Clemson University’s Clate Schmidt was at Turner Field in July 2015 to meet Chicago Cubs star Jon Lester—anxious to discuss the many things they had in common.

Both are pitchers. Both were high school baseball prodigies—with Schmidt earning All-American honors. The Boston Red Sox drafted both, though Schmidt elected to return to Clemson for his senior season. He also chose not to sign after the Tigers selected him out of high school.

Unfortunately, they shared one more common bond.

Schmidt was amidst chemotherapy treatment for nodular sclerosing Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a diagnosis the right-handed flamethrower had received some three months prior. His hair had started to fall out. Schmidt looked pale that day.

Lester beat a different form of lymphoma in late 2006, when he was coming through Boston’s minor league system.

The conversation permeated a broad spectrum of topics, though Schmidt admits talking baseball with Lester was a particularly welcomed distraction.

Lester eased the nerves of Schmidt’s parents. He preached patience, underscoring that a return to the field will be as much a process as the treatment.

Chemotherapy took such a toll on Schmidt, it’s difficult for him to remember dates during that time. The conversation with Lester, though, is one etched in his memory.

“It was one of those conversations that I will always remember. … We got done talking about what was really worrying me and my mom and my dad and my family. It was just like, ‘OK,’” Schmidt, who is expected to be drafted, said. “Let’s take a break from all this stuff, and let’s just talk about [what] I really love, and that’s that mutual love for baseball.’”

Schmidt’s father, Dwight, a colonel and pilot in the Marines who also flies for Delta Airlines, called the meeting “a blessing.” He characterized Lester as a person “beyond measure” for his willingness to answer their questions.

Dwight asked Lester what his experiences were with treatment. He wanted to know how he overcame lymphoma. He wanted to know if his son would be all right. Lester answered every single question.

All Clate wanted to know was how he could get back on the mound.

Lester told him it wouldn’t be easy. He reminded Clate that immediately after treatment he would not look like the All-American who drew the attention of scouts around the country. Clate was cautioned he would, at times, be disappointed.

But that day, Schmidt was given a blueprint for an improbably quick comeback.

Before he could drive a car, Schmidt could already throw a baseball over 90 miles per hour.

By the time he was a sophomore, he received interest from schools around the country. As an upperclassman, he was invited to a wave of national showcases and was part of the USA Baseball program.

There, he became friendly with Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager (rated the game’s top prospect heading into the season) and Texas Rangers third baseman/outfielder Joey Gallo, currently rated by as the seventh-best prospect in baseball.

“He was always very happy, funny,” Gallo said. “He’s quite a character. He’s a fun guy to play with.”

As a senior, Schmidt was throwing 96 miles per hour. Scouts descended on the Atlanta area to watch his games at Allatoona High School.

He had a serious decision to consider: go pro or go to school.

According to Schmidt, scouts told him he could be selected in the first round if he indicated he intended to sign. No team would want to burn a first-round pick on a player heavily considering accepting a college scholarship. And Schmidt isn’t the type of person to mislead them simply to see how high he’d be drafted.

He ultimately chose to play baseball at Clemson—rejecting the opportunity to become a millionaire before he even threw his first professional pitch. According to Baseball America, the No. 30 and final first-round slot bonus in the 2012 draft was $1.6 million.

“Knowing that baseball ends at some point, and you have to be able to further your education to be able to broaden your horizons as a human being and an athlete, that was something I really took to heart,” Schmidt said.

The Detroit Tigers drafted him anyway, making him the organization’s 36th-round selection in what’s called an “honor pick.” It was the Tigers’ way of showing their interest in advance of when Schmidt would ultimately decide to turn pro.

The plan was to remain at Clemson for three years, sign an MLB contract and finish his required classes in the offseason.

But that plan would eventually get thrown out the window with one fateful phone call.

As a freshman at Clemson, he immediately made an impact at one of the top baseball programs in the country. The team thrust him into a role as a weekend starter.

In college, teams start their best pitchers on the weekends, because that’s when the most important games are played—either against school rivals or conference foes.

That year, he started against heated rival South Carolina, pitching seven innings and allowing just two runs. Clate’s brother, Clarke, is now a sophomore pitcher with the Gamecocks.

“Both of the boys, you could see the talent level that they have,” Dwight said. “I’ve been around it long enough to know when you’ve got somebody that’s got that talent level, it’s pretty impressive.”

As a sophomore, Schmidt saw his ERA dip down to 3.68, an impressive number considering college hitters use metal bats. Again, scouts told him they were high on him. Schmidt said several teams expressed their interest.

Then, at the start of his junior season in February 2015, he found a lump in his neck while showering. He thought nothing of it, was prescribed antibiotics and the lump disappeared.

He found it again a month later but went through the season thinking it wasn’t a threatening health issue.

After all, at 21, cancer wasn’t even a consideration.

