Duke’s Nick Hendrix works his way back after suffering from fractured skull, concussion

Duke’s Nick Hendrix, who missed part of a season after being hit in the head by a foul ball that cracked his skull, is now a graduate student captain on the team.
Duke’s Nick Hendrix, who missed part of a season after being hit in the head by a foul ball that cracked his skull, is now a graduate student captain on the team. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Chris Pollard remembers the sound of his pitcher being hit in the head by a foul ball. He described it as a “splat.”

When a line drive struck his pitcher Nick Hendrix while he was in the dugout two years ago, Pollard couldn’t tell if he was hurt from his fall backward or from the ball hitting him in the head.

“I remember it vividly,” Pollard said. “It made a very distinct, very weird sound, and it just didn’t sound right. When we got back in the locker room after the game, we were starting to go over game notes. (Nick) was very adamant that he wanted to be in the postgame meeting with his teammates. I’ll never forget looking around the room making eye contact as we were going over game notes. My eyes caught his. His eyes were rolling in the back of his head. I stopped my postgame meeting right there and said, ‘We’ve gotta get him to the hospital.’

“That’s when it started.”

Hendrix had suffered a fractured skull and a concussion and would end up having to sit out the rest of the season.

“I kind of saw it but didn’t really react to it,” Hendrix recalled of the ball coming at him. “It got close: ‘Oh wow,’ turned my head and got smoked. Just heard a lot of loud noises ringing in my ear.”

That game against Columbia on March 18, 2015 at Durham Bulls Athletic Park was the beginning of a lengthy recovery for Hendrix, who is now a graduate student and team captain on a ninth-seeded Duke club that upset No. 5 Clemson, 3-1, in the ACC tournament on Tuesday. The Blue Devils face No. 4 Virginia Thursday at 11 a.m.

When Hendrix was hit, one game after his first career start, Duke athletic trainer Aldo Plata carried him out of the dugout, proceeding evaluations and concussion protocol.

Plata recalls the dugout being stunned silent after the contact.

“I remember him telling me he was fine,” Plata said. “He was like, ‘I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine.’ As is the case most of the time with athletes, they’re going to tell you they’re OK.”

Hendrix seemed well enough after initial evaluations to sit in the postgame meeting before coaches and the trainer realized his injury was more severe.

“Guys get hit from time to time, but it’s very rare that guys get seriously injured,” said Pollard, Duke’s fifth-year coach who said he’d never seen an injury of that magnitude in nearly two decades of coaching.

The recovery

Hendrix’s concussion took two months to heal, the temporal bone in his skull took three.

Hendrix, a 6-2 lefty from Arlington, Texas, couldn’t hear out of his right ear for a month, and his hearing still occasionally troubles him, like on airplanes.

“It definitely gave me a huge enlightening I would say,” Hendrix said of his head injury. “When you find it hard to walk or sunlight gives you a headache, it’s crazy how much of those things you take for granted. You really have a new appreciation for people who deal with that, and the protocols put into place become much more important because you know a second one is exponentially worse.”

After getting hit, he missed the remainder of the 2015 season and was granted an additional year of eligibility by the NCAA.

His absence from baseball, he said, was the biggest challenge of the recovery.

“With the concussion, they wanted me to be isolated,” Hendrix said. “Not reading, not watching TV. Couldn’t be at the baseball games. It’s tough being away from baseball. It’s a huge void in your life. Trying to fill that with something constructive was a huge challenge and really tough from an emotional standpoint with the brain injury.

“Really trying to find who you are away from baseball is a big struggle as well.”

For about five weeks, Hendrix couldn’t be in his Duke dorm room alone. He said his doctors warned about seizures and also initially were unsure about the extent of the bleeding in his ear.

His father James flew up the afternoon after Hendrix was hit and stayed for a week, accompanying him to see the neurologist at Duke hospital.

After his dad left, his teammates often visited him in his dorm. These were moments he most looked forward to, and they helped to distract him from thinking about life outside of baseball.

Though Hendrix spent many days in isolation waiting to heal, he admitted he wasn’t the most compliant patient – he sneaked to watch a few baseball games.

“I was around the guys as much as I could be, even sometimes when I wasn’t supposed to be. That kept my sanity,” he said. “As an athlete, it’s easy to put your identity and how well you perform on the field and the playing time you get and where you are on the depth chart. When you don’t have any of that, it’s a feeling on loneliness, helplessness. It’s kind of like, ‘What do I do?’ 

Pollard said Hendrix was foggy for weeks following the hit.

But in his “emotional state,” he ate whatever he pleased and maintained a regular diet – outside of seven bags of Reese’s peanut butter cups he finished in a week.

“In my concussed state, just pounding Reese’s cups,” he laughed.

The concussion also caused him to missed his junior-year midterms, tests and assignments, which he had to make up before finals.

Getting back into baseball

Hendrix used the summer of 2015 to prepare for his senior season. His first workouts following his injury included walking, jogging and squats.

The first time Hendrix ran on the field, he was exhausted. Before he got on the field as a pitcher again, he started with light jogging and balancing exercises.

A week after doing these basics, he started tossing the baseball.

He missed the sport but came to appreciate the time he spent reflecting, in his room, away from the mound.

“That was a really good time looking back on it but definitely a tough moment going through it,” Hendrix said.

Hendrix is Duke’s all-time leader in appearances as a pitcher with 117. The previous record was held by David Darwin in 1995 with 95. Hendrix is tied for ninth in the ACC in career appearances.

Upon his return to the dugout, he was apprehensive.

“I used to be a little gun shy when I first got back,” he said. “I used to have my glove around just in case. As time goes on, it was one of those things where you can’t live your life afraid of anything. If I get hit again, so be it. I’m not going to worry about that or let it keep me from cheering on my teammates.”

Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan