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Yankees Magazine: A Dream Deferred

Forced to give up his first love in high school, first baseman Luke Voit has found a home in the same place where his brother once lived out their college football fantasies -- Yankee Stadium
(New York Yankees)
December 19, 2018

There is a violence inherent to football. The sport triggers the primal instinct that lives within many, giving that urge permission to emerge. Hard collisions. Devastating hits. The gridiron is rage incarnate, and the full-bodied emotion can be terrifying. But that was the part Luke Voit loved most.Voit is not

There is a violence inherent to football. The sport triggers the primal instinct that lives within many, giving that urge permission to emerge. Hard collisions. Devastating hits. The gridiron is rage incarnate, and the full-bodied emotion can be terrifying. But that was the part Luke Voit loved most.
Voit is not a football player, although you'd be forgiven for thinking so upon first glance. His barrel chest and massive biceps give off a linebacker's air. Nevertheless, at first base he stands, wearing his newly won crown as a fan favorite in the Bronx after leading the Yankees -- and the American League -- with 14 home runs from Aug. 24 through the end of the season.
Voit lived some sort of a dream come true to finally achieve success on a grand sports stage, but it wasn't the original dream. He had always envisioned himself on the gridiron, dominating on his Missouri high school football team, then playing Division I in the SEC and, finally, making his way to the NFL. When he would lay his head down at night, he'd see himself lifting a crystal football or cradling the Lombardi Trophy and saying he was going to Disney World.

Instead, multiple shoulder injuries ended Voit's football dream before it ever really got started. By his sophomore year of high school, after surgeries and dislocations galore, Voit made the decision that football wasn't going to be his path. Except, not really; his body made the decision. Voit never really signed on, but either way, his life's direction was about to change.
Luke wasn't the only boy in the Voit house with gridiron dreams. His younger brother, John, had goals all his own that focused squarely on football. So while Luke re-set his sights on the baseball diamond, John stayed locked in with the pigskin. Four years Luke's junior, John, who also played football and baseball his whole life, decided during his junior year of high school that football was going to be his main focus moving forward. He was going to keep the Voit football dream alive.
While Luke worked his way through baseball's minor leagues and overcame setbacks to eventually earn the respect and admiration of a notoriously harsh New York audience, John starred in high school then earned a spot on Army's football team, eventually being named a team captain his senior year and authoring one of the more memorable plays in Army history.
Dreams are funny things. In some ways, they are so vivid and memorable -- the what happened, the feelings of greatness that can leave you striving to make it real. The how you got there in the first place, though? That's often lost, or fuzzy at best. Luke was a football star in the making with SEC dreams, and yet here he is at first base in the Bronx. John? He rose to impressive levels of success at one of the most-recognized institutions the world over. For the Voit boys, certain aspects of their dreams came true -- greatness was realized. But their journeys, each with a stop at Yankee Stadium of all places, defy belief.
***
Based on physical attributes alone, none of this would have been surprising. Luke and John Voit were made for the football field. Just stepping onto the grass, the two imposing figures had an advantage over most of their peers. They also had that characteristic that pushes a select few over the top, a work ethic and a leadership quality that coaches dream of.
As the older brother, Luke set the example. Their neighbors in Wildwood, Missouri, knew that on any given day you could find the Voit boys outside playing catch or throwing a football; having fun, but improving their skills at every turn. From an early age, Luke focused on strength and conditioning at a local gym with trainer Brian Fitzmaurice. John took notice and eventually joined the gym, as well. Amid the clanging weights and grunts of athletes chasing myriad goals, Luke and John were equals.
"We were super competitive, and even though he's four years younger than me, he still kept up with me," Luke says. "I always played with him, and that showed what a competitor he is and where his work ethic came from because I was always hard on him. Even with video games we were the same way -- always competing -- and either I'd win or he'd win. It was never overwhelmingly me over him or the other way. We just grew up doing everything together."
John echoes his big brother, reminiscing about what he called an "all-American childhood" spent in the backyard playing until the daylight disappeared. Those days spent roughhousing with Luke helped make John who he was, but so did his older brother's influence.

"I copied everything he did," John says. "The clothes he was wearing, the sports teams he was liking, I wanted to hang out with his friends and follow him around and just be that annoying little brother. But the thing that stood out for me was just his work ethic."
John turns the conversation to the grit his big brother showed during his do-it-all month in the Bronx, the way he seemed to will his way into the everyday lineup. "He's always had that. He's the hardest worker I know, and I've always tried to copycat that."
Both possess a preternatural affinity for work, one that is immediately obvious regardless of location. On the field, in the gym and in the classroom -- although Luke gives the edge to John here -- there was no place where the brothers would concede to being outperformed.
"Luke's No. 1 attribute is his mindset and his work ethic," says Fitzmaurice. "That's why he's successful; he's willing to outwork the competition. [John]'s a great athlete, cut from the same cloth, hard-nosed. You won't meet a more serious, more driven, pure leader."
"Me and John always wanted to be the best," Luke says. "We weren't always the fastest or the strongest, but we wanted to outcompete you. Whether that was with mindset or toughness or going to the gym earlier than you or staying later than you or being up earlier than you, it was something we always had and we always wanted. To be the leaders of whatever team or sports or off-the-field activities, in a business setting, whatever, it's just something that we've always had."
Luke and John both attended Lafayette High School in Wildwood, where they excelled on every kind of sports field or court. The school had produced MLB stars Ryan Howard and David Freese, and the Voit boys wanted to add their names to the list of Lancers who made it on the big stage. Whether it was basketball, baseball or football, there wasn't a season during which the Voits weren't putting on some numbered jersey and giving it their all. On the diamond, Luke powered the middle of the Lancers' lineup, batting .486 his senior year with six homers, 17 extra-base hits and an .892 slugging percentage to earn first-team all-state honors. Four years later, as captain of the Lafayette football team, John was named first-team Class 6A All-State, earning first-team all-metro and all-conference honors, as well.
The boys were natural leaders, and teammates flocked to them. "[Luke] brought intensity and a great passion for the game and for the sport," says Boyd Manne, the football and baseball coach at Lafayette. "He seemed to bring the most and the best out of his teammates around him because his enthusiasm was contagious. … The work ethic rubbed off on [Luke's and John's] teammates because they were the first ones there and the last to leave, and the intensity with which they went about things was fun to watch."
The only thing on both boys' minds was getting to the next level, some next level, any next level. When Luke had to put his football dreams to the side, he threw himself full force into a new reality. And when John gave up baseball, he had but one goal.
"I really just wanted to play on the biggest stage possible," John says, recalling how he and Luke would go with their parents, Lou and Janice -- both University of Missouri alums -- to watch the Tigers play. "So, getting an offer from Missouri or Texas or some Big 12 team would have been my dream. I know Luke's talked about the SEC, but for me it was just going to the games and stuff like that that made it my biggest goal. I didn't want my parents paying for college. I wanted to get to college on my own, get a scholarship -- and I knew I could do it. I think that's eventually just where I wanted it to go."
Despite their determination, neither Voit was heavily recruited. Even though Luke was selected out of high school by the Royals in the 32nd round of the 2009 MLB draft, he was still planning to go to junior college before Missouri State came in with a last-minute scholarship offer. He accepted and made three All-Missouri Valley Conference teams in four years. And regardless of how much John dedicated himself to proving his worth on the gridiron, the D-I offers failed to roll in. It wasn't until The U.S. Military Academy at West Point's coach showed up to discuss joining the squad -- and by extension, committing to Army service -- that John could finally reach out and touch that football dream.
John had never even heard of West Point, but he had grown up playing with toy army-men figures and, in the back of his mind, had always entertained the idea of serving his country. After visiting the campus in upstate New York, he fell in love. In January of 2013, John signed on the dotted line. He'd be playing on a bigger stage. Then, just a few months later, Luke was selected by their hometown St. Louis Cardinals in the 22nd round of the 2013 MLB draft. He'd be pursuing a big stage all his own.
To this day, Manne uses both Voit brothers as examples of what student-athletes should be, breaking out newspaper clippings of the Voits' on-field exploits to demonstrate perseverance and hard work. Look at them, achieving their goals, not letting adversity set them back, Manne will tell his players. They made it.
***

