College pitcher returns from devastating injury

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Jordan Underwood's life shifted in the instant the line drive smashed into his left eye.

"Your first thought was, 'Is he alive?' said Ky Burgess, Underwood's catcher that day. "He was not moving. He didn't make a noise. All you heard was the sound of the ball hitting the bat, the ball hitting his face and the ball trickling off."

Though the Seminole State College pitcher was alive, doctors couldn't save his eye. That devastating loss didn't deter Underwood's passion for baseball and his drive to compete again.

Two years later, he is Southeast Missouri State's ace and one of the top pitchers in the Ohio Valley Conference. The senior left-hander from Edmond, Okla., went into this weekend with a 3-0 record and 4.03 ERA for the first-place Redhawks.

"I still had the urge to go back and give it a shot," Underwood said. "But I didn't think things would work out as well as they have for me."

That the soft-spoken Underwood is pitching in Division I stems from his perseverance and a surprising scholarship offer from Southeast Missouri State coach Mark Hogan only two months after Underwood was injured.

"I was so impressed when I met him," Hogan said. "I told him, 'Jordan, I don't know what's going to happen here, and you don't either. But I like you, your desire to get back on the field is real, and I'd like to be a part of it.'

"At the time it was less about baseball and more about this guy's desire to pursue his dream. To go where it has gone is off the chart."

Underwood would be finished with baseball had the ball struck his right eye. As a lefty, he wouldn't have been able to see the plate when working from the stretch.

Doctors put no limitations on Underwood, telling him they were confident his brain would rewire itself to make up for the loss of the eye.

Some thought depth perception would be an issue for a pitcher, but it's not. Doctors told him two eyes are needed to discern depth inside 20 feet. Beyond that --- say 60 feet, 6 inches, the distance from the mound to home plate --- a person can manage with one eye.

Underwood was fitted with a prosthetic left eye and he wears glasses with polycarbonate lenses, the NCAA requiring the protective eyewear as part of the liability waiver that allows Underwood to compete.

He throws an 84 mph fastball and mixes in a curve, slider and changeup.

"I'm not overpowering by any means," Underwood said. "I'm more finesse, kind of one of those pitchers other teams hate to hit off of because I don't throw anything too hard to gear up on. It gets results, so I'm going to keep doing it."

He held Tennessee-Martin to two runs on five hits in 6 2-3 innings of an 8-2 win on April 16. Tennessee-Martin coach Bubba Cates said the scouting report on Underwood is blunt. The kid's stuff isn't great, but he's crafty and can throw strikes under pressure.

"This guy wins for SEMO," Cates said, "because he's a competitive guy."

Before the injury, schools such as Central Florida, Louisville and Pittsburgh were trying to recruit him out of Seminole State.

The calls stopped after that April afternoon in 2009 when Northeastern Oklahoma A&M's cleanup hitter drilled Underwood's first-pitch fastball right back at his face.

Mike and Jamie Underwood were in the stands for the game in Miami, Okla., and were dazed as they watched medical personnel work on their son.

"My initial reaction," Jamie said, "was that he's going to have a terrible black eye."

He was rushed to a hospital in Joplin, Mo., and then taken by helicopter to Oklahoma City.

"My eyeball got squished," Underwood said.

The Underwoods held out hope for two weeks that the eye could be saved, but it was finally determined that his detached retina couldn't be repaired.

"For the first couple weeks, baseball was the furthest thing from my mind," Underwood said. "Just kind of dealing with life and everything I had to deal with from that point on, that was the biggest thing."

His peripheral vision and depth perception compromised, he ran smack into a low-hanging sign as he walked out of a restaurant one evening.

There was the time, as he was preparing to drink iced tea, he poured a packet of sugar onto the table instead of in the glass.

A few times he bumped into people he passed on the sidewalk.

He started playing catch after getting back on his feet. The first few times, someone would stand next to him and catch the ball as it came back, like a quarterback warming up on the sideline. He was understandably wild as he tried to re-establish his control while trying to gauge depth.

The more he threw, the better he got. He wanted to pitch again, but only had an offer from Division II Central Oklahoma.

Burgess, his best friend, had signed with Southeast Missouri State. He called Rick McCarty, the pitching coach at the time, to tell him about his buddy. McCarty tipped Hogan and he spoke with Seminole State coach Jeff Shafer, who gave Underwood a strong recommendation.

"The $64,000 question was whether he would be able to overcome everything he had to address," Hogan said. "I was willing to take the chance because after I met the guy I couldn't turn him down."

Underwood said he "lucked out."

"He was willing to give me an opportunity," he said. "I don't think a whole lot of coaches would have done that."

Jamie Underwood was more concerned about whether her son would be able to drive again --- he can --- and just get along. Hogan's interest in Jordan surprised her.

"They signed him before they saw him pitch," she said. "That would be unusual for a Division I school to sign a pitcher they haven't seen pitch, but much less a pitcher who just lost his eye."

Underwood missed all but one day of fall practice in 2009 because of red tape associated with getting waivers signed for the NCAA, which requires clearance from doctors and family for student-athletes who lose a dual organ, such as an eye or kidney.

He went 6-5 with a 4.11 ERA last season, and now he's leading a pitching staff that has hopes of leading the Redhawks to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002.

"Not everybody comes back from things like this," Tennessee-Martin's Cates said. "We write books or make movies about the people who do."


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