Let’s get one thing straight: Kelly Strickland ’03 is no Matt Leinert. But when the Heisman Trophy winner and two-time national champion quarterback from the University of Southern California spurned the multimillion dollar riches of the NFL back in January in order to play his senior year of college, Strickland had to smile.
He can relate – sort of.
After seeing his career come to a crashing halt not once (elbow surgery), but twice (graduation), Strickland, much like Leinert, wanted no regrets. He wants to finish his collegiate career on his own terms. Although six years removed from his freshman year, the hard-throwing right-hander does not care. He is just happy to be here, playing the game he loves.
"After seeing his career come to a crashing halt not once (elbow surgery), but twice (graduation), Strickland, much like Leinert, wanted no regrets."
“If I didn’t come back to play, it would be a huge regret hanging over my head the rest of my life,” said Strickland, now 25. “I love this game. I love being out there. Everyone says you miss what you don’t have, and that was me. I always said that I would play until I can’t play anymore. That hasn’t happened yet. The door is still open, so I should take advantage of it while I can.”
Out of Valley Christian High in San Jose, Strickland was recruited by a handful of NCAA Division I programs, including Santa Clara and San Jose State. Biola also showed some interest as well, but when it came time to make his recruiting trip, he never made it to the plane.
“Must have been divine intervention,” Strickland recalled.
Instead, he landed at Azusa Pacific and had a better-than-average freshman season – way back in 1999. He got better as the season wore on, culminating in one of his best outings when he shut down eventual NAIA champion Lewis-Clark St. (Idaho) in the regional playoffs. He was poised and ready to build on that experience his sophomore season when something just did not feel right.
“I felt some pain in my elbow, and then, at one of our preseason games that fall, it just gave out and hurt really badly,” said Strickland, who is enrolled in Azusa Pacific’s Master of Arts in Christian Education Program with an emphasis in Youth Ministry (now M.A. in Youth Ministry). “They originally thought I had a bone chip lodged somewhere in my elbow.”
At the urging of his doctors, Strickland rode the bench during the 2000 season. They thought the time off would speed up the healing. But when he came back for the 2001 season, it still hurt. Another MRI revealed that the initial diagnosis was wrong. It was a torn ligament.
In January 2001, Strickland underwent Tommy John surgery to replace the ligament, which resembled a sun-dried rubber band, with a tendon from his wrist. He missed all of the 2001 season. The thought of playing baseball again seemed to be an unobtainable dream.
“I had the surgery so I could someday play catch with my kids,” said Strickland. “I was at the point where I wouldn’t be able to throw again if I didn’t have it. Then during rehab, I realized that I could possibly play again.”
"Instead, he landed at Azusa Pacific and had a better-than-average freshman season – way back in 1999."
He did play again – for two more seasons. The 2002 season was the worst. Things got a little better in 2003, but Strickland opted to finish in his fifth year and graduate with his business administration degree. He still had a year of eligibility remaining, but decided to hang it up.
When I graduated, I figured that was fun,” said Strickland. “I got my education. I got the opportunity to play baseball while in school. I was done playing.”
With his baseball career over and degree in hand, Strickland joined the youth staff at South County United, a church plant in south Orange County. He also enrolled at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology and was set for a life in the ministry. Then, in summer 2004, he dropped out of Talbot and took a job as a high school dean at Forest Home Ministries.
It was there that Strickland struck up a friendship with one of his students. It just so happened that he was a catcher looking to stay in shape for his upcoming season. He asked Strickland to throw to him, and it was during those daily games of catch that Strickland felt at home.
“Taking some time off from the game was the best thing I could have done,” said Strickland. “I started playing catch with this guy and realized that my arm had never felt stronger. Then a light bulb went off, and I started thinking about the possibilities of coming back to finish my career. I knew I had one more season left.”
He called Azusa Pacific head coach Paul Svagdis, and the two of them worked out the details.
“When Kelly called me, I was excited for two reasons,” said Svagdis, who is in his third season at Azusa Pacific. “He brings a level of experience to the mound that we need, but more importantly, he is a spiritual leader for the younger guys on this team. He has a passion for Christ that is contagious, and he can have an impact on this program.”
And now here he is, on a team where he is often called “Grandpa.” His freshman teammates were sixth graders when Strickland first arrived at Azusa Pacific in the fall of 1998. Though even older than one of his coaches, he does not care. He is just happy to be here, playing the game he loves.
“There is something in me that feels like I know I could have done better while I was here,” said Strickland. “Part of me thinks that this year I can have the kind of season I’ve strived to have all along. Not too many people get a chance to go back and do something they love.”
And for Strickland, it’s not just a chance to play again, but rather, it’s a chance to finish on his own terms – with no regrets.
<p class="note"Micah McDaniel ’99 is the assistant sports information director in the Athletics Department. [email protected]
Posted: June 1, 2005