The Voit brothers live for and vicariously through each other. They lift each other, cheer for each other, and throughout their lives have pushed each other toward greatness. And even though they took vastly different paths, somehow they still both wound up in the same place: Yankee Stadium.
It was 2014, John's freshman year at West Point, and Army's season was not going well. Despite their 2-6 record, though, the Black Knights knew that their Nov. 8 game against Connecticut would be a big one. They would be playing at Yankee Stadium, where Army hadn't won since 1960 (at the previous incarnation of the ballpark).
John had dreamed of playing on the biggest stage possible, and here it was, served on a frieze-lined platter.
"We grew up watching college football and I'd seen Notre Dame play in Yankee Stadium, so to be able to go into that atmosphere was cool," John says. "I had never been to Yankee Stadium, that was my first time, and I remember going in the locker room and suiting up in there, seeing Derek Jeter's locker. I've always been a Cardinals fan, but you can't not like Derek Jeter. … We were all like little kids in there."
Army jumped out to a first-quarter lead that the Black Knights' defense, including John on the defensive line, never relinquished, thwarting a late comeback attempt by the Huskies. With less than a minute to go and Army up by a touchdown, UConn had marched to the 1-yard line. Huskies quarterback Chandler Whitmer called for the snap from the shotgun and, with Voit racing toward him, rushed a throw that was intercepted by Army defensive back Chris Carnegie, who returned it 99 yards for a game-sealing touchdown.
It was one of the first big moments for Voit, who by his senior year had been elected captain of the Black Knights. During that final season, he authored his last big moment on the gridiron. It was Dec. 9, 2017, and Army -- which had snapped Navy's 14-year winning streak in the famed series in 2016 -- was trailing its archrival by three points in the third quarter with Navy driving for another score. John raced through the snow and mud at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia to make a shoestring tackle of quarterback Malcolm Perry, who had an otherwise clear path to the end zone. After the tackle energized the Army sidelines, the Black Knights held the Midshipmen to a field goal, extending their lead to just 13-7. Army crafted a game-winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter to win back the Commander in Chief's Trophy, which Voit lifted high in the air as his proud brother stood nearby on the sidelines.
"[That tackle] is probably a top five or top 10 memory at West Point," Luke says, beaming with pride. "Of late, West Point hasn't been what they wanted to be, so for John to bring that back and get to see him lift the trophy was pretty exciting. For him to be the captain and hold the trophy after that game was something I'll always remember."
Just a few months earlier, Luke had authored a lifelong memory of his own. It was July 3, and he had been called up to The Show about a week earlier. He was making his third-ever start and looking to make a good impression before the All-Star break. John was in town on the last day of his Fourth of July leave, so he watched his brother from the Busch Stadium stands.
In the eighth inning, the Cardinals were leading the Marlins, 12-6, and Luke walked up to the plate with a runner on second. John sensed something might happen, so he switched his phone's camera to video mode and pressed record. Luke worked the count full before launching Jarlin Garcia's sixth offering to straightaway center field for his first home run as a Major Leaguer.
"I'll always keep that video because it's the coolest sports moment ever," John says. "Watching him do that, after going to a billion Cardinals games and watching our favorite players do it, it was so surreal. I was literally like a little kid. Seeing him do it was unreal. I couldn't breathe.
"And then to watch him do the same thing with the Yankees …"
Yes, Luke impressed in that first stint with the Cardinals, but ultimately he was blocked at his position by other players. So in July of 2018, St. Louis dealt the big first baseman to the Yankees. And at Yankee Stadium, Luke started setting the world on fire.
After a brief initial stint, he rejoined the big club in late August and, thanks to a torrid final month, wrested control of the everyday first-base job for the stretch run and postseason. The 27-year-old clubbed 14 home runs in 39 games, inspiring Yankee Stadium crowds to bellow "Luuuuuke" every time the slugger stepped to the plate.
