Tragedy Turns to Triumph for James Skalski

Zach Lentz

Clemson fifth-year season starting linebacker James Skalski has endured more in his time as a Tiger than many people will ever understand.

Skalski will be unavailable for the Tigers the next few weeks, after the Tigers learned that he will have to minor surgery later this week.

"I've been trying to make sure y'all know that that's kind of where we are," head coach Dabo Swinney said. "Unfortunately, you know, really did not find out until last night. You know we got the MRI back late and really felt like Skalski was gonna be good to go. He was feeling pretty good.

We got a quick MRI, it looks like he's gonna have to have some scope of scope surgery. So he's gonna be out for a few games so just go ahead and put that out there, so he's at. That's a big loss for us."

But this "loss" is not the toughest opponent that Skalski has faced.

The game of college football provides millions of people with a reprieve, allowing them a few hours to put aside their struggles and cheer for their favorite teams.

But in that reprieve, quite often, the fans are unaware that those 18- to 22-year-olds providing them a momentary break from reality are going through trials of their own.

Skalski's freshman season was filled with excitement, big plays, big kicks and a tragedy that no one should have to endure.

On Oct. 14, 2016, the day before the Tigers were to take on NC State, Skalski’s father, John, passed away after suffering a heart attack.

"I remember being in his (head coach Dabo Swinney's) office right then and there," Skalski said. "But, yeah. We were preparing for our focus Fridays. And my neighbor had called me and said something had happened right before I was going to go to the team meeting. I didn't think anything of it. And then I thought about what she said, something is wrong. Then I got into the facility and I remember the GAs and stuff are coming up to me and saying, I'm praying for you. They found out after I did."

John had been mowing the grass when his wife found him in the yard, unresponsive. It was a day that Skalski and Swinney will never forget.

“That was a very difficult situation,” Swinney said. “We went and got him out of the meeting and brought him into my office and literally was sitting there. They just told us that they were taking his dad to the hospital, and then his sister called, so I was sitting there with him when they called and said he passed.”

Skalski would miss the Tigers’ thrilling overtime victory against the Wolfpack on homecoming, but would finish out the season as one of Clemson’s special team’s leaders, producing 14 tackles in 20 snaps in 14 games, with more than half (eight) of his tackles coming on special teams.

But it was the support of Swinney and the rest of the Clemson family that he recalls vividly.

"Well, I can remember just like yesterday being in the office with Coach Swinney," Skalski said. "They were no longer coaches. They were just there for me. Football was out the window, who cares, it's about being a man then.

"They were just rocks in my life at that point. I mean, after that—something cool about this place, it's football and then it's life, family, and being a man. They are together, but there's a time and place for that. And the rest, you have to do that. And that's going to be the rest of your life, too. And they did such a good job of separating the two and helping me understand how important it is."

But now, with the memory of his father forever emblazoned in his mind, Skalski has become a force to be reckoned with.

“Man, he just brings a great name. Skalski, does that just not sound like a linebacker,” Swinney said. “He’s just awesome and he had a great spring. I can’t say enough about him. He’s a player.

“From the moment he got here he caught everybody’s eye. He’s very natural, very instinctive and very athletic—you have no idea how athletic he is. He’s just a heck of an athlete and has great instincts for the game."