What Clay Engel experienced on that night in 2017 is a fear and panic like none he had ever felt before, and one that he has never gone through since. The cold sweats, the knees trembling and the voice. The voice that told him, “Jump, and I’ll catch you.” Even three years later, they still can be felt by the 22-year-old Engel.
Growing up in Tyler, Texas, Engel’s faith in the Lord came about at an early age, but did not become real until much later. While he believed in God, went to church and read his Bible, Christ did not become a priority until his junior year of high school. It was then that his family made the move to Ozark, Missouri, and Engel was forced to leave behind all that he had known and much of what he had found his purpose in: friends, social standing at school, his hometown.
“It was really hard for me to leave everything that was important to me, in my mind,” Engel said. “When I moved here, that’s when I really encountered the Lord in a life-changing way. I was lonely and I just really felt His presence really strongly. I was hurting and alone and had a lot of grief. That’s when I felt like my eyes were opened to the Lord and His presence in my life.”
But when it came to baseball, Engel brought his passion for the game along with him on the 540-mile move. As he blossomed into a talented infielder at Ozark High School, earning all-conference honors in each of his two seasons there, college programs began to take notice.
When it finally came time for him to take his talent to the next level, he would not have to journey far. Drury University, a relatively new program started in 2007, was just down the road in Springfield, Mo., and a perfect fit.
Following a solid freshman campaign in which he hit .303 with 20 RBIs and 22 walks, Engel headed for the mountains of Colorado to play in the Rocky Mountain Collegiate League. Little did he know what awaited him.
One summer night, Engel, who is an avid hiker, thought he’d use his extra time to go up to Estes Park, Colorado, and stay the night in his hammock before venturing out the next morning to do some hiking. He had been umpiring youth baseball games all day, which added to his fatigue as he walked just over a mile up the mountain around 9 p.m. That was only the beginning of a marathon of a night that loomed ahead.
Engel ascended the mountain and then began to descend, trying to find a good spot to set up camp for the night — when he suddenly found himself out on a ledge with no way to get down. The ground was about 15 feet down, far too great of a chasm to simply jump. As the seconds turned into minutes, Engel began to panic.
“I was climbing that night and I ended up getting stuck when I was climbing back down to put up my hammock for the night,” he said. “When I realized I was stuck, I had a very overwhelming panic attack, which I’ve never experienced before or since. It was very supernatural, like the enemy. There was all this fear and anxiety and panic. It overwhelmed me, I thought so many things, the thoughts were flying through my head. I remember crying out to God saying, ‘God, I need help.’”
Then he heard the voice, which he thought was from God.
“I heard in my head very clearly a voice that said, ‘Jump and I’ll catch you.’ I thought that was the Lord at the time but obviously that was not the Lord,” Engel said. “He would never tell me to jump off a cliff or something. I had no idea what to do.”
He ended up either falling or jumping, or a combination of both, but the result was the same. He hit the ground hard. So hard that it left him unconscious for more than five hours. He had a fractured skull and a fractured vertebrae along with a deep gash in his left quad.
“The next thing I remember is waking up the next morning, I didn’t know how I had gotten there or what had happened,” Engel said. “I had a broken skull, I had a broken neck. My thigh was gashed or lacerated, my whole thigh. I was wearing the [sliding shorts] and that is what saved me from bleeding out.”
Somehow, the resilient baseball player managed to stand up and walk, something Engel still sees as a miracle to this day. He had to walk more than a mile down steep, treacherous slopes, early in the morning, near death because of his injuries.
In fact, had he not been wearing tight sliding shorts, doctors told Engel there is a good chance he would have bled to death on that mountain. Those shorts were all that held the deep laceration partially together and gave Engel some chance of survival.
He was not alone on his exhausting walk down the mountain. In addition to His presence, God had sent help to be right by his side, allowing Engel to push forward despite the tremendous odds. A woman walked beside Engel the entire way, often leading the way if he stumbled or began to tire. All of a sudden, after the mission was accomplished, she disappeared into the Colorado night.
Now three years later, Engel can still vividly remember the entire experience of trudging down that mountain, but with a feeling of tremendous peace — a peace through the storm. A peace found only in the Lord.
“I got up and walked,” he said. “I knew my leg was really messed up but I felt just a blanket of peace that lifted me up. I felt a love and the peace of God was right there with me. I remember walking down completely calm, collected, not stressing. I’m really thankful for that.
“I actually found an angel on the way down. I never saw her face but it was a short, Black lady with a white shawl type of thing. She was walking by my side and I remember seeing her, but I never talked to her and she never turned and spoke to me. She was just walking with me.”
God once again put the right people in his life, as Engel found the cabin of none other than a retired Navy medic just at the bottom of the mountain. The former medic sprang into action, administering first aid and putting Engel in the bathtub in an effort to save his blood supply until paramedics arrived.
It was a miracle of a night. He will always know it was God who got him down the mountain, not anything his broken body could have done.
“I ended up just knocking on a cabin door that I found. It was a retired Navy medic that lived up there on the mountain,” Engel remembered. “He got me some water, put me in the bathtub, cut my shorts to try to see what was going on with my leg. He said, ‘This is pretty bad.’ He called the ambulance. What was amazing was I walked all the way down that mountain on my own but when the ambulance came to get me out of the bathtub and put me on the stretcher, I couldn’t get out on my own. Both of those guys (the paramedic and Navy medic) had to hoist me up out of the bathtub because I couldn’t support myself.”
