Former UMass quarterback Kellen Pagel switches to baseball
For Kellen Pagel, the transition from frustration at his present as a football player to excitement about his future playing baseball came sometime during Christmas break.
Pagel was supposed to be the University of Massachusetts football team’s starting quarterback in its first season as an Bowl Subdivision program in 2012. Instead, lingering symptoms from a concussion he suffered during the 2011 season prevented him from playing at all. He went from one of sports’ most high-profile roles to no profile at all.
He tried to do what he could. He attended position meetings and helped Mike Wegzyn, his replacement under center, to get better. Pagel threw when he could and did whatever participating the doctors allowed. But he didn’t travel to road games and was forced to sit in the Gillette Stadium stands for home games.
“I think it was the hardest thing I had to do,” he said. “It’s tough going from playing with a bunch of guys and competing and then being forced to sit and watch when you can’t even help and contribute at all. It was definitely really hard to do.”
When he headed home to Strongsville, Ohio in December, Pagel knew he’d likely never play college football again. His concussion symptoms were gone, but the potential long-term damage to his brain should he face another concussion was scary.
He initially planned to take head coach Charley Molnar up on his offer to be a student assistant coach. It was a way to stay around the game and his teammates. But every day he’d have had to watch other people do things he wished he could.
“I love being around the guys and the coaches. Football is something I’ve loved for my entire life,” he said. “But it’s not like competing.”
Coming out of Strongsville High School, Pagel got some recruiting attention as a baseball player from Ohio University, Cleveland State and Cincinnati. He was a good shortstop and a strong hitter, but as the son of NFL quarterback Mike Pagel, football was in his blood.
“The overall atmosphere of college football. You watch it on TV as a kid and get goose bumps watching all the games on TV,” Pagel said. “It was a dream of mine to play college football.”
But with that dream no longer feasible, Pagel and his father conferred.
“He was saying ‘Do what’s right for you. Don’t worry about what anyone else wants you to do or is telling you to do. At the end of the day, it’s your life, you’re going to have to live with it,’” Kellen Pagel said. “He said that whatever I decided to do, he would support it 100 percent.”
He decided to return to baseball and has been happier ever since. He went to the indoor batting cages at Pinnacle Sports in nearby Medina, Ohio and started the process of getting his timing back.
“I love to hit. That’s one of my favorite things to do in all of sports,” Pagel said. “I love competing and playing sports. I have my entire life. To get this chance again, it made me start to feel really good.”
Competition No. 1 was just getting on the roster. With almost four years between him and the last time he played baseball, Pagel wasn’t guaranteed a spot on the Minutemen, but he approached UMass coach Mike Stone about just getting a chance. Pagel didn’t realize that Stone had also once been a UMass football player after a short minor league baseball career.
“It was something cool to hear,” Pagel said. “I met with him and explained my situation and told him I would greatly love the opportunity to come out and try out for the team. I was lucky enough to receive that opportunity.”
When Pagel approached him, Stone immediately thought about Doug Clark, another former UMass football player that joined the baseball team. Clark not only earned playing time, but stardom. He was drafted by the San Francisco Giants and had a sip of coffee in the Major Leagues and has played professionally in South Korea.
“I’ve always loved having football players play for us. It takes a special kind of toughness,” Stone said. “It’s a different toughness than baseball.”
Pagel survived the last round of cuts last week to officially land on the UMass roster. But with four experienced players — Rich Graef, Tony Serino, Kyle Adie and Adam Picard — ahead of him on the outfield depth chart, Pagel is far from assured playing time when the Minutemen open the season March 1 against Notre Dame in Cary, N.C.
“He’s made a lot of progress in a month. There’s no question about that. He hasn’t played in four years and it’s hard to catch up,” Stone said. “He’s doing a good job. He has a lot of ability, a lot of potential. It’s difficult to determine how far he’s going to go, but he’s working hard.”
Pagel, who has two years of eligibility remaining, is just focused on improving.
“I think I’m a little bit rusty. The last time I played was 2009. Every day, I’m trying to work and become a better player,” he said. “I feel myself becoming a better player. It’s tough to get back into the groove of things.”
While a wall collision or an errant pitch present chances of another concussion, the risks were low enough to make it possible for him to play. He’ll wear a normal baseball helmet at the plate and no extra equipment anywhere else.
Pagel said he still misses football. He hoped that someday the arm he trained to throw touchdown passes would cut down a runner from the outfield.
“If I get the opportunity (to throw a guy out) that would be an excellent feeling. All I’ve done my whole life is throw,” Pagel said. “If I get a chance to do that in the outfield that would be exciting.”
As frustrating as losing his football career was, Pagel said it helped him embrace life’s uncertainties.
“I’m not sure where my life is going to go next. That’s kind of an exciting thing. Two years ago, I would have had no idea that I’d be in the situation I’m in now,” Pagel said. “I’m just trying to take it day by day and become the best person I can.”
Matt Vautour can be reached at email@example.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at @GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.