QUINCY -- The past is real.
Nick Stroud is reminded of that every time he notices the scar on the underside of his right forearm. It's about 4 inches long stretching down to his elbow, having been left behind by two surgeries that changed the trajectory of his pitching career.
The present is real, too.
The 6-foot-5 right-hander will take the mound later this week for the Quincy University baseball team, planning on delivering another quality start in the Great Lakes Valley Conference Tournament as the Hawks fight for their third straight ring.
With a 7-3 record, a 2.84 ERA and a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, Stroud is one of the league's most dominant arms.
That's made the future as real as it's ever been as well.
Two Tommy John surgeries kept him at Quincy University far longer than ever anticipated, but Stroud is throwing harder and with more control than at any point in his career. A 94 mph fastball coupled with a changeup and a slider he consistently throws for strikes have piqued the interest of professional scouts.
A phone call may come. It may not. Either way, he's made them take note of his abilities once again.
"That's always been the dream and the goal," Stroud said. "It's what I want to do. It's what I would do anything to do. If it doesn't happen, then so be it."
That scar has taught him to take nothing for granted.
"Wherever the road takes me," Stroud said. "I take things one day at a time. Whatever happens, happens. I try to control what I can. That's all I can do."
He's done so much already.
The elbow injury
A number of scouts took note of Stroud during his senior season at Mount Zion High School in the spring of 2012 when he went 6-1 with a 1.73 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 52 2/3 innings. Suddenly, he was being touted as a potential draft having conversations with several teams. An Atlanta Braves scout talked to him the second morning of the three-day draft.
That opportunity came to pass, and he stuck by his decision to sign with the Hawks.
Stroud earned innings out of the bullpen as a freshman, going 1-1 with a 4.03 ERA in 22 1.3 innings. He was expected to take on a larger role as a sophomore.
In the spring of 2014, while throwing in QU's indoor facility, Stroud felt intense pain in his elbow. He'd torn his ulnar collateral ligament.
Tommy John surgery awaited.
"I never really let it bother me," said Stroud, who underwent surgery March 24, 2014, in Columbia, Mo. "I felt I was a good enough athlete that I could come back from this. A lot of people have had this surgery. I'm not going to let this hold me back. Let's get it done. Let's get it over with. Let's go all the way and get on to recovery."
That's where things got rocky.
The estimated recovery period for a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery is 12-14 months to be fully healthy. Most pitchers are back throwing to some degree in 9-10 months and working diligently through their rehabilitation.
That was Stroud's trajectory.
Within 11 months of surgery, he was ready to throw off a mound and go through bullpen sessions, but something seemed amiss.
"It never felt 100 percent," Stroud said. "I never felt like I was back to normal. It was swollen. It was bruised. Whenever I tried to throw the ball full-bore, it was pain.
"You have different people telling you different things. I had people saying it was just scar tissue breaking up. Everybody had something to say. But in my mind, I knew something wasn't right."
A visit to Dr. Patrick Smith with the Columbia Orthopedic Group led to a standard MRI and no obvious issues with the joint. Unable to determine the cause of Stroud's discomfort, Smith sent him to see Dr. George Paletta, a team orthopedist with the St. Louis Cardinals and widely known as the foremost expert in elbow surgeries.
Paletta wanted to do a second MRI using contrast dye, but Stroud's insurance wouldn't approve it. He had to wait six weeks for the MRI, which revealed a tear at the humeral insertion point.
"He said it looked like somebody took a knife and severed it right off," Stroud said.
Four days later, on June 2, 2015, he underwent his second surgery.
Had Stroud had any doubts he'd return, QU coach Josh Rabe and Stroud's parents alleviated those.
"The trust in Coach Rabe is incredible," Stroud said. "From the first moment I started talking to him until now, I've trusted that man and listened to everything he's said. Between him and my parents saying, 'Hey, you're going to be all right. You're going to get through it. Maybe it's God's plan for you. We'll take it day-by-day and we'll get through it.'
"That trust and that faith has always been there. I hold onto that trust."
That has never wavered.
Long road back
The timing of the second surgery meant Stroud wouldn't be ready for the 2016 season. So instead of wasting a year of eligibility, he chose to take a year off school while doing his rehabilitation.
He worked. He exercised. He did therapy. And he healed.
"He did everything asked of him," Rabe said. "He was determined to make it back. He didn't take anything lightly."
By the fall of 2016, Stroud was ready for his return. He finished his bachelor's degree in sports management that year and worked his way back into the mix as a short reliever.
That was only after he proved to himself he could throw without pain.
"It was definitely a happy feeling not having to worry every time you played catch that something was wrong in there," Stroud said. "I knew it was fixed and it was done right. There was no pain. It wasn't swollen. I was happy. I was very happy."
He was never happier than Feb. 17, 2017, when he took the mound in the season opener against Saint Joseph's in Millington, Tenn. Stroud worked two innings, faced six batters and struck out three.
He was back.
"It was special," Stroud said.
His dad, Jack, was there to see it all.
"He was fired up," Stroud said.
Jack Stroud had reason to be. He watched his son go through hell and fight his way back.
"There was never one time he acted like there was any doubt," Stroud said. "He never doubted I'd be back. He was always positive. Every day he was like, 'You're going to make it. You're going to be all right.' I talked to him every day. I still talk to him every day, probably two or three times a day on the phone. He's my best friend."
He's watched the progression his son has made with a keep eye.
Stroud threw only 13 1/2 innings in 2017 as the Hawks made the first NCAA Division II Baseball Championships appearance in program history as he relearned all aspects of pitching after missing the better part of three seasons.
"That first season back, I felt like I was getting my feet wet in a way," Stroud said.
By the start of 2018, Stroud was ready to be a weekend starter, and with it came some highs and lows. He struck out 10 in starts against Maryville and William Jewell, but he lasted less than two innings in starts against Drury and Missouri S&T.
His 6-4 record and 4.24 ERA were OK, but Stroud wasn't as dominant as he knew he could be.
"I was still learning," he said.
Finishing in style
If nothing else, Stroud has learned to savor the moments.
He did that this week as he academic career came to a close with the last of his finals. He will graduate a second time with a master's degree in educational leadership before finally saying goodbye to the QU campus.
"It's a little different feel seeing them set up for graduation around campus," Stroud said. "I've seen all of this come and go."
He's seen the QU baseball program reach new highs, too.
The Hawks are looking for at least one more.
They are the top-seeded team in the GLVC Tournament after sharing the conference's regular-season championship with Missouri S&T and Maryville. Quincy (30-16) will face eighth-seeded Lewis (27-22) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the opening round of the GLVC Tournament at US Baseball Park in Ozark, Mo.
Stroud is slated to start the Hawks' second-round game Friday and will try to move them closer to reaching the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight season. There'd be no better way to wrap up his career.
"I wouldn't trade any of the memories, any of this for anything," Stroud said. "It's taught me a lot. I've learned a lot. I've grown up. There's been a lot of changes here, but I treasure every moment."