Dwight Schmidt had never seen his two sons cry. Certainly not like this.
The sons of a Marine colonel (Dwight served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and flew F-18 fighter jets), Clate and Clarke Schmidt had always been stoic and even-keeled, not out of hardness but out of sheer perspective. They’ve seen the gruesome side of the world. They know it all too well. And for that, they’ve always appreciated the relative blessings of their own individual worlds even more.
The Schmidts are a positive, resilient breed of people. The Schmidts are firm in their Christian faith. The Schmidts smile. The Schmidts don’t cry.
But on a late spring day in 2015, they bawled.
Clate, Clarke, Dwight and his wife, Renee, were sitting on their back porch at home in Acworth, Ga., just after Clate—then a junior righthander with Clemson—had come home from his team’s NCAA regional at Cal State Fullerton. When the phone rang, and the doctor informed Clate that he had nodular sclerosis, a form of Hodgkin’s lymphoma—that he had that dreaded c-word at just 21 years of age—the Schmidts broke down. They sobbed as a family, in a way, making up for all those years of not sobbing.
But then that something special in the Schmidt family DNA kicked in. That radiant positivity. Suddenly, Clarke, Clate’s younger brother and a righthander at South Carolina, stood up and walked over to his brother and put his hand on Clate’s head.
“It’s my turn to pray over you,” Clarke told him. “The best doctor in the world is God. And God’s got it, kid. We’re gonna make it through it.”
It was a moment of peace. A moment of clarity.
The Schmidts didn’t cry again. Instead, they attacked cancer with everything they had. Clate started chemotheraphy on June 10, 2015, and Clarke stayed home from summer ball so he could be there for every treatment, for every moment of weakness or sickness, for every strand of hair that fell from Clate’s head as the chemicals pumped through him.
Together, the Schmidts beat cancer. Clate was declared cancer-free three months later. He pitched his senior season at Clemson in 2016 and was drafted in the 20th round by the Tigers—the organization he pitches for now, most recently with short-season Connecticut.
The Schmidts haven’t cried since the diagnosis. They had no reason to. Until this past Monday—almost two years to the day.
Clarke, now a junior at South Carolina, told his father not to come to Columbia, S.C., for the MRI. Clarke had left his start against Florida three days prior due to some tightness he felt in his right elbow. It was precautionary. He didn’t feel or hear any sort of pop. No excruciating pain. He didn’t think it was anything serious at all.
So Dwight stayed home, waiting to hear the results from the 11:30 a.m. test. At about noon, Clarke called his parents. He could barely get the words out, overcome by emotion.
His ulnar collateral ligament was torn. His season was over. His college career likely over. He needed Tommy John surgery.
“And I said, ‘I’ll be there,’” Dwight said. “Renee was working, and I had just gotten off work, and so I had some buddies cover me for the next couple of days, and I hopped in a car and hauled tail over to Columbia.”
The drive from Atlanta is about 3.5 hours. Dwight made it in 2.5.
Nearly the entire way, he was on the phone with Clarke—a three-way call with Renee—and both parents tried to console him. Now, this wasn’t cancer. A torn UCL isn’t life-threatening. The stakes are lower. The prognosis is far brighter. But for a young man in his junior season, poised to be a first-round draft pick, on the cusp of living out his aspirations, a torn UCL is devastating. It’s a blow.
When Dwight was about 60 miles into his drive, Clate joined the call. He had just gotten off the baseball field. With all four Schmidts on the line, Clate asked Clarke what the result of the MRI was.
Clate mourned with his brother momentarily—just like his brother had mourned with him two years prior. But his Schmidt genes didn’t allow him to wallow for long.
“Clarke,” Clate said, “it’s my turn to pray over you. And it’s my turn to push you through it.
“I got it.”
God is so good!!! Blessed to say that my brother is cancer free. Here is to my inspiration, love you bro. pic.twitter.com/sCuL9Ucidg
— Clarke Schmidt (@ClarkeSchmidt) July 30, 2015
Clate Schmidt could’ve been a first-round pick out of high school.
