Smiles and Softball - Brush with death gives Hall of Fame softball player a reason to laugh
By Bryan Gallegos
LONGMONT, CO - He wears funky pants with leopard spots and goofy hats. He likes to joke around, many times playing the role of court jester on a diamond that is his Camelot. He laughs at himself and doesn't mind if other people laugh at him.
But make no mistake about it; Craig Schumacher is serious when it comes to actually playing the game of softball. In fact, he's one of the best.
Officials from Triple Crown Softball think so. Schumacher, a pitcher with Home Run Softball Club, was among the first group to be inducted into the Triple Crown Colorado Hall of Fame on March 18. Three others, Rhonda Palmer, Ed Jones and Harry Elenbaas, were also honored for their contributions to the game.
"It's a great honor. I really can't describe how good this feels," Schumacher said.
Schumacher was honored on his 42nd birthday. It's only fitting that he would receive such an honor on his birthday, because softball, in part, has given him a new lease on life after a rare disease nearly took it.
"I live every day like it's my last," Schumacher said.
He almost lived his last day six years ago. He was fighting for his life, and the prospects did not look good.
Doctors removed his colon because of a rare disease called ulcerative colitis. It's an illness that attacks the colon or rectal area. In the United States, about 10 people in 100,000 get the disease. Doctors don't know how or when it will strike.
Schumacher actually contracted the disease 11 years ago. But he fought it off with therapy and treatment for five years. But then doctors feared it was leading to cancer, so they urged surgery to remove the colon.
Reluctantly, he agreed, because he knew surgery would mean giving up softball. To him, softball was his life - playing several times during the week and every weekend in tournaments.
But life can sometimes throw you a curve. And Schumacher got a big bender.
After his surgery, Schumacher lost weight at a dangerously rapid pace. Though he was fed through an IV because he was so weak, Schumacher's weight went from 165 pounds to 112.
For Connie Schumacher, Craig's wife of 15 years, those are still painful memories - even today as she watched her husband help his team come-from-behind to defeat Off Softball Club of Aurora in a United States Specialty Sports Association National Invitation Tournament.
Connie smiled as she watched Craig catch a screaming line drive that knocked him on his bottom. She laughed out loud when her grinning husband clowned on the ground, trying to entice the runner at first.
The runner laughed, too, and remained on first.
Craig's spirit was infectious on that day, and his demeanor disarmingly friendly.
But she still remembers when things weren't so good.
"There were days you couldn't even recognize him," said Connie. "It was really, really scary."
Her voice wavered. Tears started to well up behind her sunglasses. It still hurts, even after all these years.
"It was very tough. You just never know if you were going to get over the hump," she said. "I wondered if he was ever going to get over the hump."
There were days when he felt that way, too. But he never gave up.
There was too much to live for. Suddenly, his world didn't have to revolve solely around softball.
"There were nights I cried my butt off because I wanted to be out of the hospital so bad," Schumacher said.
He wanted to play with his 2-year-old son, Chase, who was his inspiration. He wanted to take long walks hand-in-hand with his wife. He wanted to be around his friends, laughing and joking.
And yes, he still wanted to play softball.
It took him nearly a year to recover. At first, he couldn't walk and got around on a wheelchair for a week. Then it took all his strength and another two weeks just to take two steps. After another month, he was walking around the house _ then outdoors. Weeks later, he started to run - slowly. He knew he was going to make it back.
During his rehabilitation, Schumacher saw the true meaning of family and friendship.
The medical bills piled up, reaching about $150,000. But his friends, especially his teammates, raised about $10,000 in donations through various fund-raisers. Though his insurance paid most of the medical bills, the donations certainly helped the family through the troubled times.
He received about "60 or 70" cards and letters from people, some he didn't even know, urging him to keep going. His teammates were among them, checking up on him just about every day.
"People went out of their way for me," he said. "There are a lot of people I owe (emotionally) who I can never pay back. That support really helped me get through this."
And so did prayers. Schumacher is not ashamed to say it, either.
"You bet I prayed. I thank God everyday for my health," he said.
Schumacher's courage is inspirational, said Home Run Softball Club coach Al Griffin.
"He about cashed it in," Griffin said. "We're really proud of him. He's a great example of courage and desire."
For Schumacher, softball used to be a matter of life and death. These days, you can find him wearing those funky pants and goofy hats and joking around.
He still plays a lot of softball, a few times a week, and most weekends.
But you won't hear any harsh words from Schumacher, even if calls don't go his way. That happened in an elimination game against Drill City of Aurora in an elimination game of the USSSA tournament.
There was a two home run limit in the game and anything after that would be an out. Drill City had already hit its two home runs early in the game.
However, the scorekeeper failed to record one of those home runs. With two outs in the seventh inning, a Drill City player hit another home run for what should've been the final out of the game. Both teams showed in their books two previous home runs.
The umpire conferred with the official scorer and ruled the home run valid and Drill City won the game.
Schumacher smiled and shook his head.
"In my younger days, I was a real jerk," Schumacher said. "Life is too important to take the game too seriously."
After the game, he smiled again and hugged his son, who was sitting in the stands. The controversial homer wasn't important. Seeing his son in the stands was.
"I love my dad. I love to cheer him on," Chase said. "But my favorite part is watching my dad hit and see how far he can hit it."
"Sometimes it's not very far," chuckled Schumacher, as he stripped off his leopard-spotted pants and tossed them to his wife. "I'm not a very good hitter."
"And he's not a very good fashion plate either," Connie said with a laugh, as she stuffed them in a duffel bag.
Schumacher laughed, too. These days, he's not afraid to laugh.