Yager Named Waubonsee “Fab 40”
Sugar Grove — Joe Yager has faced many obstacles in his life. His single mother raised him in an Urbana neighborhood plagued by crime. Cut from multiple baseball teams, which was his passion, he found success on the field in college at Waubonsee and beyond, only to see his dreams crushed by injury. Yager has rebounded to find success as a personal trainer and baseball academy owner in Urbana, mentoring more than 1,500 young athletes. Waubonsee Community College is proud to honor him as one of the college’s “Fabulous 40” alumni.
Waubonsee Community College is proud to honor Joe Yager, seen here at Cardinal Fitness in Urbana, Ill., as one of the college’s “Fab 40” alumni.
As part of the college’s yearlong 40th anniversary celebration, Waubonsee is honoring 40 alumni and students who embody the mission, vision and values of the college. These individuals represent the diversity of Waubonsee’s students and the college district, as well as the diversity of the college’s mission as a comprehensive community college.
Growing up without many material possessions, Yager and his brothers were always outside playing. He loved playing baseball but was cut from his high school team and told he didn’t have a chance to play at the next level. After high school, he tried to land a spot on Parkland College’s baseball team but was cut there as well.
“I was told I wouldn’t have a chance to succeed,” he said.
People from Yager’s old neighborhood were less than supportive about the possibility of his future success.
“When I left, they told me, ‘You’ll be back -- people like you always come back’,” he said.
With the steadying influence of his mother, Yager didn’t give up hope of playing college baseball and eventually was the first in his family to earn a college degree.
“My mother pushed us to do better, but I never really applied myself,” he said. “I was immature then and didn’t understand what it meant to be a student.”
He was playing American Legion baseball in Ottawa, playing against a team coached by Waubonsee Assistant Coach Pete Gama. After the game, Yager approached Gama and told him he wanted to play college ball. Four weeks later, he had a call from Waubonsee Head Baseball Coach Dave Randall asking Yager to come to Sugar Grove for a tryout.
“I was so nervous,” Yager said. “I couldn’t even play catch. Nothing was given to me. I had to make the situation happen.”
Randall saw something in Yager that his other coaches missed — potential. Waubonsee’s baseball program excelled in those years, battling regional rival Joliet Junior College for dominance, and Yager played a large role in that success as an outstanding pitcher. When Yager came to Waubonsee, his fastball was routinely 77 to 78 miles per hour, and he possessed a nasty curveball. When he left Waubonsee, his fastball regularly topped 90 miles per hour.
“My time at Waubonsee was the most important time in my life,” he said. “Waubonsee was a safe place to grow up away from my neighborhood and get the right direction for my future. Really, looking back, it was heaven sent.”
In high school, Yager was a C and D student. His only charge was to stay out of trouble. At Waubonsee, he found that his teachers cared about his success and he responded to the positive attention. To have graduated from college with honors is something Yager cherishes.
“I loved the smaller class sizes,” he said. “You could really have a personal relationship with the teachers. They took the time to get to know you, to learn your names. You weren’t just a number. They took a real interest in you. Many would come out to our games to support us.”
Yager found many positive mentors at Waubonsee, especially Melinda James, now Waubonsee’s Assistant Vice President of Student Development. He also saw Randall as a role model. “Melinda helped me every day,” Yager said. “They both really took care of us and made me accountable. Coach Randall taught me how to work hard. He was the most phenomenal man. He taught me to be a better athlete and to be a better man.”
Yager has stayed in touch with Coach Randall every year since he left Waubonsee, developing a lasting relationship. Waubonsee Athletics served as a kind of family network for Yager.
“Being away from home for the first time, I was scared to death,” he said. “I had to figure out how to get to class every day not having a car and how to eat when I really didn’t have enough money. Hanging out in the athletic office was like being home. They gave me so much good advice. They were there to teach you how to live. They always cared.”
In his college career, Yager showed the interest and aptitude to pass along the positive motivation and mentorship he was receiving at Waubonsee, serving as a youth mentor to local high school athletes. He was Waubonsee’s Athlete of the Year and was All-Region and All-Conference in baseball. He set Waubonsee’s record for the most strikeouts in a game with 18. He led the nation in strikeouts, getting the attention of several professional clubs. However, his mother wanted him to continue his education and earn his bachelor’s degree, so that was what Yager would do.
He played baseball for a year at Lincoln Memorial University before transferring to Upper Iowa University, where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in kinesiology. At Upper Iowa, he played in the postseason before hurting his arm, just seven days before the major league draft.
“It was tough,” he said. “I saw it as my meal ticket. I was very angry that I missed my chance, but if you work hard and do what you’re supposed to do, you will be successful.” With an injured arm, professional baseball was no longer on the table for Yager. He thought back to the mentorship he had received from Randall and others at Waubonsee, as well as the joy he gained from passing on that mentorship to other youths.
“Right out of college, I began coaching Legion baseball,” he said. “I taught high school physical education and health at a foster care facility, mentoring and doing youth counseling. I wanted to give kids the same chances that I had.”
He decided that by being a certified personal trainer, through the American Council of Exercise, and a baseball coach, he could improve the lives of others.
“I want to help people learn how to stay healthy so they can live longer,” he said. “A lot of my family has passed, and I want to help people live a healthier lifestyle so they can stay with their families longer.”
In addition to his successful career as a personal trainer, he also runs J&J Baseball with Waubonsee alumnus John Buhs, who was his catcher at Waubonsee. He has now coached more than 1,500 young athletes, many of whom he has sent on to Waubonsee as a recruiter for the Chiefs.
“I just think of all the children I’ve been able to mentor and impact positively,” he said.
Women’s health and childhood obesity are particular focuses of Yager’s professional work. He also understands the health and nutritional issues that can affect people from lower-income households.
“I don’t feel like I’m done yet,” he said. “I have a lot of work left to do.”
Yager continues to defy the odds. He plays men’s slow-pitch United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) softball on professional teams that play in tournaments around the country. He most often plays for GTL/Combat, a bat company that sponsors a team. Now known for his strength at the plate, he routinely blasts homeruns to help his team to victory.