Needing surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament as a pitcher “hits your soul,” said Garret Zaskoda, a former teammate of Justin Eckhardt.
On the other side, most pitchers coming back from what is more commonly known as Tommy John surgery throw harder and faster than they did before. That’s exactly what’s been on the mind of the 2018 Sealy High School graduate who redshirted his freshman year at the University of Texas.
Eckhardt, however, was able to use that time to observe the game from afar while also getting more comfortable in the college setting.
“Coming back from the injury has been a humbling experience but I’m actually happy for it honestly because I dissected the game and how everything works on the college level,” Eckhardt said in a phone interview. “The upperclassmen have shown me a lot, I learned a lot through my time being injured just seeing how the game works.”
That time with the injury was certainly not short but Eckhardt described his emotions when he was finally reconnected with the game he loves.
“It was a long, slow grind,” Eckhardt said. “The first time picking up a baseball you just want to throw it as hard as you can, but you can’t. It all started day one from about 45 feet with 20 throws just lobbing it to someone. My throwing program was eight months long or so and it probably took about a year and a half for my arm to feel like it used to without any pain or scar tissue issues or anything like that. I feel like my velocity is back to where it was before, if not even a little better, from where I was coming out of high school, honestly.”
During his time in a Tiger uniform, he was a four-year letter winner on the football field, baseball diamond, and track where he made the state finals in the high jump.
On the diamond, he earned all-district distinctions each year; first as the District 27-4A Newcomer of the Year, then a first-team outfielder as a sophomore and a first-team pitcher as a junior after posting a 9-1 record with a 1.55 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 72 innings.
He closed his high school career out with district MVP honors and a first-team all-state bid as an outfielder although all year long he knew something was up in his elbow. Even though it was Dane Bennett’s first year as the head man of the Sealy nine, he understood the situation he was stepping into.
“Coming in, I had listened to some of their past games on the Sealy Tiger Sports Network, so I knew that Justin was a stud,” Bennett said. “I knew he was already committed to UT which excited me, but some guys that are committed as high school seniors can be not very fun to coach. Justin was, and still is, the complete opposite of that.
“He is the hardest working guy I’ve ever been around,” Bennett continued. “He had the talent, obviously, he had the ability, but most importantly, he was super coachable and a great leader.”
Zaskoda agreed on the pedigree of leader that Eckhardt was and still is although they will soon be competitors when the Longhorns travel to Rice University to square off with the Owls, whom Zaskoda signed with this past spring.
When asked what it was going to be like on the opposite sideline from his former wide receiver, Zaskoda added Eckhardt was also “my pitcher and centerfielder and most of the time three-hole hitter, so it’s going to kind of be like playing with a role model I guess, someone you’ve always looked up to and then luckily got to play with.
“Love him as a teammate, love him like a brother, but while I’m on the field he’s gonna be the enemy,” Zaskoda continued. “So it’s like playing with my brother in anything – you gotta take it competitively, but at the end of the day, I’ll go over there and give him a hug and tell him I love him.”
His admiration for a former teammate was evident when breaking down Eckhardt’s return to the field, which Zaskoda will share with him on Valentine’s Day weekend.
“It was kind of hard on him, he’s been through an ACL but this was the first thing that was really difficult to come back from; you can come back from an ACL but this is different,” Zaskoda explained. “It’s a long process – at least a nine-month recovery – so it’s kind of long and TJ hits your soul a little bit as a pitcher but if anyone can come back right, it’s gonna be him. He’ll work right through it.”
That work ethic was another thing that stood out to Bennett and still sets him apart from others he’s come across.
“He was the true definition of what a leader is,” the coach said. “Some people can only lead by actions, some people try to lead by words, he was able to lead with everything. He was the best in the weight room, he was the hardest worker on the practice field, he stayed after to make sure he got extra cuts, did everything he needed to when he was on the field but come game time, if the team needed a spark, he was going to be the guy to spark them.”
Eckhardt will look to provide a spark to a Texas squad that will be coming off an unsuccessful season compared to the school’s history but he looks to be a part of the turnaround efforts in returning the Longhorns to the top of the college baseball world.
“I would say leadership was a big role that was missing last year,” he admitted. “The expectations have risen beyond no other, though. With Texas being known for their baseball program, we have good, strong senior leadership this year and not just seniors but juniors and sophomores showing the incoming freshmen and recruits how things need to be ran around the University of Texas.
“The leadership is there, (and so too is) an all-time competitiveness,” he continued. “Every day at practice it’s all about competing for a job for a starting position because you’re playing with the best of the best and if you’re not on your A-game, someone else is and they’re wanting to take the starting role. We’re a real competitive team, a real humble team and we’ve got good leadership.”