when the season ended, an inevitable bigger surgery loomed.
Microfracture surgery, the same procedure Amar'e Stoudemire and Greg Oden had, would remove the cartilage from his joint and clean up the rest of his knee but also required extensive rehab. This immobilized Yeguete for eight weeks.
“I felt like a bum, really," he said. "I had to ask for stuff, like rides or for someone to get me food. I like to take care of myself, so I hated it."
While his teammates worked out or played pickup games, Yeguete waited. Sometimes he took shots while seated, but most times he worked quietly with Werner.
The athletic trainer’s job is to mend injuries and also handle fragile psyches. It’s up to the athletic trainer to push and cajole when an athlete wants to stop and whine, and his job to ease back on the throttle when the athlete wants to fast track to a cure.
“This is the only place where you see them laugh, cry, bleed, every emotion is shown in the training room," Werner said. “We see it all."’
Werner saw only determination in Yeguete. Even though he didn't have family close by to lean on, Yeguete never missed a day of rehab and never complained.
When he finally removed his brace, Yeguete really had no motion in his knee at all. Up until August, Werner worried if Yeguete would be able to play. Once he stopped worrying, Yeguete started.
“He didn’t trust his knee," Werner said, “which is normal. That’s why he wanted to redshirt. He was progressing, but he wasn’t progressing as fast as he wanted to."
But Werner convinced him he’d be fine, eased his fears when nerves took over in the Gators’ first game of the season, and now has stood back in awe to watch what Yeguete has done.
It is not the points or rebounds that have impressed him most, but the person.
“He’s the kind of kid every fan of the University of Florida, that’s who you want your kid to be," Werner said. “Even on days when you could tell he was down, he never stopped working. I don’t remember a day where he had a bad attitude. Not one."
And now here is Yeguete, two games away from a national title, a few months away from graduation, the twists and turns of a life all finally leading down one straight road.