- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) - The only millimeters most pitchers worry about are those between the lines on a baseball diamond.

Maybe the umpire shorted him a few millimeters on the outside corner. Perhaps he adjusted his grip to get a little more bite on that breaking ball.

Not so for Lynchburg College sophomore Kyle Jacksic.

Millimeters, to Jacksic, were the difference between life and death.

“December 3, 2011,” 19-year-old Jacksic said while sitting in Lynchburg College’s Fox Field dugout one afternoon. The day Jacksic’s life could have changed forever. The day it could have ended.

He never exactly remembered it like it was yesterday. In fact, Jacksic doesn’t remember being tossed onto his head, breaking the C4 and C5 vertebrae in his neck, on that wrestling mat at Germantown Academy near Philadelphia at all.

“My first memory is getting in the car outside of the hospital and wondering what the heck happened,” the Hardwick, New Jersey native said.

Jacksic had been one of the top wrestlers in the Mid-Atlantic at that point, winning a New Jersey state title as a seventh-grader and placing second twice more. He was a freshman at Blair Academy, the top prep wrestling school in the United States. All the chips were falling the right way until Jacksic fell the wrong way, effectively ending his wrestling career in a split-second.

But the same attitude that gave Jacksic an advantage on the mat helped in his rehabilitation.

By the end of February - after a month in a neck brace and a rigorous physical therapy regimen - he was on the diamond for Blair’s baseball tryouts.

“The doctors originally said that I was never going to be able to play sports again,” Jacksic said. “Even when I got out of the neck brace, they were still saying that. But at the appointment after I’d been doing (physical therapy) for a month, the doctor came in and just shook his head and smiled.”

Jacksic ended up having a pretty bright baseball career at Blair as well. The starting catcher for three seasons, he helped the Buccaneers go 56-6. He also quarterbacked the football team to a league title his senior season. He did not return to the mat though doctors cleared him to do so.

“After two concussions, a torn thumb, a broken ankle and a broken neck, I decided not to,” he said with a chuckle.

Not that it was easy to walk away from wrestling.

“It was tough mentally for me because wrestling at Blair, you see all these incredibly successful kids,” Jacksic said, listing off former teammates who were NCAA and United World Wrestling champs. “To think that I could have been right there, I could be wrestling on a national stage … that really messed with me.”

In those later high school years, Jacksic fell in love with America’s pastime.

“Baseball was the first sport I was able to get involved in after I broke my neck,” he said. “I just had this feeling that it’s what I was called to do, so I stuck with it.”

Lynchburg assistant coach Chris Knowles remembered being shocked when Jacksic’s injury came up during the recruiting process. Nothing he saw in the hard-nosed catcher’s play hinted at a life-threatening injury.

“It was kind of a surprise to me when he said, ‘Yeah, I actually broke my neck.’ I said, ‘What?!’” Knowles said.

Knowles and head coach Percy Abell had no qualms recruiting Jacksic.

After paying dues as a freshman for LC without appearing in a game, Jacksic spent the summer playing for a collegiate-level team in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he began pitching. He’d pitched sparingly in high school, but the mound felt more natural now. He decided to give it a shot during Lynchburg’s fall workouts.

Jacksic likened pitching to wrestling.

“You learn to just be out there by yourself,” he said. “When I go out on the mound, I really just hone in on trying to beat that batter. I’m not looking forward to the next batter.”

His coaches have seen the doggedness that made Jacksic a force to be reckoned with on the mat as a youth.

“You can hear him during practice getting on himself more than anyone else would when he doesn’t hit the location he wanted,” Knowles said.

But Jacksic knows it’s not the end-all, be-all either: “I just have to be grateful to be able to play college sports. It was literally a few millimeters from me never being able to walk again.”

___

Information from: The News & Advance, http://www.newsadvance.com/

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