Photo courtesy of Clate Schmidt

Clate Schmidt has always been known as a man of faith.

A devout believer, the former Clemson pitcher believed things always happened for a reason. He prayed on his decisions, including the one he made to play in college despite being a sure first round pick in the 2012 MLB draft. Schmidt had it all mapped out: go to school for three years, get drafted, play professionally, and finish his degree in the offseason.

God had different plans.

In May 2015, Schmidt was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Cancer. Suddenly, the pursuit of his dream wasn’t so sure. His future—uncertain.

His faith—for a moment, shaken.

“I just thought, ‘My God, this can’t be happening.’”

Almost two years on the other side of the battle he fought to win, Schmidt knows he shouldn’t have wavered. Shouldn’t have questioned.

“God wanted me to live out this story. He had His reasons,” Schmidt said. “But this story wasn’t meant for me.

“This story is bigger.”

Why not?

Photo courtesy of Clate Schmidt

On Feb. 23, 2013, Schmidt made his first career start for Clemson as already one of the most sought-after stars out of high school. He was ranked as the No. 31 player, No. 10 right-hander in the nation and No. 4 player in Georgia by Perfect Game. He was drafted in the 36th round by the Detroit Tigers, the team’s way of declaring their interest in him despite his decision to go to college.

His early success, then, came as no surprise. Schmidt pitched four innings and allowed no runs and one walk with two strikeouts, earning his first career victory. Then came his start against then-No. 7 South Carolina. For seven innings, he delivered, allowing five hits, two runs and five strikeouts in another win.  He became the first freshman to receive the Bob Bradley award since 2007 and finished the season with a 5.34 ERA.

By his sophomore season, Schmidt saw his ERA drop to 3.68, and as he began to draw interest from more scouts, Schmidt said he could feel a professional baseball career at the tip of his fingers.

“I’ve never regretted choosing to go to Clemson,” Schmidt said. “I knew that at some point baseball was going to end, and something no one can take away from you is how intelligent you are. I took that to heart.

“At that point though, I was anxious. My dream of playing professionally was right there for me to grab it.”

And then, it wasn’t.

At the start of his junior season, Schmidt noticed a lump in his neck while showering. Doctors told him it was nothing, just normal swelling of the lymph nodes associated with sickness. They gave him antibiotics, and in a matter of days, the lump disappeared.

Photo courtesy of Clate Schmidt

It wasn’t until May, two months after the lump had reappeared, that Schmidt decided to get it checked. Early results came back inconclusive. Schmidt had to have his entire lymph node removed, and the following week, he had his answer.

“The second she started uttering the word ‘cancer,’ my heart just hit the floor,” Schmidt said. “I started balling, told myself there was no way. I was 21. Cancer? How?”

Then came the questions: what was going to happen? What would this do to his baseball career? Would he ever be able to play again?

“There was so much doubt,” Schmidt said. “I just had to give myself some time to let it all sink in.”

Ten minutes. That’s all the time Schmidt gave himself to gain composure. To remember that everything happened for a reason, that God always had His ways. That he was better than this.

That he was a man of faith.

“I stopped asking myself the wrong questions and started asking myself: Why can’t I be the person to take this disease and defeat it? Why can’t I achieve my goals?

“Why not me?”

Road to Recovery

The battle started with four treatments of chemotherapy, one every Monday for two-and-a-half months.

Schmidt would find himself hooked onto a port that was inserted into his chest and passed through his jugular vein. At the start of each week, he’d get his dose. He’d fall dangerously ill, weak and puking until the Friday of the following week. He’d sigh. Finally, some rest. Two days later, the cycle would start again.

“It was the hardest thing I had ever experienced,” Schmidt said. “I would never wish that upon my worst enemy.”

As Schmidt’s MLB chase was put on hold, others were finishing the race. Schmidt recalled listening to the 2015 MLB Draft on the radio in the middle of treatment. In the 32nd round, he heard his name being called. The Boston Red Sox had drafted him.

Schmidt’s dream was still alive.

Clate with Jon Lester. Photo courtesy of Clate Schmidt

“That pick meant so much to me,” Schmidt said. “They put in me a motivation to continue fighting; to keep battling.”

Soon after, Schmidt met the Chicago Cubs’ Jon Lester, who had beaten another form of lymphoma in 2006. He gave him insight on what to expect, what treatment would do to his body, how to be patient during the struggle towards recovery. More importantly, he gave him hope, further encouraging Schmidt throughout the process.

As Schmidt underwent radiation on his neck for 17 consecutive days, he made himself a promise: he was going to be Clemson’s opening day pitcher. Even when the pain in his throat was too intense to swallow, Schmidt stayed true to his word.

“My entire goal and drive was to be the opening weekend starter for my Tigers,” Schmidt said. “I wasn’t going to allow anybody else to take this position away from me.”

So that’s what he did. Schmidt finished his last session of radiation, grabbed his already-packed bags, left the center, and drove to Clemson. Just one year after discovering the lump that would change his fate, Schmidt met his team back on the field. He stood on the mound, knowing full well that the end of radiation did not mark the end of his trials.

The road to his real recovery was only just beginning.

Keeping the Faith

Clate Schmidt sits alone on his truck’s tailgate on a humid March evening in Lakeland, Florida. Sometimes he stays behind on the Detriot Tigers’ practice field there, putting in some extra time after another practice during the team’s spring training. Today, he reflects.
He reflects on that feeling—the one he got upon throwing a baseball for the first time after radiation, that made him remember his love for the game, that resurfaced after starting the first weekend of his 2016 season at Clemson and earning the win.

Clate and his family Stand Up to Cancer. Photo courtesy of Clate Schmidt

He reflects on his struggles—the ones that leave him breathless and woozy after a set of monster walks, that have him fighting to push his treatments’ chemicals out of his system, that remind him to appreciate every little blessing.

And he reflects on his faith—the one that reminds him that God will never fail him, the one he credits for being drafted in the 20th round by the Tigers in 2016.

The one that’s never been stronger.

“When I see people who are going through cancer today, I remember why God took me down this path,” Schmidt said. “This journey wasn’t just one for me. It was so that I could be able to be a bulldozer for those who would go through what I went through, so that I could show them how to never let cancer take over their life and consume them.”

And when he meets those same cancer patients today, Schmidt’s message is loud and clear.

“Hope, push,” Schmidt said. “Never give up. Never stop the fight.

“Have faith.”