SEMO’s Underwood sees opportunity
‘You don’t think about having to use one eye in place of both’
Southeast Missouri State head coach Mark Hogan is glad he took a chance on Jordan Underwood -- a chance not too many other coaches were willing to take.
It wasn’t Underwood’s pitching talents that were in question. It was the fact the left-hander was coming off a devastating eye injury he suffered when he was hit with a line drive while pitching for Seminole State (Okla.) JC in a game at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M in April 2009.
Underwood doesn’t remember much about the incident that caused him to lose his left eye. “I remember the batter making contact – the next thing I knew, I was on the ground,” he said. “I don’t remember the impact. I kind of figured I got hit when I was on the ground and in some pain.”
A few hours after being rushed to a hospital in Joplin, Mo., Underwood was taken by helicopter to the McGee Eye Institute in Oklahoma City where doctors did surgery that night to close the wound and stop the bleeding. He was told he could lose his eye, but doctors could not determine anything until the blood drained out and they could perform more tests.
About two weeks later, the doctors tried to reattach the retina in a second surgery, but there was too much damage and they were unsuccessful. Underwood was given a glass eye as a replacement, and began adjusting to life with one eye.
“I had to be really careful getting used to everything,” Underwood said. “It takes a lot because you don’t really think about having to use one eye in place of both. You might turn one way and don’t see a lamp that’s right next to you until you turn all the way around, and you realize you almost knocked it over.”
Baseball wasn’t the first thing on Underwood’s mind as he acclimated to his limited scope of vision, but it certainly wasn’t the last. It took about a month before Underwood started testing the waters to see if he could continue his collegiate baseball career. The schools that had shown interest before the incident shied away from Underwood after hearing he had lost the eye.
“I had my junior college coach start calling around to see who would give me a shot, or who was just interested in talking,” Underwood said. “There were a handful of schools that were willing to give me a shot. My buddy from junior college [catcher Ky Burgess] had signed at Southeast Missouri, and he told them about me, and they were willing to talk with my coaches.”
Hogan was contacted by Seminole State head coach Jeff Shafer in June 2009. “At that point in time, I was told by the staff that Jordan was feeling better and wanting to challenge the game again,” Hogan said. “It was intriguing to me.”
Hogan invited Underwood and his parents to visit the university. “I had so much admiration for the whole situation,” Hogan said. “I was talking with a guy that had all the special things that any coach desires in an individual. I told him, ‘I admire what you’re trying to do, and would like for you to join us, and who knows where it’s going to go…’ At that time, he was maybe a dent in the bullpen. It just hit me, and I thought it would be well worth the effort.”
A couple months later, Underwood arrived on the Cape Girardeau campus and became a Redhawk, ready for an opportunity to get back on the mound. But there was one roadblock that Underwood and Hogan never expected – an NCAA rule that requires student-athletes that have lost a dual organ, such as an eye or a kidney, to apply for a waiver in order to participate.
“I’ll never forget the day of our first official practice in the fall,” Hogan said. “I received a call from our head trainer that morning and he said, ‘This is a big deal. There are a lot of questions here legally. We’re going to pull him off the field … this is a serious issue.’ ”
“I had no idea,” Underwood said. “It was really frustrating. It turned out to be a little more complicated that everyone thought. You’re not out there practicing with the rest of the team, and that’s where you build chemistry and get to know everyone.”
The process of getting doctors, school officials, the NCAA and Underwood’s family to sign off on the situation began, but in the meantime Underwood sat out the entire fall practice last year. Finally, on the last day of fall ball, the issue was resolved and Underwood was cleared to play.
“I’m deeply indebted to them, because if any one of the entities would have said no, it wouldn’t have happened,” Hogan said. “I had my fingers crossed, because I was totally impressed with Jordan when he got on campus.”
Underwood pitched in the Redhawks’ season-opening series at Auburn, starting his first of 15 games for SEMO in 2010 wearing a pair of specially-fitted Oakley glasses. “I was pretty nervous – not that I would get injured again, but excited and anxious [about pitching],” he said.
“There was anxiety with all of it,” Hogan said. “What if somebody hits a foul line drive and he’s not watching? There are a lot of things that go through your head.”
Despite the uncertainly, Underwood compiled a 6-5 record with a 4.11 ERA without the benefit of fall practice. Heading into this season, both Underwood and Hogan are much calmer about the situation, and has the senior from Florence, Okla., has been named the starter for the Redhawks’ opening day game at Louisiana-Lafayette on Feb. 18.
Hogan says Underwood pitched brilliantly throughout fall practice, taking the No. 1 job the first day.
“It’s a whole different scenario this year,” Underwood said. “It’s a lot more comfortable because I know what to expect.”
Underwood was recently named a preseason all-league selection by the Ohio Valley Conference as a starting pitcher, while the Redhawks were picked to finish second in the conference. “You’ve got a hungry guy who is a great competitor,” Hogan said. “He’s going to make you work at the plate, and does a good job of keeping our side in the game.
"I think every day is joyful for him out there – that’s the way he practices. It’s an inspiring for our team and community. He’s made a lasting impression on me.”