Once Engel arrived at the hospital, he would stay eight days, endure multiple surgeries to repair fractures in his skull, vertebrae and legs. Many doctors who cared for him over those eight days still tell Engel they have no idea how he survived. His injuries were … well, Engel has a three letter response: God.
“I might not have had a good day at the plate or didn’t play well, but I’m here for a reason. But I know that God has created me to play baseball well. I know that God has literally saved my life in a miracle and restored my body to where I can play baseball. One bad day at the plate doesn’t change that.”
That was just the beginning of an attempt to restart his baseball career. At this point, even with the season about nine months away, many players would have applied for a medical redshirt, allowing them to recover from an injury while still retaining a year of eligibility. Not Engel.
He took a different path. He decided to quit midway through the year, between the fall and spring semester.
“That following school year was a really challenging year for me, just with my family and the personal decisions I was making,” Engel said. “I actually gave up school and baseball for a couple weeks. I told the coach I quit and didn’t register for classes. I could really feel God calling me to something great. I thought that meant quitting everything I was doing and trying to go do something else.”
His mind changed quickly, though. Engel had thought that by devoting his life to Christ, that meant giving up everything he had done before. But he came to the realization that God wanted him out on the field. God wanted him in the classroom. God had big plans for him to be a light at Drury.
“I prayed to the Lord and said, ‘Whatever You want me to do, wherever You want me to be, I’ll do that.’ I feel like it was then that God revealed to me that I could still follow the Lord while playing baseball and going to school. It is not necessarily the things we’re doing that define whether we’re following God or not. A lot of the time it is really our heart posture in the Lord, just serving Him faithfully. I think I tried to make this big decision to follow the Lord,” he said.
“Thankfully, I passed my classes and Coach hadn’t officially signed the papers for me to officially quit,” Engel continued, “so I approached Coach after weeks of praying and trying to figure out if I was going to go back, and said, ‘Hey Coach, I want back on the team and I have a new perspective on things. I 100-percent mean that and I’m going to do it for the guys and the whole team.’ He graciously let me back on. He wanted me back on and we worked it out. It is a decision I’m really glad I made and God showed me that I was at Drury playing baseball for a reason, and that is where He wanted [me].”
Engel returned that next season, in 2018. This time, though, something was different. He found that he was not welling too much in an 0-for-4 performance or a close loss. The opportunity to be playing college baseball was more than enough.
“I think something that I learned through that experience was that when challenges or difficulty are in front of us, we have a choice to let that define our situation or we can find the strength to rise above that challenge.
“I think that is something that I’ve been able to incorporate. Something that has really grown me as a baseball player is that ability to say, ‘Hey, I might not have had a good day at the plate or didn’t play well, but I’m here for a reason. But I know that God has created me to play baseball well. I know that God has literally saved my life in a miracle and restored my body to where I can play baseball. One bad day at the plate doesn’t change that,'” he said.
With a new perspective, Engel emerged as a star, earning All-Great Lakes Conference Honors in 2018, becoming an Academic All-American in 2019 and leading the Panthers in hits (70), RBIs (61), home runs (12), doubles (21), total bases (137) and runs (63) in 2019. In the abbreviated 2020 season, he once again led the team in hits with 26.
Partially because of his stardom, and partially because of his easygoing attitude, Engel has become a fan favorite, especially among the younger generation of Drury supporters. Following games, crowds of kids clamor for his autograph or a picture with the star infielder. Engel happily obliges, because he was once that kid.
“I have a soft spot in my heart for kids,” Engel said. “I think they’re really special and I know the Lord talks about how special children are and encourages us to have a child-like faith, which is so amazing. I’ve always wanted to be a father, before I actually became a father. And even now, I’ve always loved connecting with kids and just showing them that God has so much for them.”
Engel and his wife, Emily, are expecting their first child late this year, with the due date on Christmas Eve.
“I love their joy, their energy and really appreciate how baseball can connect young kids with myself because kids can really look up to you, because you’re a college player, or like how they see pro players as the coolest thing ever,” he said. “It’s such a privilege to me to show those kids who look up to me that they’re so amazing, important and special. It’s definitely one of the things I love most about playing baseball.
“I remember going to the Frisco Roughriders game and Craig Gentry gave me his bat; I still remember it. I went with my youth group at church. We were all about 10 years old and everyone was like, ‘What! How did you get that?’ I hugged it close and thought, ‘This is awesome.’”
Clay Engel has seen God work in amazing ways, just as He did for him up on the mountain three years ago. He continues to see the Lord working each day, even through the COVID-19 pandemic that has caused so much negativity and sadness throughout the world.
“[COVID-19] has definitely been an unexpected challenge, and changed the way you think your life should look,” Engel said. “Obviously everyone’s experienced that to a certain extent. I think what I’ve realized the most and something that I’ve seen very clearly is how faithful God is. That has been the screaming message through this and through my mountain fall and rescue.
“He knew this was going to happen. He understood the incredible changes it would bring. He is still working all things for the good of those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose, like the Lord says (Romans 8:28). I’ve seen God working in the middle of this crisis and throughout this great change. I’ve experienced God’s faithfulness so clearly this year.”
Riley Zayas is a high school freshman and freelance journalist from Round Rock, Texas. He began his journalism career as a Sports Illustrated Kid reporter and has since become a regular contributor to Horns Illustrated, covering Texas Longhorn sports. His work also includes Fellowship of Christian Athletes publications, his personal blog 360 Sports, and now Sports Spectrum, having been a longtime fan of the magazine.
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