It was a different dream come true -- hearing those fans was better than anything Luke could have ever imagined. But the regular season was only the beginning. The Yankees would host a winner-take-all American League Wild Card Game against Oakland at Yankee Stadium. It was October baseball at its most nail-biting, and Luke Voit was starting at first base. The Yankees had jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning thanks to a home run by Aaron Judge, but both offenses had gone quiet, and in the bottom of the sixth inning, the tension in the air was thick.
Judge led off the inning with a double, then scored on a double off the bat of the next hitter, Aaron Hicks. A walk to the following batter, Giancarlo Stanton, put two men on base for Voit. He worked a nine-pitch at-bat against All-Star reliever Blake Treinen, one of the best pitchers on the A's unconventional staff. After the pitcher threw Voit eight straight sinkers, he tossed a 90 mph slider that Voit turned on and drove deep to right field. Thinking he had gotten all of it, Voit exploded with joy, hopping down the first-base line, pointing to the sky. So when the ball bounced off the top of the wall and Voit had to turn on the jets -- no small feat for the 255-pounder -- racing into third base for his first-ever triple, the Stadium, not to mention the Yankees' dugout, erupted in a mix of joy and laughter. The "Luuuuuke" chant was louder than ever, and the first baseman stood on the bag and smiled, taking it all in.
This wasn't the initial dream. Had you told a young Luke Voit that his greatest sports moment would come while wearing pinstripes playing October baseball, listening to the Yankee Stadium crowd scream his name as he stood on third base, he probably wouldn't have been mad, but he'd be a little surprised.
And if you said to a young John Voit that when he got his first real crack at the big stage of D-I football, it would be for Army and at Yankee Stadium, there'd be some questions he'd want answered.
But so it goes. Four years apart, both Voit boys helped bring a Yankee Stadium crowd to its feet.
Luke had always led the way, so it's ironic that John's Yankee Stadium moment came earlier -- another story for the grandkids from a lifelong sibling rivalry built on love and respect.
"He's this big leaguer now, making the big bucks," John says, a bit of mischief in his voice. "But I was like, 'Well, I played in Yankee Stadium before you.' So, at least I've got those bragging rights."
True as that may be, Luke expects to add more unforgettable moments to his brother's camera phone. And John, having graduated from West Point, has thrown himself into a new dream, a new goal -- becoming an Army Ranger and defending a nation.
You see, the dream never actually ends; it just changes. It gets sharper in some places, fuzzier in others. The where, how and even the what are never for sure. Nothing is guaranteed. But dreams exist to be chased. And in the case of the Voit brothers, the work never stops. They keep striving for more, pushing each other and supporting each other every step of the way.
"It's almost like I got to live through [John], and he'd probably say the same thing with me through baseball," Luke says. "It did suck, I obviously did want to play football; football is my No. 1 love. But God has a way of fixing something and telling me I can't do it, and he did that with me getting hurt and ripping my shoulder up. But it's a blessing, and I got to live through my brother and I got to get a little taste of it.
"I'm super proud of him, and it's almost like he got an A-plus from an older brother's standpoint. What he did and accomplished, and obviously he's got to go defend our country now, which is really scary, but that's what he signed up for and as much as it's scary, it's exciting."
"It's amazing, we're like the same person, we think exactly alike, we might as well be twins," John says. "I know we're four years apart, but just being able to do both baseball and football as our things, sports have been our whole lives, and so to see ourselves live out our dreams together doing that is really cool. And I think it's really humbled us because one bad injury could have put us out. And if you look at Luke, he's had two of those but he keeps on persevering and he's done great things. Just being able to have him as a brother, we've been apart for the past five years or since I've been at college and he was at Missouri State, but we're still able to kind of be there for each other."

Hilary Giorgi is the senior editor for the New York Yankees. This story appears in the 2018 New Era Pinstripe Bowl Official Game Program. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.