If you’ve ever dug your cleats into a batter’s box, cocked your bat back, taken a deep breath and waited for a pitcher to begin his windup before hurling the ball toward home plate, you know how hard it is to make solid contact with a baseball.
From little league to the big leagues, one of the toughest tasks in all of sports is getting a hit.
Now, imagine how difficult it might be to try to hit a baseball with only one eye functioning properly.
For Clemson senior infielder Justin Hawkins, that nearly impossible task was his reality for several months following a freak accident during a junior college game in 2016.
Hawkins, who was a star at USC Sumter, swung at an inside pitch in Game 2 of a doubleheader on Opening Day that season. He fouled off the pitch and it struck his right eye, scarring his retina in the process. He was bleeding and was taken to the hospital.
At one point the Prosperity native thought his baseball career was done. His mother was more concerned with his eyesight than his future in baseball.
More than three years later, Hawkins is an everyday contributor for a Clemson program that is among the most consistent in college baseball.
It has been a long road for Hawkins to get to this point, but after detours and roadblocks along the way, he has finally reached his destination.
“Growing up it was always a childhood dream to play at a D-I,” Hawkins said. “I think about it every game when I go out on the field, ‘Man, I’m so happy to be here. There’s a lot of people in this world right now that would love to be in the position that I am.’ ”
Hawkins had offers from junior colleges Florence-Darlington Tech, Spartanburg Methodist and USC Sumter coming out of high school, and Newberry and Presbyterian offered him as well. He chose USC Sumter with the hopes of getting to a Division I school after either his freshman or sophomore seasons.
Hawkins’ freshman year couldn’t have gone much better. The infielder led his team in hitting (.322), slugging percentage (.512), home runs (7), doubles (17) and RBIs (42).
He was drawing interest from several Division I schools, including Clemson and South Carolina, and MLB scouts were taking notice of him.
“It was a pretty interesting process recruiting him,” Clemson coach Monte Lee recalled. “He went to a small high school. He didn’t do the travel ball circuit stuff. He was a legion kid. So he got under-recruited a little bit. ... He goes to USC Sumter and had a really good freshman year. After that first year he went back and played legion ball and he went nuts.”
‘An American Legion legend’
While most of the top high school players in the state were traveling throughout the Southeast and playing for travel ball teams, Hawkins opted to play for the local Chapin-Newberry American Legion team.
“I played Legion ball three years in a row, and never in those three years did I think about playing travel ball,” Hawkins said. “With Legion ball you’re playing with a team that’s going to be there all year long and you’re fighting for something. ... If a high school player is coming out, I tell them to play Legion ball 100 percent. That meant the world to me.”
Hawkins put up video-game-like numbers over the summer in 2015 and led Chapin-Newberry to the American Legion World Series title. It marked the first time since 1936 that a team from South Carolina had won the American Legion World Series.
Hawkins was named the American Legion National Player of the Year after hitting .395 with 12 home runs and 51 RBIs.
“He’s an American Legion legend,” Lee said.
If teams and local MLB scouts weren’t aware of Hawkins before his incredible run over the summer, they certainly were after it.
“Right after that, we got calls from all kinds of colleges, South Carolina, Clemson, Alabama, North Carolina State, East Carolina, there’s a lot of colleges calling wanting him to come visit,” Hawkins’ father, Scottie Hawkins recalled.
“A lot of scouts had a lot of interest, so he was very excited,” Hawkins’ mom, Angela Hawkins added.
From so high to so low
Hawkins was finally closing in on his dream heading into his sophomore season at USC Sumter in 2016.
“He was going to be a draft pick,” Lee said. “He would have been a pretty good draft pick and probably would have wound up going straight to professional baseball.”
Opening Day of his sophomore season started with a bang. He hit a grand slam in Game 1 of USC Sumter’s doubleheader against Catawba Valley Community College to lift the Fire Ants to a 6-2 victory. But with one swing of the bat in Game 2, his life would change forever.
“It was my first at bat, and I fouled a ball off on an inside pitch,” Hawkins said. “I was swinging and fouled it straight off the bat and it hit me right in the eye.”
It was immediately clear something was seriously wrong. Later, Hawkins learned he had scarred his retina.
“I remember sitting in the doctor’s office right after I got hit and it was swollen shut, obviously. They had it pried open, and they were like, ‘Can you see anything? Can you see anything?’ I said, ‘Do y’all have my eye open because I don’t think it’s open?’ ” Hawkins said. “At that time I was thinking, ‘Man, I may never play this game again.’ It broke my heart a little bit.”
