Huskers junior relief pitcher Robbie Palkert’s worst fear came true early in the 2018 season. After leaving a game with elbow soreness, he heard the words no pitcher wants to from a doctor – Tommy John, the first pitcher to undergo elbow reconstruction surgery and resume his career. Tommy John is also the name for the operation where a ligament in the medial elbow is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body. A 12-month process, it requires weeks of arm debilitation followed by months of rehab.
“I remember leaving the mound and my forearm felt like a rock," Palkert said. "I immediately iced it to reduce the swelling and Coach (Ted) Silva told me we would get an MRI back in Lincoln. I tried to pick up my luggage to load it onto the team bus and felt a sharp pain in my arm. I had a sickening feeling as I had never been injured like this before."
As one of the key cogs to Nebraska’s 2017 Big Ten regular season championship run, Palkert pitched 41.1 innings and led the bullpen in strikeouts with 39 strikeouts, as well as maintaining a 2.54 career earned run average. With his 2018 season over due to injury, Palkert decided to attack his rehab and focus on other areas of his life, rather than feel sorry for himself.
"I focused much more on my schoolwork and helping out in the community while being away from the game. I landed an internship at Pacific Life in Omaha over the summer and learned more about a potential career path I could follow after my playing days are over. It gave me a glimpse into what a life without baseball looks like."
Coming to Nebraska from Golden Valley, Minnesota, Palkert planned to study biology and attend physical therapy school. Within his first semester, he realized he needed to change paths, so he double majored in management and economics.
Dr. Laurie Miller, associate professor of practice in economics, said, "Robbie’s first course with me was during the spring semester, which is a very demanding time for baseball student-athletes. He was successful due to his time management skills and worked very hard to balance the demands in the classroom and on the field. He's going to do amazing things due to his values and the skills he has developed while being a student-athlete at the College of Business."
Palkert also thrived in the Nebraska Athletics Life Skills program. Each Friday he traveled to local elementary schools to speak to children. He also led tours on campus and answered questions about life as a student at Nebraska. His work in the community led to him being named a recipient of the Sam Foltz 27 Leadership Award last spring.
"Robbie has been a shining star in the Husker Life Skills program," said Keith Zimmer, senior associate athletic director for life skills. "Not only has he consistently inspired many in the community, but he has also been a role-model to his Husker peers who have endured adversity as he has routinely channeled his energy and time into making a difference."
With two years of eligibility remaining, he plans to make the most of them. After missing a full season, he won’t be taking the chance to step on the mound again for granted.
"To have something you love taken from you that quickly hurts. When you are there every day but cannot practice or play with your teammates, it takes a toll on your psyche. It is going to be exhilarating being back out there again," Palkert said.