When the New England Patriots rallied from a 28-3 deficit in Super Bowl LI, the team’s mantra throughout the second half was “It’s going to be a hell of a story.”
For two members of the Greater Keene 15 and under Babe Ruth baseball team, their improbable comeback wasn’t against a large game deficit, but against timetables set by doctors.
Liam Yardley and Connor Branon suffered severe injuries earlier this year. For Branon, it was an orbital fracture and broken cheek bone; for Yardley, it was a broken back.
But against all odds, both 15-year-olds have rejoined their Keene teammates, helping them to capture a third straight state championship last weekend.
The team is set to make another run at a New England Regional title this weekend at Bullens Field in Westfield, Mass.
It is, to quote a phrase, “a hell of a story.”
“To be able to win this regional championship, and come back from the recovery that I came from, and then Connor being able to come back from that, it’s a hell of a story,” Yardley, a catcher and infielder, said.
Yardley’s setback was on Sunday, Feb. 17.
A freshman at Lawrence Academy boarding school in Groton, Mass., Yardley was taking out the trash that evening when he noticed an icy hill that looked perfect for sledding. He invited a friend to take a slide down the hill before they went to study hall.
But Yardley misjudged just how slick the hill was. He kept sliding, unable to stop himself, and flew into a fence at the bottom of the hill.
His back slammed into a concrete base at the bottom of the fence. The moment would re-shape his life.
Despite the shock and pain, Yardley, a Marlborough native, still managed to sprawl out and use his body to protect his friend from the same fate. His friend walked away uninjured; Yardley wasn’t so lucky.
At first, Yardley was able to grab the fence and hoist himself up, but he took one step and crumpled. At this point it was clear: he needed to go to a hospital.
He was brought to Nashoba Valley Medical Center in Ayer, Mass., where he got X-rays and was immediately transferred to Boston Children’s Hospital. Yardley’s mother, Christine Yardley, received a call back in Marlborough that night — the type of call a parent dreads — and rushed right over.
“It’s just shock, fear, horror ... it’s every parent’s worst nightmare,” Christine said. “Immediately, the doctors say he’s not paralyzed, he can feel his limbs, so once you hear that and then you realize he’s not dead and he’s not paralyzed, the pain of seeing your child laying in a hospital room is the worst feeling that I could ever imagine for any parent.”
At first, the trauma team said it would take about three to four weeks for Yardley to recover. But the spine surgeon — Dr. M. Timothy Hresko — said it was going to be much longer. Liam had a complete burst fracture in his L1 vertebra, which is just above the hips, and a compression fracture of the T12, which is right above the L1.
In compression fractures, the vertebra is crushed in the front part of the spine only, causing a wedge shape. A burst fracture is much worse, with bones spread out in different directions.
Even with the more severe injury, Yardley was still lucky, in a way. A burst fracture carries the risk of damaging the spinal cord, which can cause paralysis or damage to the nerves that control the body’s ability to move or feel. Even with his L1 split in half, Liam avoided the worst possible outcome.
But that didn’t make things any easier when the surgeon delivered the bad news.
Yardley would have to spend three to four months in a back brace, and would then need three to six months of rehab before he could get back on the baseball field. And, he could never play football again.
“That sentence there, ‘no football ever again,’ that’s something that really traumatized me,” said Yardley, who played running back and outside linebacker for Lawrence. “I had a great year, and I was really looking forward to being back with the team, especially at a new school like that with a great team, a bunch of new guys coming in, a great coach. But at this point, I’ve come to accept the fact that I’ve got to individualize in baseball.”
All he could do at this point was roll over on his hospital bed. Like his back, his world was shattered.
Branon, a pitcher and infielder, at least got the chance to see the field this spring, but that also led him to his setback.
The date was Monday, May 6, and Branon, a freshman at Monadnock Regional High School in Swanzey Center, was pitching for the Huskies in a game at Newport.
He had one out in the bottom of the third inning, and was feeling good about his performance, allowing two runs on four hits and one walk with four strikeouts.
But as he threw his next pitch to the outside, the Newport batter stretched out and made contact, sending a liner back to the mound. Branon stumbled a bit in the follow-through of his pitch, so he was in no position to stop the ball.
The last thing Branon remembers hearing was the “hissssss” of the ball flying through the air before it struck. Next thing he knew, his face felt numb, and he was lying on the ground, screaming.
Chad Branon — who also coaches the Keene 15U team — hung back at first to let the Monadnock coaches do their job. But once he heard his son’s screams, he rushed to his side.
The sight was terrifying, the father remembers. Connor was bleeding from both his nose and his left eye.
“We didn’t know if he was gonna have eye damage, if he was gonna need facial reconstructive surgery, if his jaw was working,” Chad said. “There were so many unknowns; the last thing we were thinking about was when is he gonna get back on the hill.”
He was taken to the emergency room at Claremont Hospital, and an appointment was being made at Dartmouth-Hitchcock for facial surgery. Doctors were saying he would never pitch again.
Connor’s response, according to his dad: “If you clear me tonight, I’ll pitch tomorrow.”
In the end, Chad had some contacts at Massachusetts General Hospital and was able to book an earlier appointment there. The diagnosis they received there was far less grim.
After some extra testing on his facial symmetry and bone disposition, a doctor at Massachusetts General said it would be better to just let the bones heal, and that surgery would not be necessary.
“He broke his cheek bone and his eye orbital, so that’s a lot of trauma really close to some important pieces,” Chad said. “Like I said to him, he’s one of the luckiest unlucky kids I know … we’re just blessed that he didn’t get hit differently.”
