Kentucky by Heart: Standout pitcher Will Brian rides walkout EKU success at New York Yankees

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune Columnist

The path of the New York Yankees’ next great relief pitcher may well pass through an unlikely place, the community around Brandenburg, Kentucky. That’s because Will Brian, a 23-year-old southpaw raised there, was drafted by the Yankees this summer after finishing his career in Richmond as an EKU closing reliever and earning national recognition in doing it.

Will originally made the East team as an extra, and he finished his senior year with some very impressive credentials. He was 3-1 with a 1.83 ERA and 15 saves in 31 appearances. He allowed just 16 hits while walking 14 and striking out 53 in 39 innings. He made three All-American teams and his 15 saves are now an EKU record.

Makenzie and Will Brian with their three golden retrievers (Photos by Will Brian)

I recently met Will in Versailles, where he lives with his wife, Makenzie, and did this Q&A with him while he was attending a Yankees teaching program in Florida. I quickly realized how polite and grounded he is, and I will strongly support this special Kentuckian, like many others.

I also had the opportunity to ask Makenzie — also polite and well-grounded — if she’s a little nervous about ever living in New York if Will makes it to the Yankees.

“Yeah, that makes me a little nervous,” she said. “I’ve never been to New York before, and while it’s exciting, it’s also daunting. But I know it’s part of God’s plan, and I’ll go where he takes me. I am so proud of the man that is Will and all that he has worked for, I know that if it’s meant to be, we’ll be happy no matter where we go.

Here is the interview with Will Brian:

SF: You were a small-town boy from Meade Count who joined the Eastern Kentucky University baseball team, made great strides, and was then drafted in the tenth round by the New York Yankees. It’s an inspiring story, that’s for sure. Describe what it was like growing up in your community, playing sports, learning core values…and of course, dreaming big dreams.

BM: So I first moved to Meade County when I was 9, and every kid’s worst fear is moving and having to meet new friends and get used to a whole new region. For me, Meade County wasn’t like that. It is a small town (region) where everyone knows everyone and there are good relations in this community. It was very easy to make friends and wanting to play sports is something Meade County excels at, so it was easy to get my “foot in the door”.

Will Brian will pitch in the Rookie League for the Yankees organization (Photo by Will Brian)

When it came to sports, our community was very important to sports because our sports were no joke. We are one of the best high school athletic programs in Kentucky, in my opinion. A distinguished school all around. Growing up in this community, even as a young child and (as) a teenager, you felt like there were standards when it came to sports. We are a winning sports school and we push the limits as if we were a university team. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t think I would be where I am today.

The support, the constant push for success and the lessons that I learned at such a young age (came) at such a young age from these sports. I learned to be more mature, to be professional in what I do, and to learn that things won’t be given to you and that you have to work for what you want.

Now to dream big…I felt like every kid in Meade County had a dream to play for the Yankees because I felt like most of my friends or people in the community were Yankees fans. So when I got drafted, it wasn’t just special for me but for everyone in the community. I hope to be able to encourage many children, young and even older, to pursue their dreams.

SF: After joining the EKU baseball team, you didn’t immediately perform at the high level that you did later. Discuss the process of maturing, including your personal growth and the influences you have received from your coaches and others over these years.

BM: Coming to Eastern as an extra and a freshman, I had a lot of nerves. I knew there was a lot to learn and a lot to accomplish. It was the first time I was away from home, friends and family, so I was very isolated from everyone. I finally had to realize that this was my life and the only person who could do anything about it was me.

God had a plan for me; I just had to take the first step. After taking this first step, I began to mature into becoming a man, being independent and not relying on others. You meet people all over the world and it’s a great opportunity to just be yourself. Eastern’s coaches have played a huge role in my maturation and have simply been major influences in my life. Our coaches loved what we did on the pitch, but they also cared a lot about our off-pitch experiences. They constantly asked us how our life was going and what they could do to improve our stay there, which I loved. They taught me to play at a whole new level that I didn’t know I was capable of and it opened my eyes to the draft being an option as I get older.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, speaker, and author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a children’s version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly columnist for NKyTribune, and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at [email protected] or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Photo of Steve by Connie McDonald)

SF: You’ve already had a taste of minor league ball and are currently continuing your development in a Florida instructional league. How does this experience differ from your time playing for EKU, and what are the current and future challenges?

BM: EKU is very competitive and so are the Yankees. Whatever happens next is going to be different as well because in college it goes from balancing school and baseball both to just playing baseball and it will become a profession very quickly and all I do is baseball. Eastern prepared me for the opportunity to play professional ball, so I’m very grateful for that, but with the resources we have at the top level, it’s definitely a big difference. Now, with the challenges, it’s like any job. Nothing is going to be easy and you have to work hard to get where you want to be so the only challenge I face is myself and how hard I am willing to work to get where I want to be.

SF: Realizing that a lot of things are out of your control, that is. injuries, competition and a certain amount of luck, what would hopefully be a reasonable timeframe for you to reach your ultimate goal of playing in the majors?

BM: As long as I stay positive, work hard, be strong, pray and trust God, things will work out. If someone asked me if I could be in the majors tomorrow, I would say yes. There’s so much to learn, but who doesn’t want to be there? I don’t want to put a timeline on anything because ultimately the only one who knows where you will be the next minute is God. Since my freshman year of college, I have strengthened my relationship with God every year. There have been ups and downs before and he has always put me in the position that I am in. To be able to trust him and trust him and trust him, no matter how hard things get, he will always bless me. So I rely on him and I believe that as long as I do the right thing and do what my heart tells me, that’s what he would want for me.

SF: You got married in 2021 to a beautiful young woman from Versailles. Talk about your relationship and the careers each of you are pursuing. Be sure to also discuss the three special dogs in your family.

BM: As I could talk about my wife and our trip indefinitely, I will keep it short. My wife and I met my freshman year of college. I was hurt at the time and she met me at one of the most difficult times of my life. Mentally and physically I was struggling but she gave me hope and gave me a reason to want to keep going. At the time we met, I had no idea she would be attending Eastern, which would later be the icing on the cake. The fact that the two of us were together all the time was something that made both of us feel secure in our relationship. She majored in Recreational Therapy with a minor in Equine Therapy while I majored in Accounting and Finance. We both graduated this year getting married in 2021 and being together for four out of five years. For about a year that we were together, we both knew what we wanted in life that involved each other. We just needed to go into specifics.

We always wanted dogs, but she wanted to raise purebred golden retrievers and I wanted to be a professional baseball player. Well, the ultimate goal was that we both wanted to be happy and support each other, so that year we bought our first gold. Now after years later we have three purebred goldens, working out of four, and are about to start our business and I am a professional baseball player. Which might seem like a problem, Makenzie and I have a great balance between doing everything that makes our marriage stronger and just showing us that we’re willing to do anything for each other.

SF: You have already accomplished a lot at your age, with hopes and plans to accomplish much more. What advice would you give to a young person to inspire them to reach their full potential and succeed in life?

BM: For those who struggle mentally and physically like me, I would tell them that there is always light at the end of the tunnel and times can get tough, but trust God, trust yourself and lean on your loved ones who support you and keep pushing yourself and the results will show. Just give it time.

For those who are maturing…for a long part of my life, before I started to mature, I was constantly looking at people and wanting to fit in with people who were better than me, or just comparing myself to. But comparison is the thief of joy and drags you down. Stay positive, don’t let people get you down, focus on yourself and your loved ones, and add value to yourself and others around you.

Overall, doing things halfway won’t get you where you want to be. Do what you’re supposed to do the right way and more. Stand out, set standards and excel.

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