Former SVSU basketball player Josh Eisenga has made a near-full recovery after an August 2010 car accident left him in a coma for nearly two months. With the support of his coach and teammates, he hasn’t given up his dream of playing Cardinal basketball again.
After more than a year of not playing basketball, Josh Eisenga is back on the court – and he’s his own worst critic.
“Physically, on the basketball court, I can’t do nearly anything that I used to be able to,” Eisenga said. “I can’t jump. I’m not agile. I’m not really coordinated at all. I play pick-up ball with the students here and 25 percent of the time if not more, they pass me the ball and I don’t see it coming.”
On one hand, Eisenga has good reason to be upset. At 6-foot-7 and 235 pounds, he was a physical presence in the post and one of the key defensive players for SVSU two years ago. Entering his junior season, head basketball coach Frankie Smith said that he looked like “he was ready to be the most physical player in the GLIAC.”
On the other hand, it’s easy to see where the former walk-on from McBain High School might be a bit hard on himself. After all, it was only a little more than year ago that he was re-teaching himself to walk.
The Accident and Recovery
On Aug. 15, 2010, Eisenga was the lone passenger in a car driven by a high school friend. The two were driving near McBain in northwest Michigan when his friend lost control of the car and struck a tree.
Eisenga’s friend made it out of the collision with only minor bruises, while Eisenga suffered brain damage and broken ribs. He was forced into a coma for nearly two months.
For a month, all he could do was open his eyes.
Instead of beginning his junior year on the Cardinal basketball team, Eisenga competed against his own injuries last year, undergoing speech rehabilitation, occupational therapy and physical therapy to fight his way back onto his feet.
After taking all of last year off from school for rehabilitation, Eisenga is back in the classroom, taking classes in pursuit of occupational therapy. He took six credits in the fall semester, earning a 4.0 grade point average. This semester, he is taking 10 credits.
“Right now my health status, cognitively, is back to normal,” Eisenga said. “I might think a little slower, but there aren’t things I really have trouble comprehending in class.”
Physically, Eisenga has made a near-full recovery. He regained his driver’s license last February, and the man his therapists once nicknamed “Superman” no longer needs physical therapy. He sees a personal trainer once a week and works out the rest of the days on his own.
Although he is able to play basketball again recreationally, Eisenga has found that experience to be as frustrating as it is encouraging.
“Even in pick-up ball, I’ll shoot the ball and my friends will say, ‘That’s a good make,’ and I talk to them after the game and say, ‘Yeah, but that really wasn’t my game before,’” Eisenga said. “If anyone remembers what my game was before, I would be down low, physical as hell, getting rebounds and pushing people around.
“Right now, I can’t do any of that.”
But there was a time when he did it better than most.
Eisenga the Basketball Player
Eisenga walked on to the SVSU basketball team in 2008, played in 23 games and led the Cardinals in rebounding in three games. The next year, he averaged 16.1 minutes per game and led the team with 17 blocks, establishing himself as one of the Cardinals’ best interior defenders.
“Younger people on campus don’t know, but Josh Eisenga was the biggest enforcer in the post on defense not just on our team, but of everybody in the league,” Smith said. “No post player wanted to go against Josh Eisenga.”
Eisenga hasn’t given up on making a comeback.
“I’m going to try my hardest to be on the team. I’m working on it every day,” he said. “Right now I’m not good enough. Maybe next season, if I do get better, I can make that choice.
“But I want to make that choice myself. I don’t want that choice made for me.”
Smith, who said that he talks to Eisenga two to three times per week, has done everything possible to prepare him for that choice.
Together, the two have come up with a plan that allows Eisenga to take the time to continue to rehabilitate himself this year before rejoining the team and redshirting next season.
After that, Eisenga will still have two years of eligibility remaining.
“If he can get back to where he was, it’ll be more than a pleasure to have him back on the team,” Smith said. “I am one-thousand percent behind anything I can do to help. If anybody can come back from this, it’s Josh.”
Eisenga the Teammate
For now, Eisenga is doing all he can to support his team. He sits on the bench for every home game and, like the rest of his teammates on the bench, claps hands with every player that comes off the court. He sits with the team at halftime in the locker room and huddles up with the team on timeouts.
“We always say ‘family’ as a basketball team when we break from the huddle, and Josh is family,” Smith said.
In addition to having close relationships with coach Smith and assistant coach Charlie Coles, Eisenga also maintains friendships with the team’s veteran players, such as senior forward Eli Redman, senior guard Greg Foster and junior guard Michael Fugate, all of whom he had played with for several years before the accident.
“They know me and what I was capable of – and what I am hopefully capable of again,” Eisenga said.
But for the incoming freshman and transfer players such as sophomore forward Mike Schaaf and junior forward Jay Thames, that connection isn’t there.
“All they know of me, Josh Eisenga, is that I’m the kid who got in the accident,” he said.
Schaaf, Thames and Redman have attempted to fill the hole left by Eisenga’s departure.
But, as shown on Jan. 14 when the Cardinals allowed 36 points from Michigan Tech big man Ali Haidar, those shoes are hard to fill.
“I try to give advice to Mike and Jay, but sometimes I bite my tongue,” Eisenga said. “It’s just hard for me because they don’t really know me all that well. I feel like, in their eyes, I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
Eisenga said that even despite the history he has with many of the players, it’s still hard for him to feel like a part of the team.
“It’s hard for me to see the guys laugh and screw around in the locker room and do things that guys do together on a team,” he said. “It’s hard for me to be there and see that because I know I’m not there, I’m not having that kind of teammate relationship.”
The Past and the Future
For now, Eisenga is focused on building up his own physical strength and basketball skills. He said that he tries to look forward to his future rather than back to that night in McBain 18 months ago.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy.
“There are times when I do catch myself thinking about it, maybe when I’m at work or maybe when I’m lying in bed at night,” he said. “I just think about the ‘what ifs.’ What if I wasn’t in that situation? What if I was wasn’t in the car that time, that day? What if I would have stayed in Saginaw that weekend?
“I get really emotional, and it’s hard to think about. I guess the way to look at it is that it’s what life handed to me, and I’ve got to live with it and be happy no matter what.”