He was the best pitcher—and for that matter, hitter—at Allatoona High, touching as high as 96 mph on the mound with projectable offspeed stuff. Clate pitched for Team USA’s 18-under National Team in 2011 along with the likes of current big leaguers Alex Bregman, Joey Gallo and Addison Russell. He drew first-round buzz, but instead, he opted for Clemson, where he flourished for four years before getting drafted last June.
Clarke Schmidt, on the other hand, didn’t have those accolades, didn’t receive anywhere close to that kind of attention. He was just Clate Schmidt’s younger brother, a slightly built righthander who pitched in the upper 80s. He chose South Carolina—Clemson’s rival school—in part because he wanted to distinguish himself from his brother. He wanted to carve out his own path.
Even once he got to campus, Schmidt still felt like the underdog. He looked around the locker room and saw top recruits, guys who turned down first-round money—like his brother had. He struggled his freshman year, going 2-2, 4.81 in 58 innings.
But Clarke wasn’t going to let that continue. The Schmidts are fighters. The Schmidts are relentless.
“My freshman and sophomore year I was doing two-a-days every offseason and every chance I got,” said Clarke, now listed at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds. “I was working out, trying to put more weight on, and I think I put on like 30 pounds since I’ve been on campus.
“I gained a lot of velocity and ended up being a frontline guy and considered near the top of the draft. It’s huge for me. I take that with a lot of pride. My goal was just to be a frontline SEC guy.”
Schmidt’s coming-out party was his sophomore year, when he seized the Friday-night role and started touching the mid-90s with regularity. He went 9-5, 3.40 with 129 strikeouts to 27 walks in 111.1 innings and helped lead the Gamecocks to a super regional. This season, Clarke was pitching at another level entirely. Before his injury against Florida, Clarke was 4-2, 1.34 in his nine starts, striking out 70 with 18 walks in 60.1 innings. He was getting interest around the middle to back end of the first round.
The work he had put into the weight room and the time he spent honing his craft had been paying off. Clearly.
“I’m not saying this because he’s my brother,” Clate said, “but I’m saying this because as another athlete and as a man who prides himself in pushing himself to the next level and wanting to become better, I loved to see his work ethic day in and day out. Because he knows where he wants to go, and he knows how good he wants to be and how good he can be, and he just keeps pushing the envelope.
“And then you see it, it’s perfectly transparent from his freshman year of college. The kid who was kind of nervous getting on the mound, who didn’t really know if he wanted to attack guys, to a guy his junior year who said, ‘I dare you to hit this fastball. I dare you to get on base.’”
This spring, Clarke had been as electric as he was confident. In one of his last starts before the injury, against Vanderbilt on April 7, he was working 93-95 mph early and touching 96, racking up 11 strikeouts using a wipeout mid-80s slider and even coaxing a few swings and misses from an improved upper-80s changeup. Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin said after that game that Schmidt was the best pitcher his team had seen all year.
To have to cut this season short, especially with South Carolina (24-15, 9-9) coming off of four straight series losses, was incredibly tough for Clarke to swallow.
“His first thought was ‘I let my team down,’” Dwight said.
After Clarke called his parents Monday, he gathered the Gamecocks for a 1:30 p.m. team meeting, where once again, he was consumed by emotion.
“As a man and a college athlete, you never wanna see another man cry, but I broke down,” Clarke said. “And those guys took me in with open arms, and we had a good talk in the locker room. And the first thing I told those guys is, ‘I don’t want this to be about me. I want this to be about y’all.’
“I think those guys are still good enough to win. I can’t help them on the field anymore, but I can do everything I can to help them win off the field.”
Shortly after that meeting, Dwight pulled in from Atlanta, met Clarke at his apartment, and the father and his understandably emotional son went out to dinner.