Hawkins tried to return to the practice field and the batting cage over the course of the next few months, but it wasn’t the same.
“When I tried to come back and I was practicing, they were like, ‘Justin, what’s it like?’ ” Hawkins said. “I was like, ‘All right, well get up here and field a ground ball with one eye open and you can really tell how the depth perception messes with you there. Then do the same thing. Try to hit with one eye closed.”
Road to recovery
Hawkins missed the rest of the 2016 season, and instead of making trips to the baseball field he was making trips to doctors’ offices.
He saw local doctors in the Columbia area and also spent time at MUSC in Charleston.
Two weeks after the injury, his vision was 2,100 in his right eye and 20 in his left. Perfect vision is considered 20-20.
“As his mom, my concern at that point in time was the child’s sight,” Angela said. “Yes, it’s great if he can continue to play baseball, but we know at some point in time that will end. So at that point in time, the health of the eye was the most important thing and what I stayed focused on.”
With rest, Hawkins’ eye got better as the season went along, improving to 80-20. He was getting closer to being ready to get back on the field.
Another step back
Hawkins still wasn’t 100 percent, but he was cleared to return to the baseball diamond for the 2017 season. However, instead of playing at Clemson, he stayed at USC Sumter for one more season.
Hawkins applied for a medical redshirt for 2016 and was going to play his second full year of junior college baseball.
The Tigers were sticking with Hawkins and honoring their commitment to him, but it was agreed upon that the best thing for Hawkins to do in 2017 would be to play another season of junior college ball to re-acclimate instead of battling for playing time at Clemson.
Unfortunately for Hawkins, there was a mix-up with paperwork pertaining to his redshirt year, and he ended up having to sit out the entire 2017 season as well.
“It was really tough, I’m not going to lie,” Hawkins said.
He continued working on his game, although he knew he wasn’t the same player with his vision still at about 50-20. Finally, in the summer of 2017, he returned to the field and played in the wooden-bat Coastal Plain League.
As would be expected, Hawkins got off to a slow start after an extended period of time away from game action.
“Man, halfway through that season I was really struggling,” he said.
But slowly he started to return to his old form.
“Everything shot off. I think I finished that season batting .298 with 10 home runs or so,” Hawkins said. “Things were really looking up. I was like, ‘All right, I’m ready.’ ”
Living a dream
Hawkins’ eyesight may never completely return to normal. Even now he believes it is about 40-20.
Still, his time playing baseball at Clemson has been everything that he could have imagined.
It has been a difficult second half of the season for the Tigers as they went from a team that was in the conversation to host a regional to one that’s on the bubble, but Hawkins cherishes every moment between the white lines.
Hawkins hit .200 with two home runs, three doubles and eight RBIs in 2018 while playing in 21 games, with 15 starts.
This season he has become more of an everyday player for the Tigers and is batting .241 with four home runs and 19 RBIs. He has played in 30 games, with 21 starts and has been a mainstay in the starting lineup for the past month.
“He didn’t give up. He didn’t give in. He kept working and pushing forward and stayed optimistic and has been able to have a good year for us. He’s been playing every day down the stretch here for us,” Lee said. “Hopefully he gets hot and swings the bat well for us and can go out on a high note. You never know once you get in (the NCAA Tournament). He can be a big part of that.”
Hawkins has aspirations of playing professional baseball, and Lee hopes that he gets a shot. Clemson’s coach sees a player with plenty of tools to be successful at the next level, most notably raw power.
Hawkins hit a grand slam against Duke that at the time was one of the biggest hits of the season. The ball traveled an estimated 447 feet.
“That ball he hit against Duke was one of the furthest balls I’ve seen hit here. He hit a ball against Furman last year that was 430 something feet off the batters’ eye. He hit a ball in intrasquad that cleared our scoreboard. That’s a long ways out there,” Lee said. “He’s hit some balls a long freakin way... It just takes one team, takes one scout that has seen it come out of him. Will somebody give him a chance? I don’t know. I hope so.”
Whether that happens or not, Hawkins is thankful for the opportunity that he has gotten at Clemson.
“I tell the guys up here, you don’t understand, you can’t take any of this that we have for granted, because trust me, when you’re in JUCO, that’s the bottom of the food chain. It’s two completely different worlds,” Hawkins said. “Clemson gave me a chance. I couldn’t thank the coaches enough for sticking with me through that. That kept the spirits up my whole way through.”