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Penn College student-athlete turns knee injury into a blessing

A serious knee injury on the cusp of soccer season rendered a choice for Jakob A. LeMay: Sit and stew or strive and succeed. The Pennsylvania College of Technology student chose the latter, a decision benefiting his future career prospects and today’s outdoor enthusiasts.

Tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during an off season tournament prompted LeMay to leave school to recuperate and retain eligibility for one last Penn College soccer season. He didn’t step into a classroom for a year, but LeMay employed and enhanced his education by designing products — including an award-winning tool — for a company that develops unique outdoor equipment.

He transformed a potential curse into a true blessing.

“I had the opportunity to have this amazing experience before I get my degree. Now that I’m finishing up school and going into my job search, I have this on my resume, and it’s a huge advantage for me,” said LeMay, who is scheduled to graduate in December with an associate’s degree in engineering CAD technology. “From the soccer aspect, I’m playing with the teammates I came in with, and we now have the (synthetic) turf field. For a lot of reasons, I think the injury set me up in a good way.”

The Snow Hill, Maryland, native ensured that would be the case shortly after sustaining the injury in August 2018. LeMay chose personal growth over self-pity and was determined to build on the four semesters of engineering design coursework he had completed at the college.

“If I was going to take a year off, I had to find something productive and worthwhile,” LeMay said.

Thanks to Brian Vargo, he did.

Vargo is the founder of Lewisburg-based Vargo Outdoors, which creates lightweight and durable outdoor gear, from stoves to backpacks to utensils. A year earlier, Vargo contracted LeMay to design a titanium spork. The student delivered a quality product, which made Vargo receptive to LeMay’s post-injury request for paid, temporary full-time employment.

“I happened to have a multitude of new product ideas, and I needed a mechanical engineer to put my ideas into CAD,” said Vargo, who became friends with LeMay’s family after they relocated from Maryland to Mifflinburg in 2016. “The timing of his leg injury serendipitously matched the needs of my company. It was a perfect match!

“Jakob was able to quickly understand my ideas and objectives with the new products I had visualized. We had a great relationship of bouncing ideas back and forth on how to make the designs better. The end result always exceeded my original expectation.”

LeMay’s proactive pursuit to advance his skills didn’t surprise Katherine Walker, assistant professor of engineering design technology.

“Beyond Jakob’s skills, he has sincere passion for engineering design that drives him to seek opportunity,” she said. “That passion, that drive, is one of the most difficult competencies to teach, if truly we are able to teach it at all.”

Growing up, LeMay always enjoyed art and drawing classes. He married that interest with engineering design while participating in a pre-engineering program throughout high school. When searching for colleges, one engineering design program stood out.

“It’s the way they go about it at Penn College,” LeMay said. “It’s the hands-on aspect. You learn and then you apply what you learned a lot more than other places I came across. I love it here. It was the right choice.”

That proved to be the case on the soccer field, as well. The center back earned considerable playing time as a freshman on Penn College’s NCAA Division III team and was named one of the squad’s captains prior to his injury.

“Jakob’s leadership was definitely missed in 2018, so knowing he was going to be back in 2019 made me excited, as we rely on him to help with all aspects of the team,” said head coach Tyler Mensch. “He worked extremely hard throughout his rehab to allow himself the opportunity to play this fall. Jakob made it a point that he wasn’t going to let a knee injury keep him from ever playing competitive college soccer again.”

When he wasn’t rehabbing a couple hours a day, LeMay spent his time collaborating with Vargo and using unfamiliar computer-aided design software — Autodesk Fusion 360 — to help develop 26 products.

“I learned it as I went along,” LeMay said. “Fusion 360 is very similar to Autodesk Inventor and SolidWorks, which we learn in school.”

LeMay’s embrace of the new program impressed his professor.

“The field of engineering design technology is advancing constantly,” Walker said. “It is typical for students to see change with CAD software each year they are in the program. With Jakob’s learning of Autodesk Fusion 360, he has not only demonstrated he can handle the changes that come with CAD software, but he can embrace change to attain a greater professional goal.”

The Sobata 398, an everyday carry knife, ranks as LeMay’s favorite Autodesk Fusion 360 design project for Vargo. “The combination of the satin finished, sintered titanium blade and the blasted titanium handle creates a classic looking knife that will feel practically weightless in the hand,” according to the product’s description on the Vargo website.

GearJunkie, a multimedia outlet that covers the outdoor industry, said the Sobata 398 is “unlike any other knife we’ve seen,” and bestowed “Best of Show” honors on it during the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market earlier this year in Denver.

“Jakob has a natural talent working in CAD,” Vargo said. “He was a pleasure to work with and an overall great person. I have no doubt that he will be successful in whatever he endeavors.”

LeMay’s experience with Vargo solidified his plans to become a product designer.

“I had a general idea this is what I wanted to do, but until you get into something and actually do it, it’s sort of hard to tell,” LeMay said. “Vargo opened my vision up as far as how I can use my degree and where I can take it.”

The experience also bought him enough time to recuperate from his knee injury and return to the soccer team for his final season.

“I was very anxious for the game to finally start,” LeMay said about the Wildcats’ 2019 season opener at Hood College. “The first few minutes of the game were pretty surreal. It was one of the best feelings. Being away from the team for that year and going through the rehab process was very tough mentally and physically. It makes me proud that I went through all that work and it paid off.”

Both on and off the field.

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