By May, the lump was becoming a mystery, so Schmidt skipped a weekend series with Florida State to get a biopsy. It came back inconclusive, but doctors told him he would need his entire lymph node removed.

Two days before his team left for the California regional of the 2015 NCAA Tournament, Schmidt drove back to Atlanta to have the procedure. He was so confident nothing was wrong that he had his bags packed—intent on meeting his team out West.

The Tigers lost their first two games in the double-elimination tournament, so Schmidt remained at home.

His doctor called the ensuing Tuesday and asked him to gather his family. They sat on the family’s porch while the doctor went through a preamble, which Schmidt doesn’t recall.

Schmidt’s earliest recollection of his diagnosis was hearing the word “cancer” through that phone. It didn’t take long to process before he did something Schmidt says most children in military families refrain from.

He cried.

His brother followed suit. Then his mom. Other surrounding family members were close behind.

“I just remember my mom’s dad had lung cancer, and I remember clearly helping him to the bathroom and all the stuff that goes with that and the chemo treatments and stuff. I remember how vigorous it is and how much it takes a toll on your body,” Schmidt said.

When emotion subsided, Schmidt asked the following, in specific order: Is it treatable? What are the chances of it being cured? Can I still play baseball?

Schmidt wanted to first tell his teammates, then baseball scouts, of his condition. He didn’t want to deceive anyone into drafting him without knowing the facts.

Then word spread among his friends. Seager first saw the news on social media. He thought he read it wrong.

“He texted me and it’s like, ‘Wow, it’s really true,’” Seager, then in the minors, said. “You don’t think of that happening to anybody you know. You don’t think of that happening to anybody you played with.”

While friends of his chased their MLB dreams, Schmidt’s was put on hold.

To deliver the chemotherapy—four treatments of which were given every Monday—doctors inserted a port into Schmidt’s chest that ran through his jugular vein.

He was specifically told not to throw a baseball. Doing so could rip the port through his vein, causing fatal injury.

Treatment came with some trepidation. But as Dwight recalls when asked at the time if he was ready, Clate replied: “Now or never.”

Schmidt sat down in a chair in the middle of last summer’s MLB draft. He was getting his blood work done when he was told to turn on the radio.

The Boston Red Sox were about to make their pick in the 32nd round. Schmidt’s name was called.

“I really cannot thank the Boston Red Sox organization for all that they’ve done for me just in support,” Schmidt said. “They called every chance they could. Every chance they could, they called. They helped push to meet Jon Lester and all those guys. Those guys, I can’t say enough about what they did for me.”

The chemo was wearing on Schmidt when he met with Lester, his dad recalled. But both knew the meeting was important.

Lester told him to be patient with his pitching repertoire. He said he would not instantaneously get his velocity back. The treatment would take a toll on Schmidt.

After chemotherapy, Schmidt underwent radiation on his neck and surrounding areas. It lasted between five and 15 minutes.

The treatment was so intense that it made it nearly impossible to swallow food. Schmidt lost a tremendous amount of weight.

“I would just force myself to eat,” he said. “It would suck. So I would try and get anything that was soft. So if I had a cheeseburger or something like that at the time, if it was soft. Macaroni and cheese, I would have to really, really, chew it up, and there were certain ways I would swallow it and just be able to choke it down.

“It was honestly the most miserable experience of my [life]. I would never wish that upon my worst enemy.”

When talking to him, though, friends were unable to tell.

“That’s the kind of guy he is, the kind of character he is,” Gallo said. “He’s not going to let that kind of thing drag him down and turn him into a different person.”

At the beginning of September 2015, Schmidt got the port removed from his chest. He had to wait two weeks until the scab healed to do anything with his arm, which happened the day of his final radiation treatment. Fresh from the hospital, with his truck packed his truck for school, despite still struggling to swallow, Schmidt immediately drove to Clemson.

He was on the field that afternoon.

With Lester’s advice top of mind, Schmidt only softly tossed the ball to his teammates. He didn’t put a gun on his pitches. It was simply about enjoying a return to the game.

“Let’s not have a care in the world,” Schmidt recalls. “Just throw it around and see how it feels.”

As Schmidt worked to develop his velocity, which he says came back in early May, he added a third pitch to his arsenal. He was primarily a fastball-slider guy, capable of getting hitters out with a limited repertoire.

But this fall, Schmidt began to better command his changeup. It helped him develop as a pitcher through a highly productive spring.

Even Lester might be impressed with how quickly he returned to form.

Schmidt started the first weekend of the 2016 season—some five months removed from his final treatment. He earned the win, too.

This past weekend, his brave comeback story received its first giant victory. He was selected in the 20th round of the MLB draft, again by the Tigers.

“I told him I would try to get him with the Rangers so we could play again,” Gallo said. “But obviously, I don’t have much say in that.”

The third time around, the path to his MLB dream is clearly in view.


Seth Gruen is a national baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand. Follow him on Twitter: @SethGruen.

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