Editor's Note: Reprinted from May issue of Spurs & Feathers.
By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe and Jenny Dilworth
When Clarke Schmidt walks off the mound after another strong start, he looks toward the sky, raises his hands heavenward and smiles, like he's basking in the glow of a bright sunshine.
In a sense, he is.
Schmidt is acknowledging what he believes is the source of his incredible pitching talent and the powerful inner strength that helped make him one of the best pitchers in college baseball.
He did it after a strong Opening Day start against UNC Greensboro in February, and again two weeks later when he shut out Clemson on the Tigers' home field.
"I have been blessed with a lot of talent and blessed with the ability to step out here every weekend and perform, so I have to give thanks to God who brought me onto this platform," Schmidt said on Opening Day.
Little did he know that three months later he would need that source of inner strength more than ever. And that he would be faced with a new challenge and a different platform on which to demonstrate his faith in God.
In the midst of an All-American season, one which was expected to propel him into the top 15 in the upcoming MLB Draft, Schmidt tore his ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The injury, the worst nightmare for a star pitcher, required Tommy John surgery followed by 12 to 18 months of rehab and recovery.
Suddenly, Schmidt's All-American season — he had just been named to the Golden Spikes Award watch list for national player of the year — came to a heartbreaking halt.
When Schmidt left the game in the sixth inning at Florida's McKethan Stadium, he felt no pop or pain in his right arm, only tightness and soreness. Team trainers initially thought it might be just a muscle strain, or at worse a sore arm that would require some rest. They scheduled an MRI in Columbia and waited optimistically for the results.
When Schmidt received the news, it was a blow not only to his team but to his hopes and dreams for the rest of the 2017 season and for his future as a pro prospect.
"Obviously, it is was devastating for me," Schmidt said after getting the news. "I wasn't expecting that when I went to the doctor that morning."
But Schmidt's story is not just about another star athlete suffering a serious injury right as his career is about to take off. It is a story of grace and humility, of perseverance and hope, and how an athlete with incredible faith handles such adversity.
"It's a tough pill to swallow," Schmidt said, "but I am going to have worse things in my life."
Part of Schmidt's positive outlook comes from the fact that he and his family had already dealt with worse news and faced more much frightening adversity.
Marine Col. Dwight Schmidt was an F-18 fighter pilot for more than 20 years, doing extended tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He raised his two sons to have a similar fighting spirit as they embarked on promising baseball careers. Clate became a rising star at Clemson, Clarke at South Carolina.
But near the end of his junior year, Clate was diagnosed with nodular sclerosing lymphoma, a subtype of Hodgkin disease and a form of cancer. He began chemotherapy the same day he was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in June of 2015. As Clate began his battle with cancer that summer, Clarke stayed home with him, bypassing the summer league showcases for college players to be by his brother's side.
Months later, the disease behind him, Clate returned to the mound at Clemson last season, tossing a shutout against South Carolina a night after his little brother had shut out the Tigers in Columbia.
Watching his brother battle cancer helped strengthen Clarke for the news that his pitching career would be delayed by arm surgery. And it helped him put his own setback into perspective.
"To go through adversity like that, that is unmatchable when you have your brother diagnosed with cancer," he said. "Me, I am getting arm surgery, I am not getting diagnosed with cancer or some life-threatening disease. I am extremely blessed."
Instead of dwelling on his injury and the end to his college career, or on how many draft positions surgery might cost him, Schmidt views the injury as a chance to honor God and demonstrate his faith in a higher power.
"When you have a position like this, you feel like everything is going your way and the next thing you know you get a blow to the ribs, you've got to rely on Him," he said. "I've been extremely blessed and I'm extremely thankful and my faith hasn't changed at all and hasn't deterred at all. He is much bigger than my problems."
To Schmidt, the injury is not a tragedy or a gut-wrenching setback, but an opportunity.
"God's got a bigger plan for me," he said. "He has blessed me with this wonderful platform and this talent and the support system I have, the fans, everybody who reached out to me, that was awesome. So for me to be able to have this position, God has put it in my life for a reason, so I am going to use it the best that I can and continue to glorify Him."
Teammate Wil Crowe knows what Schmidt is going through and is all too familiar with the long road he faces. Crowe suffered the same injury against the same team and on the same field two years ago. He missed all of the 2016 season, but came back strong this year, re-joining Schmidt in the Gamecock starting rotation.
