Widmann confirms that he is playing in 2008

CLEMSON -- Clemson coach Jack Leggett was at least grateful that Stan Widmann heard him out.

Leggett routinely meets with individual players during the fall to discuss their progress. He had a different spiel lined up for Widmann, who was still rehabilitating from surgery to remove a benign tumor from his spinal cord.

For planning purposes, Leggett wanted to know whether Widmann intended to try to play during the 2008 season. But Leggett also sought to convey that Widmann should not feel any pressure to do so, telling him the Tigers would field a team nonetheless and have an everyday shortstop regardless of his decision.

"By the time I got done, he just had a smirk on his face and said, 'Are you done? I'm playing,'" Leggett said.

"It was like, 'Why are you wasting your breath?' I thought, 'OK, there goes that speech right out the door.'"

Ten months removed from the career-threatening surgery, Widmann is ready to trade the kid gloves for his older leather one.

Clemson begins practice Friday, and Widmann is slated to practice without restriction.

Considering no one seemed certain whether he would even play again after the operation, Leggett termed Widmann's rapid recovery beyond that of a normal human.

"I'm looking forward to getting after it," Widmann said. "Getting back into it will be difficult, but this is a marathon, so I've got a little time."

Patience felt in short supply for Widmann while condemned to watching Clemson games from the dugout last year, hindered by a cumbersome neck brace.

The Hurst, Texas, native was pulled from the lineup six games into the season when team doctors were unable to pinpoint the reason for his recurring neck pain.

A visit to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota revealed Widmann had a non-cancerous tumor on his C-3 vertebrae. On March 27, the tumor was removed during 12 hours of surgery.

Widmann, a draft-eligible junior last season, was later granted a medical hardship by the NCAA that restored his year of eligibility. He has two remaining.

But his ability to use the first year remained in question before Widmann exceeded expectations, including his own, in the fall.

After weaning off the neck brace, he was cleared to take batting cage swings in September. In October, Widmann started throwing, running and fielding grounders in team scrimmages and was deemed six months ahead of his rehabilitation schedule. By mid-November, he was allowed to face live pitching on occasion.

"He had a lot of pride and a great desire to get back out on the field," Leggett said. "He's got one of those engines that doesn't want to slow down."

The only time Widmann has to separate from his teammates' workouts is in the weight room.

Because he has yet to regain his pre-surgery strength and muscle endurance, Widmann does variations of several over-the-head lifts in the team's regimen to avoid unnecessary pressure on his neck.

Widmann realizes all eyes will be waiting for him to have to make his first diving grab. He is counting down the days to get that out of the way, too.

"I will be soon," Widmann said, cracking a smile. "I just haven't had the opportunity."

Widmann said his risk of serious injury is almost no greater than anyone else's.

As part of his surgery, a bone graft was inserted to fuse his spine back together where the C-3 vertebrae had been located.

The graft has limited flexibility, so the vertebrae above and below it have taken on additional stresses.

Widmann's lone concern would be if those vertebrae endured excessive pressure, but he believes the chances of that happening remote.

He still has to have X-rays and CT scans taken locally and sent to the Mayo Clinic so his surgeon, Dr. Bradford Currier, can inspect them to ensure the tumor never spread to other areas in his neck. But come March, the length between checkups extends to every six months.

"The competitor in me is not going to go out there and say, if I do this, this will happen," Widmann said. "I've already made the decision I'm going to go out and give everything I can. ... When you hold back, that's really when athletes injure themselves."

Clemson will take everything Widmann can give it. His presence figures to be a boost for a lineup that lost a major portion of its veteran leadership and offensive punch.

Sophomore second baseman J.D. Burgess is the Tigers' only returning infield starter.

If they can count on Widmann at shortstop, Leggett has the flexibility to open competitions at third (freshman John Hinson and junior college transfer Matt Sanders) as well as second (Burgess and Georgia transfer Mike Freeman).

"The most important thing Stan brings is defensively," Leggett said. "We lost so many infielders last year that he is the key to solidifying that defense. The rest of the kids are going to mold around him."

Early on, Widmann's prolonged layoff figures to be most evident at the plate. He batted .409 in last year's six games and .307 as a sophomore.

Clemson opens the season Feb. 22 against Mercer, and Widmann and Leggett suggest it might take awhile for Widmann's timing to round into form.

For now, that is a trade-off both say they are willing to accept.