“I was like, ‘Dude, I know you had personal goals,” Dwight said. “That platform that you have right now, you’ll probably motivate more people by what you’re doing right now than if you were a two-time All-American, Golden Spikes Award winner and Omaha champion.”
Clarke took those words to heart. Since Monday, there have been no more tears.
— Clarke Schmidt (@ClarkeSchmidt) June 10, 2015
They joke about it now. Already. It’s only been a few days since Clarke’s diagnosis. He hasn’t even had Tommy John surgery yet—that’ll happen next Wednesday. But the Schmidts have found the humor in it.
“We were laughing about it,” Dwight said, joking: “The Schmidts don’t do anything easy.”
Clate and Clarke have their own little joke.
“We have a tough junior year, as we found out,” Clate said, chuckling. “We have an interesting junior year in college—that’s what we like to laugh about.”
Clarke said he took Monday to mourn, but since then, he’s already put together a gameplan for the rehab process. He’s welcoming it. To him, it’s just a longer offseason, some extra time to work out. To get stronger. Like all of the Schmidts, he has the gift of perspective—from his faith, from his father’s military background, from his brother’s cancer.
“This is definitely not going to be the worst thing that’s going to happen in my life, and it’s obviously not going to be the best thing,” Clarke said. “But if this is the worst thing I have to deal with for the rest of my life, then I think I’m going to be all right.
“I had to deal with a 21-year-old brother getting diagnosed with cancer, and that’s something you can’t control. You can’t control how your brother responds to chemo, but I can control how I’m going to attack the rehab every day.”
Despite tearing his UCL in the midst of his draft year, the injury doesn’t necessarily torpedo his draft stock, either. There’s recent precedent for teams drafting pitchers in early rounds despite having Tommy John. In 2014, the Nationals drafted righthander Erick Fedde out of Nevada-Las Vegas with the 18th overall pick, knowing he’d be shelved by the surgery.
Schmidt’s stock was trending up this season with the way he had pitched and the stuff he had shown. A scouting director with a National League club said he thought “people will be shocked” at how high Schmidt still goes in the draft. His stock might not dip much at all, especially considering the work ethic and high character he’s shown throughout his college career.
“Everybody knows what they’re getting,” Clate said. “Everybody knows what’s going to happen, and they know the type of dedicated, hard-working individual that Clarke is, and that’s something that I’ve been telling everybody I see and everybody who asks me, is, ‘You know what you’re gonna get.’
“You’re gonna get a kid who works and works and works and pushes other people to work with him.”
What’s clear, too, is that Clarke has a tremendous support system in his brother. Clate has reinforced to Clarke the idea that he’s getting a brand new arm, a stronger arm. In a sense, he’s getting to hit the reset button.
“What I would do for a fresh-arm reset,” Clate joked, before adding, “Well, not literally.”
Dwight said he and Renee marvel at their sons’ poise, their mature attitudes and their love for each other. Clarke and Clate call each other after every start they make. Clarke was there for Clate every step of the way through his chemotherapy, and there’s no doubt Clate will be there for Clarke as much as he can be during his Tommy John rehab process.
“It’s unbelievable,” Dwight said. “You always teach your kids that you don’t want them to gnaw on each other, and they do gnaw on each other, like all good young men—especially Gamecocks and Tigers. But at the very end of the day, when the shoe drops, they are absolutely in each other’s corner.
“I can fight with you, and you can fight with me, but nobody can fight with us.”
The Schmidts smile. The Schmidts persevere. The Schmidts don’t cry. Clarke’s UCL tear is just another quintessential Schmidt story. Just like Clate’s cancer story two years ago, the Schmidts didn’t get to choose the beginning. But they got to write a happy ending.
Clarke, now, is in the process of writing his.
“Like I said about my story, it’s not a story for us,” Clate said. “It’s a story for others who follow behind us and what they go through and the endeavors that they are going to go through throughout their life. And the thing is, this is a small bump in the road. It’s something very miniscule.
“But the impact it could have on other’s lives—including your own and helping you grow—is something that’s going to last forever.”