Both young men were hurting, but the outpouring of community support was soothing.
“I opened [my phone] and I had hundreds and hundreds of notifications,” Liam Yardley said. “I had a text from the mayor, I had a text from my all my past coaches, all my buddies, people I hadn’t spoken to in years.
“I’m not able to show my appreciation, because it’s hard to go back and send that many texts, but every little text, every little message — I can’t walk down the street without someone asking how I’m doing, how my back feels. It means more than people know.”
The next part was the hard part for both athletes: physical rehab.
But they were driven by their love for baseball and their strong desire to rejoin their teammates.
“I just love the game of baseball,” Connor said. “It really helps me through school and stuff, the stress of school and all the schoolwork I have to turn in, having sports to really help me, it’s like my way of airing out.”
Yardley said: “Even when they told me it’s gonna be a year, I was like, ‘no, I’ll be back, I’ve got to play with the boys.’ ”
Branon’s doctor told him that if he applied ice to his face regularly, he could recover faster and speed up his timetable for a return to the diamond. So, he stayed at home for about a week with ice on his face.
The doctor also said to avoid contact sports, so Branon couldn’t play with his AAU basketball team for the rest of the year.
Amazingly, Branon made his return May 22, a little more than two weeks after his injury. He had to wear a face mask and was only allowed to play the infield.
“Without baseball, it felt like a part of me was missing,” Branon said. “Getting back on the field just brought me an unbelievable amount of joy.”
It would be two more months before he could pitch again.
It was nerve-wracking at first, he said, and he struggled with throwing strikes as he got over the subconscious fear of another ball coming at him. But he overcame that trepidation.
“Like the doctor said, it’s a one-in-a-million chance,” Branon said. “He’s seen these injuries quite a few times, and the kids just bounce back.”
Yardley’s recovery was significantly longer and more involved.
Doctors removed part of his L1 and fused the remaining part with his L2, creating a slightly longer vertebra. After that, he was fitted for a back brace, and as the recovery began, the pain followed.
Yardley swapped his winter school activity at Lawrence from building a canoe to playing chess, but he could only sit up for so long before having to lie down.
To this day, Yardley says he doesn’t sleep well; he aims for an hour or two when he can get it.
The emotional pain was no less significant, he said.
He knew his Keene teammates didn’t have another catcher. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was letting his team down.
“I didn’t feel like I was broken, but I guess I was,” Yardley said. “I had to listen to all these things and I had this constant reminder of what I’d done with wearing the back brace constantly.”
Once the cast came off and it was time for his physical therapy, Yardley dove straight into it, going the extra mile on every regimen the doctors gave him.
“Three months into my injury, they cleared me to do push-ups and do bicep curls with 10-pound weights,” he said. “So, I was like, ‘OK, I’ll do what I can do,’ and I did like 500 everything every night. Then I got cleared to do planks, so I was doing hours of planks a day.”
Coach Branon knew Yardley’s condition wouldn’t allow him to get back on the field at the start of the season, but still invited him to rejoin the team as a bench coach. It wasn’t merely out of pity, either; Yardley’s vocal leadership is considered a valuable asset.
“Just having him on the bench was going to be a huge boost for us, even if he couldn’t play,” Coach Branon said. “Not having him there at all would’ve been a big hit.”
Meanwhile, Liam Conley — who himself missed his entire high school season with a broken finger — took over behind the plate, and did an admirable job, Yardley said.
As time passed, things took an unexpectedly positive turn for Yardley.
Less than five months after his injury, Dr. Hresko cleared Yardley and said he didn’t need to see him again.
Between Yardley avoiding damage to his spinal cord and now defying the odds for a speedy recovery, Hresko called him an “anomaly” and said, “We haven’t experienced one miracle, we’ve really experienced two.”
Yardley and his mother began attending weekly appointments with Dr. William Meehan at Waltham Children’s Hospital in Waltham, Mass., and on June 28 Yardley was greenlit to play first and third base for Keene in scrimmages and practices.
Two weeks later, son and mother went back to Waltham with high hopes. They were hoping to hear that Yardley would be cleared to play in an actual game; what they got was even better.
Meehan came into the room with a huge smile on his face, gave his patient a high five, then told him he was cleared to return to baseball in all capacities.
“He’s like, ‘You’re ready to go, kid,’ ” Christine said. “We’re like, ‘What do you mean, you’re ready to go? What does that mean?’ and he said, ‘You’re good; you are completely, 100 percent ready to go, you can play ball.’ ”
For Yardley, it was a validation of all the work he had put in — the weeks in the large cast, the extra reps in rehab, the sleepless nights.
“Honestly, I feel like I almost earned it in a way,” he said.
Yardley took his first official spot in the lineup the next day at third base, with expected pre-game jitters.
During warm-ups, he made six straight errors, but in the game itself, he made seven outs from the hot corner, helping Keene to a 3-2 win over Lamprey River that clinched its spot in the state finals.
That Sunday, Yardley returned to his spot behind the plate — with Branon pitching, ironically — and again, there were some early nerves.
His first attempt to throw out a runner stealing second base sailed into the outfield. But he gunned down the next attempted steal by a mile, and it all just came flowing back.
The Branon-Yardley battery combined for 4.1 shutout innings with nine strikeouts. Conley came on and pitched the final 1.2 to complete the six-inning shutout win over Rochester, 14-0. Connor also helped lead the way at the plate, with two doubles and two RBI.
“I think it speaks to the type of competitors that they both are,” Coach Branon said. “It is really sweet to see them both on the baseball field, because there was a time this year when we weren’t sure if we’d see either of them on this team.”