LOUISVILLE, Ky. – So which Nick Hendrix do you want to hear about first?
The Duke reliever nobody else wanted out of high school, but who now leads the nation with 119 career appearances, having given up one hit and no runs in his last 11?
The academic wiz who just earned his Master’s degree from Duke’s vaunted Fuqua School of Business?
Or the unlucky guy whose life changed on March 18, 2015, when he took a line drive to the head while sitting in the dugout, ending his season and nearly his career? He had his worst grade point average ever that spring – a 3.0. But then, it’s not easy to study with a fractured skull.
“A roller coaster is the word I would use,” he said of his journey, as one of the ACC tournament heroes for the upstart Blue Devils. “It’s been a lot of ups, a lot of downs, especially with the head injury, not knowing what was going to come next.”
This week has been nothing but up. He’s come out of the bullpen to shut down Clemson and Virginia, helping the ninth-seeded Blue Devils reach the semifinals. He’s faced 16 batters in two games and retired 14.
“For him to go on this kind of magical run at the end of his career at Duke, already with two Duke diplomas in his back pocket, it couldn’t happen to a better person,” coach Chris Pollard said. “He embodies everything that we hold near and dear.”
About that night in 2015. He had made his first career start against Columbia the night before, in his 58th appearance as a Blue Devil. There he sat in the dugout, as the two teams played again, and suddenly, a shot off the bat.
“That had never crossed my mind,” he said Thursday of the danger of being struck in that situation. “When people hear about it, they say, 'You were pitching and got hit.’ No, I was in the dugout, and got smoked.
“You’d think as an athlete, your reflexes would protect you from that, but obviously not.”Pollard added: “I have very vivid memories of the night that he was injured . . . I remember the sound when the ball hit his head. I remember him falling back in the dugout onto the floor.”
The trainer took Hendrix to the clubhouse to check him out. At first, he seemed ok. He asked to be at the postgame team meeting.
Pollard again: “I’ll never forget that meeting, talking to the team, making eye contact as I scan the room, and I see him and his eyes are literally kind of rolling back, and I stopped our postgame meeting and said, `We’ve got to get him to the hospital.’
“I remember being there with him at the hospital at four or five in the morning, and not really so much worried about, OK, when are we going to get this guy back on the field for us? But wondering if he’s going to play baseball again.”
Hendrix had a serious concussion and a fractured temporal bone. It would take two months for the concussion to heal, three months for the bone. He would not hear out of his right ear for a month, and still has some hearing loss to this day. He could not be left alone for five weeks, for fear of a seizure.
He had to stay away from baseball, stay away from most things. The season was gone, but somehow, he got that 3.0 in economics.
“There were times when you thought, man, `I don’t know if I’m going to do this,’’’ he said. “That was by far the most proud I’ve ever been academically, because walking fast was like the first thing I could do after three weeks, let alone being able to study.”
The NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility. He decided he wanted to come back, needed to come back. Eleven months after that night in the dugout, he pitched three shutout innings against California.
And now here he is at the close, loving how it’s all turned out. “I wouldn’t do one thing differently,” he said.
Well, except maybe sit in a different spot in the dugout.
“I did do that later. I had my glove. I was a little but more alert than nowadays. Now I think, what are the odds? You’ve got to live life and not worry about that kind of thing.”
He still has some hearing loss as a memento. “And beyond that, the flinch I have any time a ball comes in the dugout,” he said. “Even if it’s not me, if it’s someone in the stands who gets a close call, that brings it back. I freak out when parents aren’t watching their kids.”
He earned his economics degree, then his Master’s. He and several other Duke athletes missed that ceremony two weeks ago because the Blue Devils were on the road, so they had a make-up Monday morning in a gymnasium on campus. No, not the famous one.
“Not even in Cameron, one of the recreational gyms,” he said. “It was an intimate ceremony. But the people I cared about the most were there. I enjoyed it. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Next, a job in finance. Somewhere. That’s why he had one phone interview before leaving for the Virginia game Thursday, and another that had to be finished on the bus back from practice Wednesday, answering questions with his team around him. More firms must want him than college baseball programs did. “I had one offer out of high school,” he said, “and that was Duke.”
He has gone to the mound more than any active pitcher at the collegiate level, and that means something to him: “A lot of trust from my coaches, and a lot of support from my teammates. I couldn’t do it on my own.”
Appearance No. 119 was particularly impressive Thursday, when he protected a 4-3 lead and struck out Virginia star Pavin Smith with a runner on in the eighth. Smith came in with more homers this season (12) than strikeouts (8).
“I was excited to execute that pitch in that spot,” he said. “Winning the ballgame’s more important, but those little victories are exciting and fun to have.”
So there’s still a little more riding time on the roller coaster, with Saturday’s semifinals, and maybe more. “I’m trying to soak it all in right now before it ends,” he said.
And one day, when he is making it big in the business world and takes in a baseball game, will he sit in the exclusive box seats, which are close to the field, but in foul ball territory? Or will March 18, 2015 always be there?
“I’d only do that if I was aware and really locked in on the game. But otherwise I’ll stay away from those spots. Let the people with big bucks and the little more risk takers do that.”