March 11, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – There’s something about Clint Wilson that makes you figure if he faces a no-outs, bases-loaded situation in the late innings, it’s not going to faze him.
Actually, there’s a lot about the Marshall right-hander that makes you figure that.
About eight years ago, Wilson was paralyzed from the neck down in a wrestling accident. He spent part of his eighth grade year in a wheelchair. He was told he couldn’t play sports again.
Five years later, he threw a pitch 96 mph for 2011 champion Navarro College in the Junior College World Series and was drafted that June by the Milwaukee Brewers.
Fast forward three years and a couple of more injuries, and he’s a mature, married man, soon to be 22, coming out of the Thundering Herd bullpen as a junior newcomer.
“There’s not a day I wake up that I don’t take advantage of just walking,” Wilson said in a Monday interview. “A lot of guys don’t realize it, but at the blink of an eye, it was taken from me … and it can be taken from anyone.”
The 6-foot, 225-pound right-hander never pitched competitively until his sophomore year at Vista Ridge High School in Cedar Park, Texas. Even as a senior and No. 1 starter on the staff, he didn’t view himself as a college prospect.
Wilson was just happy to be playing anything.
Growing up as the oldest of three sons of Chris and Sandy Wilson in a suburb of Austin, Wilson’s favorite youth sports were football and wrestling. He also played baseball and in middle school, Wilson took on basketball and track and field.
Then, his world changed with one tumble.
“My brother (Colby) just below me, we were big into wrestling,” Wilson said. “My dad got us into that, and we’d done it for years. In the eighth grade, in February, I was at a practice doing normal things, and I was helping a college guy prepare for a meet.
“He was a little bigger than me, but I was the biggest one at the practice that evening, just doing normal drills, nothing crazy. He takes a shot, takes me down like he normally would, and I turn over in the defensive position like I always should.
“My forehead hits the mat, there’s a big pop. The guy kind of freaks out, and the next thing you know I’m lying on my back, just staring up, and I’m trying to get up, and I couldn’t.
“My dad was one of the coaches and he comes over. He’s also an Austin firefighter -- 20 years or so -- so he has the whole medical emergency background. He immediately stabilized my neck once he realized the situation. The crazy thing is he was probably the calmest there. He signaled somebody to call the paramedics, so they showed, and they were going to do a spinal tap, which I guess they do on some paralyzed people. They offered to do that, and my dad told them, ‘No, take him straight to a hospital.’”
Wilson had no feeling in his body from the neck down.
“I go through a full-body MRI,” the Herd pitcher said. “It took about 5 1/2 hours, the longest 5 1/2 hours of my life, because I can’t move. I’m crying. I can’t do anything … age 13. We couldn’t get a diagnosis out of anybody in Austin, so dad does his research and we end up going to Houston, to a children’s hospital.
“I was paralyzed from the neck down for a little while, then just the waist down. Everybody (at the hospital) is looking at film, trying to figure it out. Finally, I was diagnosed with Arnold-Chiari malformation (a downward displacement of the cerebellar tonsils through the opening at the base of the skull), a brain disease.
“I was born with it. Basically what it is … the brain is supposed to sit on top of the spinal cord, and mine basically protruded on the inside, causing cranial pressure, stuff like that. I had spinal fluid Syrinx (a rare, fluid-filled cavity within the spinal cord). Once I was diagnosed with that, they later told us if we had done the spinal tap, it could have permanently paralyzed me or killed me.”
A ‘Come-backer’ to the Mound
Wilson underwent surgery in April (2006) of his eighth-grade year. A three-inch vertical scar running down the middle of the back of his head, toward his spine, is evident even when he wears his baseball cap.
“They drained spinal fluid, and took a decent amount of skull out to allow more movement and relieve pressure,” Wilson said. “They screwed me from the (front) side of my head to the table and went in through the back.
“They told me when I had surgery I’d be knocked out for a couple of days, so I was planning to be in the hospital 7-10 days. I woke up not even an hour after surgery, sat up, started pulling tubes out of my mouth. I was ready to go, was alert, awake, and ended up getting cleared in 24 hours and went home.
“It still took a bit. I started getting feeling back in my feet. I had to relearn to walk. I started in a wheelchair, and went to a walker after that … In school with a wheelchair, I don’t really remember much of that time in school. Everything I had to relearn, walking form, how to run. It was crazy. I got faster for some reason. I guess my form’s a little better now.”
Wilson’s major hurdles -- in his own mind – were still ahead. He had to cope with teenaged classmates who teased him about wearing a neck brace for months, and had to come to grips with a love he lost – athletics.
“I was in that neck brace for months on,” said Wilson, who has pitched in relief six games for the Herd this season. “I probably still have that neck brace. It seemed like I wore it forever, and it was embarrassing. The only time I could take it off was to shower. I got made fun of, and you learn to deal with that stuff.
“I basically almost got a free pass the rest of eighth grade. I went to school, got my work, went back home. I don’t remember much of the eighth grade to be honest, and don’t remember doing anything that summer.
“I had a checkup before starting high school. The doctor said everything looked fine. My biggest thing was sports, because we did everything – wrestling, football, baseball. In middle school I played basketball and track just because I wanted to. I didn’t want to have an offseason. So, sports was my biggest concern, would I be able to play. The doctor just said, ‘No, you won’t be able to play sports … no contact sports at all. One big blow to the head could put you back in the state you were in, or worse.’”
It wasn’t the answer Wilson wanted to hear.
