SPRINGFIELD, Mo.—It wasn't supposed to turn out like this . . . right? A lightning-quick line drive strikes a junior-college lefthander in the left eye, doctors can't save it and, well, that was supposedly the end of a young man's career, finished at age 20.
And yet these days the Southeast Missouri State Redhawks are talking about that same pitcher as their likely No. 1 starter this season. A guy with hopes, dreams and a surgically inserted glass eye.
Lefthander Jordan Underwood can't believe it, either. It's been some journey since that dark day at Seminole State (Okla.) JC. He enters this season badly wanting to reward the coaches and teammates, past and present, that implored him to soldier on. That's the story, he emphasizes.
"We have 18 seniors this year, and this is a pretty special group," Underwood said. "They stuck their neck out and gave me an opportunity. So I hope I can be part of something special."
Truth is, the Redhawks feel as if they already are part of something special and that any conference title or NCAA tournament berth would only be a tremendous bonus.
Since his arrival on the Cape Girardeau campus, they say, Underwood has showcased the greatness of sports through his never-quit determination. With one eye, Underwood: trained how to pitch again; found his way back to the mound despite a couple of D-I schools understandably shying away; and somehow cleared a menacing NCAA legal hurdle that could have derailed it all.
Now here he is, back after a 6-5, 4.11 junior season, accomplished without the benefit of fall practice.
"Even if he hadn't thrown well," longtime Southeast Missouri State coach Mark Hogan said of Underwood's first appearance in 2010, "I was still willing to do this. It's a story you come across only once in your lifetime."
Plenty Of Motivation
Credit Seminole State for Underwood's turnaround, as the team's trip to the NJCAA World Series in Grand Junction, Colo., provided the motivational push. Two months earlier, Underwood's left eye had taken a direct hit in a game against Northeastern Oklahoma A&M in Miami, Okla.
"In my 25 years of coaching, it was probably one of the worst injuries I've seen," Seminole State coach Jeff Shafer said. "There was a loud sound, so I rushed out to the mound. His face was in the dirt and you really couldn't tell how serious it was. But when he rolled over, you see the severity of the injury. And yet he wanted to walk off."
Because the area around Underwood's eye quickly swelled, the pitcher was immediately med-flighted to nearby Joplin, Mo., and then flown to Oklahoma City.
Doctors did what they could over the next two weeks, at first attempting to stop the bleeding around his swollen eye and then later making a longshot attempt to reconnect the retina. But . . . "There was really nothing they could do," Underwood said.
Anyone can imagine how his life suddenly changed from there. At one point, Underwood tried pouring a packet of sugar into a glass of iced tea—and missed badly.
"That's one of those things I'll remember," he said.
To Underwood, the sugar episode seemed to carry a larger, sober meaning: Baseball would have to go on without him. If he couldn't pour sugar into a cup, how could he pitch?
But the way his Seminole State teammates played in their own journey to Grand Junction had a profound effect.
"I saw how much it meant to me," said Underwood, who had been recruited out of Edmond (Okla.) Memorial High. "And it wasn't so much not getting to play but having been around the guys for two years. I figured I would regret at least not trying."
Taking A Chance
Hogan still remembers Shafer's call that June: Underwood had the glass eye, sure, but was dedicated and hard-working. But Pittsburgh and Central Florida were no longer showing interest.
Hogan had won for years with those kinds of players, including several from Seminole State. So he took on Underwood as a flier.
"But," Hogan admitted, "I didn't know if the baseball part would work out."
On the day fall practices began in September 2009, the NCAA threw a curve, too. Student-athletes that lose a dual organ, such as a kidney, must apply for a waiver, requiring doctors and family to vouch for them.
That process consumed the entire fall semester, meaning Hogan didn't actually see Underwood pitch until cleared in early 2010.
Over the course of the next few months, the 6-foot-1, 186-pound lefty showed a fastball that ranged from 84-86 mph, a 12-to-6 curveball and a changeup he grips more like a palm ball.
Doctors' predictions that Underwood's depth perception would adjust were proven accurate, Hogan said, and the pitcher made a marked improvement in PFPs (pitchers' fielding practice). He also notes that Underwood is excellent at holding runners. Hogan said scouts have yet to show much interest but he hopes that changes this season.
"He's a guy that if he threw a little harder would be at an Oklahoma or a Texas. But Jordan Underwood knows how to get guys out and knows how to keep his team in the game," Hogan said. "Jordan has the presence on the mound to be a No. 1 for us."
Said Underwood: "I'm not going to get caught up in what I have to do get drafted. As far as I know, this is my last season of baseball. I'm just going to do my best."