Vahe Gregorian

After brother’s near-death experience, Jack Sock is thankful for more than tennis

Jack Sock (right), who recently won his first ATP singles championship, and his brother Eric (left) took a break during a workout at the Carriage Club in Kansas City, Mo.
Jack Sock (right), who recently won his first ATP singles championship, and his brother Eric (left) took a break during a workout at the Carriage Club in Kansas City, Mo. The Kansas City Star

Consuming himself in what became his livelihood explains how Jack Sock suddenly is the second-ranked U.S. men’s tennis player, behind John Isner, in the ATP World Tour rankings.

So it was only natural that Sock, 22, a Blue Valley North graduate, was obsessed with rehabilitating a pelvic injury that required surgery in December. The injury kept him out of the Australian Open, so he was zoomed in on returning as soon as possible.

His single-mindedness had him on the move, out of the family’s Overland Park house about all day every day, training and hitting and churning to return.

If he wasn’t oblivious to those around him, exactly, his relentlessness kept him from fretting much that his brother, Eric, 24, had a sore throat that sure led to him sleeping a lot for a few days.

Besides, it was winter, and of course that would pass. A clinic nurse figured it was just a virus.

Then everything changed, forever, for Sock and his family around 6 one morning in mid-January.

From behind a closed door in the basement, Jack heard Eric screaming and scrambled up the stairs toward his room. Upstairs, their mother, Pam, heard the same chilling noise and hurried to Eric, too.

They found him clutching his side, in panic, saying, “I can’t breathe.”

The alarm didn’t ease in the emergency room at nearby Menorah Medical Center, where Jack remembered they did their best to treat Eric but that no one quite seemed to know what was happening, either.

“Saddest I’ve ever been. Most scared I’ve ever been, seeing your own brother like that,” he said. “Is he doing to make it? And you don’t really hear much. And it was like I need something. An answer, or something.”

As he faded out, Eric Sock remembered feeling like he was dying.

“I guess I could have never woken up,” he said. “And never known the difference.”

His family and friends, of course, would have felt the difference profoundly. They had to confront that anguish for the 10 days that Eric was “on his death bed,” as Jack put it.

Eric, they’d finally be told, was a day from dying before he was hospitalized and soon diagnosed with Lemierre’s Syndrome, a rare bacterial infection that can be fatal and was attacking Eric’s liver, kidney and heart.

The diagnosis by physician Michael Monaco, Jack said, saved Eric’s life. So did the staff at Menorah, each said, where Eric was put on a ventilator.

“As tough as that was to see, he was peaceful, finally, after breathing so fast trying to get air,” Jack said. “That was a good start, at least.”

Still, it all seemed endless.

“It’s an awful feeling being so helpless, just kind of staying there, sitting with him and he’s not able to talk or do anything (but) chew on ice chips; he doesn’t even know he’s doing it,” Jack said.

So Jack was especially grateful for the time with his parents and friends, grateful for the support through social media, grateful, even, for the quirky moments of comic relief just standing vigil for hours each day.

“He was hallucinating a little bit on the meds, talking a lot about Nebraska football,” said Jack, originally from Lincoln, Neb., where his father, Larry, still lives. “(Eric) thought he was the coach of the team for a few days.

“Then he was talking about (new coach) Mike Riley, as if he was the athletic director, like, ‘This is a great hire for the team.’”

Despite the few light moments, during that span and nearly three weeks overall Eric was hospitalized, Jack started playing “the blame game” with himself.

Irrationally but understandably, he wondered why he hadn’t been more conscious of his brother’s condition. How hadn’t he known Eric’s ribs and back had been hurting so much that he hadn’t been able to lie down?

Mostly, he thought about how grateful he’d be to see Eric recover.

So when Eric came off the ventilator, Jack just sat there crying. Then he told him “great job fighting through it, and I love you.”

The Jack Sock story always has been a family story and, in fact, a brothers story.

“We were always close, but this definitely makes you even closer,” said Eric, sitting near Jack one day last week at the Carriage Club.

Even Jack’s tennis career always has been entwined with Eric, starting back in Lincoln with Jack’s discovery as an 8-year-old of one of his mother’s old tennis rackets.

That led to hitting balls with Eric off their garage door and the parents signing them up for novice lessons and, ultimately, moving them to Overland Park to train at the Mike Wolf Tennis Academy.

Pam Sock somehow made it all work while Larry’s job as a financial adviser kept him in Lincoln. He would drive the 400 miles or so roundtrip about every weekend.

Known for his brash style, Jack won four Kansas Class 6A titles in an 80-0 high school career in which he lost one set … to Eric, who accepted that Jack had the greater aptitude for tennis and determined he either could be upset by it or “see him as a great person to be able to be around and learn from,” as Eric told The Star last year.

That’s a pretty sophisticated gift to give, but it reflects the closeness of the brothers that now has taken on another dimension that coincides with a tug Jack felt last fall to buy a home here that he’s waiting to move into.

“Spending as much time as I can spend (in Kansas City) is ideal,” he said.

Never more than now, never more than in the wake of the injury that kept him from Australia that he now considers a blessing.

As Eric recovered, Jack took to inscribing “4UERIC” on his shoes as practiced in preparation for returning to the tour.

Thinking of Eric, Jack cried on the court and in interviews at the end of the first round he played in March at Indian Wells, Calif.

Then a few weeks later, earlier this month, Jack won his first ATP World Tour singles title in Houston.

Maybe it’s too easy to say watching his brother nearly die is why Jack had that breakthrough.

But if you ask Jack, he’ll always remember what’s sometimes known as the “forgotten disease” and tell you it changed something inside him.

Something that’s stayed with him even as Eric has regained strength and is nearly able to return to coaching and says the medical prognosis is that “it’s all behind me.”

People around Jack always had hinted it would be good for him to slow down some and “cherish the moments,” he said. He understood the concept, but the tour keeps you going “pretty full-speed.”

Seeing a ventilator down his brother’s throat, though, made that thought resonate in multiple ways.

“When I think I’m not playing great today, something I might usually get upset over, I think back to this guy doctors said was one day away from dying,” he said. “So I think any struggle I think I have on the court is very small compared to actual reality.”

With all that, he says, he’s playing “a little more free” and “for more than myself” and more in the precious moment.

“Tennis is my life, obviously, and it’s my career,” said Jack, who is off to Europe shortly for a series of tournaments. “But it’s not the be-all, end-all. I love doing it. I want to have the most successful career I can.

“But the people closest to you are the most important. Family over everything.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to