Crowe was with Schmidt the day he got the news that he would need Tommy John surgery. He sat on the same couch in the same doctor's office that he did two years ago, this time lending support to his teammate and friend.
"You get this sick feeling in your stomach," Crowe said. "He's one of my closest friends, my brother, and it hit me, I think, I little harder than it hit him."
Though Crowe was able to help Schmidt with questions about the rehab process, he struggled for words to comfort and encourage his teammate.
"There is nothing you can say that is going to make him feel a lot better about it, especially the day he found out," Crowe said. "You're just kinda there to encourage and support him and show him that you love him."
The next day Schmidt met with his teammates, breaking the news that he would be unable to pitch the rest of the season. That, too, was an emotional moment. The news came as South Carolina was reeling, losing four straight SEC series and trying to turn around a disappointing season.
Schmidt was in tears and so were his teammates, who look up to the player who had become the spiritual and emotional leader of the team.
"Clarke was very emotional because he knew the effect it would have on his teammates," head coach Chad Holbrook said.
"Clarke has worked his tail off all year trying to put us in the best position to succeed and win," catcher Chris Cullen said. "To hear that news from him, he got emotional when he was talking to the team, and we got emotional, too."
Schmidt had surgery in New York on May 3. His prospects for a full recovery look good. The majority of pitchers who have Tommy John surgery recover and return to form, sometimes bouncing back even stronger than before.
South Carolina has three pitchers on its roster who have had the surgery and returned to pitch this season. Crowe has pitched well as a starter while red-shirt freshman Cody Morris and junior John Parke have made spot starts and helped in the bullpen. All three immediately reached out to Schmidt with advice and encouragement.
"They instantly took me under their arms and said, 'Hey, it is a long process, but if you do it the right way and you do the rehab the right way, you are going to come back just as good as you were, if not better,'" Schmidt said. "That is my outlook on it. I get a new arm and I get a new pitch count on my arm, so I am ready to go and get back out there."
As Schmidt begins rehab and supports his team during the SEC tournament, the June 12 MLB Draft looms large. Some projections had him going in the top 10 before the injury. With the prospect for a full recovery, he could still be a first-round pick.
"He has put himself in a great spot, with our without the injury," Holbrook said.
Though he could return to South Carolina for his senior season, like Crowe chose to do, Schmidt likely will still be drafted high enough that he can't turn down the chance to turn pro. He will see where he is drafted, consult with his family and make the decision every young baseball star dreams of.
While some teams might pass on a pitcher who has had reconstructive elbow surgery, Holbrook would advise against passing on Schmidt.
"He's a great prospect, a great kid, great character, he does everything the right way. I would want him in my organization because he's going to give you everything he has got," Holbrook said.
"Teams are drafting kids now who can be in the big leagues three or four years down the road. He can still be in the big leagues three or four years down the road. I would expect him to have a great opportunity in front of him come draft day."
In the meantime, Schmidt is relying on his faith to help him get through a grueling rehab process that will keep him away from baseball for several months. He is one of several Gamecock players who are devout Christians and use their status and platform to share their beliefs. They have no doubt he will recover and bounce back strong.
"The Lord gives its hardest battles to its strongest soldiers, and anything he puts you through he is going to pull you through," Crowe said. "Clarke is going to have a good mindset and he is going to go at it like it is his job. It might be long and it might be tough but he will come out of it and he will be better for it."
"He is mentally one of the strongest kids I have ever met," Cullen said. "He is a bulldog on the mound physically and he is not going to let something like this tear him down."
Along with his teammates, Schmidt will have another strong supporter in his corner. He was by his brother's side while Clate battled cancer, sitting with him during chemo treatments. And he was with his brother a year ago when he got the call that he was cancer free and when he was drafted by the Detroit Tigers.
Now Clate will help Clarke as he battles back from Tommy John surgery.
"I am going to be leaning on him a lot and he is going to be pushing me through this," Schmidt said. "To have my brother, who has been through this, and my family has been through a tough situation, that is going to be huge.
"I know there are going to be some tough days, but when you have a support staff like that, there are more good days than bad days."
A few hours after his surgery, Schmidt was sitting in his hospital bed, watching online as his teammates played a mid-week game against Wofford. "God is good!" he tweeted. The next day, he posted a message thanking his teammates, coaches and fans for their support. The message featured a Bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11: "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
It is that faith and promise that Schmidt relies on as he faces his next big challenge.