Jeffress makes strides while taking on epilepsy
Longtime condition gives Rangers reliever unique perspective on game, life
ST. PETERSBURG -- Rangers reliever Jeremy Jeffress believes his long and harrowing battle with seizures and juvenile epilepsy began at 15 with a freak accident on a basketball court.
"Me and my buddy were out there," Jeffress said. "I was trying to do some dunks and stuff. This kid literally came out of nowhere. I literally did not see this kid and I went up for a dunk and there was his basketball, right under my landing. I slipped on it and hit my head hard. My body froze. I got up, my head was dizzy and I just walked home. Didn't think anything else of it.
"I never went to the doctor about that incident. I just went home and said nothing about it. Took a nap. That's one thing I shouldn't have done. I hit my head pretty hard on the concrete. That was it."
That was the beginning. Sitting calmly on the bench in the visitor's dugout at Tropicana Field, Jeffress talks about the tribulations he has gone through for the past 12 years with epilepsy in the hopes that his story may help others.
"It's tough," Jeffress said. "I'm not going to lie."
The seizures didn't come until years later. Jeffress was taken by the Brewers in the first round of the 2006 Draft out of Halifax County High School (South Boston, Va.). His first seizure came in January 2008.
"When I had that seizure, I lost my memory a little bit," Jeffress said. "They were asking me who my mom was and I was looking at a strange face, not knowing who she was. It scared her, for sure. I woke up, I didn't know what happened. They said I had a seizure, but for a while, they didn't know what to call it.
"They thought it was sleep deprivation. After that, I had a couple more in a row. They put me on some medication, told me to take that. They still couldn't find out what was wrong."
It would be five years before a proper diagnosis was made as Jeffress suffered from insomnia, anxiety and muscle twitching. Simple things like brushing his teeth and ironing clothes could be a trial. The seizures didn't stop.
"I had one when I was Buffalo," Jeffress said. "I woke up with a pile of blood in my bed. The housekeeping lady came in and saw me."
It was a long five years. The initial suggestion was for Jeffress to get more rest, but that's hard to do when morning brings a flood of anxiety.
"It was very long," Jeffress said. "I was self-medicating ... doing it with marijuana. It would help, but at the same time, the rules and regulations of baseball wouldn't allow it. I had to find out other ways to deal with it."
Jeffress has tested positive three times for marijuana. The last one was in 2009 and cost him 100 games. One more positive test could result in a lifetime ban. Just like new teammates Josh Hamilton and Matt Bush, Jeffress has issues that must be dealt with daily.
"It's very tough," Jeffress said. "But there are certain things I can't do -- I can't self-medicate -- I have to follow the rules and respect authority and other people."
The turning point came in June 2013. Jeffress had gone from the Brewers to the Royals and then the Blue Jays, pitching for their Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo. The seizures were still prevalent and the Blue Jays were concerned.
"The Blue Jays, they had a pretty good doctor up in Buffalo they used," Jeffress said. "I kept having them and they wanted find out what was wrong. They sent me to a doctor and I had a sleep study for about a week. After I got out, I went to her and she said it was juvenile epilepsy. They finally figured it out."
Juvenile epilepsy, which represents 5-10 percent of all epilepsy cases, usually manifests itself between the ages of 12-18. Involuntary muscle twitching and seizures are among the signs.
Finally getting proper diagnosis and medication allowed Jeffress to live a normal life as a Major League pitcher. But the battle continues daily.
"I'm not a bad person," Jeffress said. "I have a lot of anxiety each and every day. Every day I wake up, I've got so much. I have a hard time waking up. Sometimes it's hard to go to sleep. Most of the time I'm by myself, I'm scared and nervous. But I'm doing things to make sure I'm well taken care of.
"I look at it as something I have to deal with. People have to deal with life. Life is a tough thing to go though. You're going to have ups and downs, you're going to have to deal with them. Take it and run with it."
Amazingly, it all goes away when Jeffress is on the mound. He refused outright assignment with the Blue Jays in April 2014, became a free agent and re-signed a Minor League contract with the Brewers. He reached the Major Leagues for good on July 23, 2014, and since then, he is 8-3 with a 2.41 ERA and 27 saves over 156 appearances. The Rangers acquired him and catcher Jonathan Lucroy on July 31.
"I know when I get on the mound, I am a different person," Jeffress said. "I feel like that's my comfort zone, my resting point. That's where I'm at my best. I am a savage out there. I'll fight for you, I'll fight for anything, anybody."
The family support is significant in the battle.
South Boston is a town of just over 8,000 on the Dan River in South Central Virginia, just across the border from North Carolina in rural Halifax County. Freddie and Yolanda Jeffress, married for 33 years, have made their home there. Jeremy is the youngest of four, behind sisters Kristie and Kelly, and brother Freddie III.
Freddie Jr. is a retired computer engineer and Yolanda -- a librarian and administrative assistant -- still works in the local school system. They also own 40 acres of farmland for growing tomatoes, cabbage and lettuce, as well as the family-owned Tees-N-Southfork golf driving range and full service restaurant. Life revolved around family, sports, school and the Spanish Grove Baptist Church.
"Middle-class people," Jeffress said. "We had dinner together every night together. They raised me right, that's for sure. I grew up in church. I'm a big believer in prayer and faith and try not to stress a lot.
"They have been with me through this, making sure I get all the right nutrients, I'm taking my medication and staying in tune with God. He makes everything happen."
Jeffress has his own family now. He and his fiancee Denise have a 2-year old daughter, Jurnee.
"Amazing," Jeffress said. "She is doing wonderful right now. She is 2. A lot of people say, 'the terrible twos,' but she's growing, she's talking, telling me, 'No.' She's a very open-hearted little girl. She is my princess.
"I know I'm excited to be in Texas. Great group of guys. These guys fight for you, I know that. I want to win, I'm happy to be here. Me and Lucroy came over here, we are enjoying every moment."
Beautiful family, thriving career, a new spot with a first-place team ... everything appears to be flourishing for Jeffress, but the daily vigilance with epilepsy continues.
Lucroy, who has known Jeffress since they were teammates in the Brewers' farm system, speaks with great admiration about how far his close friend has come.
"Like all of us, maturation is a big part of this game," Lucroy said. "We all have to grow in our own way. He had some issues and he conquered them. What you see is the culmination of all the hard work and maturation. You have this nasty, intense closer who is dominating.
"It is very special to see. His heart is in the right place and his head is in the right place. He wants to win. You couldn't ask for anybody better than Jeremy."