“That right there was kind of an eye-opener because, well, you know,” said Wilson, an exercise science major at Marshall. “I was good in wrestling and football, my two main sports at the time and I couldn’t do that anymore. We went home and my dad tried to talk some sense into me and it was just hitting me at that point.
“We ended up calling the doctor a month or two later and asked if I could play baseball. He said, ‘Let me get back to you.’ He said he still saw some potential injury in baseball. If I’m hitting, I could get hit with a pitch, depending on the position there could be some contact.
“After a while he told me, ‘You can pitch if you want. No catching. No hitting.’ As a kid, I always played catcher or third base. I never learned how to pitch. I’m sure I must have been on the mound when I was 5 or 6, but everybody does that. Competitively, I hadn’t pitched.”
So, Wilson took to the mound the way he had to the wrestling mat and football field.
“Once he told me I could pitch, I kind of took it and ran with it,” Wilson said. “My sophomore year was the first time I got on the mound. In preseason, our coach asked, ‘Who’s arm doesn’t hurt?’ and I raised my hand. I don’t remember what happened, but it must have been positive, because I came out with a positive attitude.
“I started pitching my sophomore year, made the varsity as a junior and my senior year was the No. 1 (starter) in a real competitive area for baseball. When colleges started coming around, I hadn’t thought about pitching in college, but my high school coach asked where I wanted to go play. Navarro came up. A cousin of mine had played there a while back.”
Bouncing back … again … and again
Wilson headed to the junior college in Corsicana, Texas, in the summer of 2010. He pitched the following spring for the Bulldogs, who won the Junior College World Series in Colorado. Selected by the Brewers in the 43rd round of the MLB Draft that June, Wilson went to Beckley to play Prospect League summer collegiate ball with the West Virginia Miners.
It was there Marshall Coach Jeff Waggoner and former Herd pitching coach Joe Renner saw the hard-throwing Texan, who even made an unofficial visit as a JUCO freshman to the Huntington campus.
“I was starting for a while with the Miners, and we went on the road and I had good game, in July,” Wilson said. “I woke up the next morning and my right shoulder was bothering me. I thought I’d just slept on it wrong.
“We came back to West Virginia and I did some treatment and it never got better, no progress, so after a while I got an MRI up here, and we sent it to the Navarro team doctor. He said it was OK, and I tried to play through it that fall down there.
“It never got better; I couldn’t even make a throw 30 feet. I went back in for another MRI and it showed a torn labrum and torn rotator cuff.”
Wilson already had suffered a broken hamate bone in his left wrist while swinging a bat in his senior year of high school. This time, he underwent surgery in February 2012 to repair his pitching arm.
“So, I missed a whole year, and came back in 2013,”Wilson said. “I stayed in touch with the doctor, took it slow. I had my first outing in a preseason game and did well in a couple of innings pitched. Then, in April, I broke my right wrist while lifting (weights), but the doctor said it was something that had been coming for a while.”
Wilson underwent surgery again, hoping to make it back for Navarro’s postseason. He was still in a cast for the JUCO regionals, when Marshall assistant coach Tim Donnelly came to watch. Before the World Series in Colorado, Wilson’s cast was removed, replaced by a tape job for support.
“It felt good,” Wilson said. “‘Waggs’ showed up out there, and our coach (Navarro’s Whoa Dill) says, ‘Hey, you’ve got a bullpen (session).’ I thought, ‘Hey, cool,’ and I felt really good. I didn’t get into any games but I was available.”
Wilson and Waggoner had a couple of discussions over the following weeks and Wilson also talked with the Herd’s first-year pitching coach, former Major League left-hander Josh Newman. Both coaches had the answers they wanted … and so did Wilson.
“Renner and I saw him pitch for the Miners two years ago, and his velocity was a mid-90s (mph) guy who was drafted and we kept up with him,” Waggoner said. “He ended up going to junior college, got hurt again, broke his wrist. I saw him toward late summer last year at the Junior College World Series, and his velocity started coming back again, and we signed him after that.
“Clint is just a hard-nosed competitor. He’s had to battle through everything his whole life. He’s just a tough, good kid. He’s a kid who was paralyzed and has gone through what he’s gone through, so you know what you’re going to get – someone who’s definitely not intimidated in any situation.
“He’s a hard worker, a team guy, everything you want, and especially he helps with the young guys on the pitching staff. He’s good to have on a pitching staff. And as time goes on he’s going to get better and better, as his velocity keeps coming back more.”
Waggoner said that when the Herd baseball staff began recruiting Wilson, they weren’t aware of his paralysis only five years earlier. Now, the right-hander’s story is something of an inspiration on the team.
Wilson began the school year with his wedding. He married Rachael (Eberwein) on Sept. 1. She works full-time at EnStyle Salon and Spa in Barboursville and at Dick’s Sporting Goods in the Huntington Mall.
Her husband said he’s ready to start or pitch in situations or matchups – whatever Waggoner and Newman want him to do.
“I think a lot of what happened required me to mature really, really fast,” Wilson said when asked if he is sometimes amazed at what he’s able to do and where he is in life after what he endured. “There was a point where the doctor came in and literally said, ‘We don’t know if he’s going to walk again.’ And when you’re 13 and you hear that, it’s a little different.
“So, going through high school, I didn’t partake in a lot of things other guys did, didn’t do what the crowd did. A lot of it was, ‘I’m going to focus on me right now,’ because of where I’d been, and where I can end up again.
“It required me to mature early. I know a lot of people probably might think it’s weird that I’m married while in college. But, I mean, it’s just all crazy when you think back and look at it, when you look at everything that’s happened.
“I appreciate what I do every day.”