Joe Cardwell: “Morgan’s Finest”

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This space is usually reserved for a Morgan County graduate who played sports at our high school.  In this case, we decided to make an exception.  We voted and it was unanimous in a 1-0 vote that Morgan County and Madison resident, Joe Cardwell, should fit into this category of extraordinary athletes that grace MCHS in a number of ways.

Cardwell wears many hats surrounding the Bulldog programs including being a community assistant coach for the MOCO swim team, having two children, Mary Claire and John that have participated in swimming and tennis, and using his passion for photography to funnel photos to the Morgan County Citizen for our use.  Mary Claire is now a swimmer at the University of Georgia while John, a junior, is currently the number one singles tennis player and the only MCHS male swimmer to ever compete in the State Championships.

With all that said, let’s get into some background of this all-around multitalented guy who works as a financial planner for Morgan-Stanley here in Madison.  Born Joe Cardwell III, his grandfather and namesake was an All-American football player at Duke who later turned pro.  Granddad played for Arthur J. Rooney at Pittsburgh as a professional alongside the likes of Whizzer White who went on to become a US Supreme Court Justice.

He was one of four athletic siblings.    His youngest brother, Mason, played football at Brown; Sister Chris held national records in the 10K and half marathon.  Chris’s twin Bailey was, in his words, the best athlete in the group and could dunk a basketball with two hands from behind his head but never showed much interest in team sports.  His parents were big on academics and met at Duke.  His father was a debater and went on to Law School at University of Florida while Mom got her master’s in education there.  She held a four handicap as a golfer.  Sounds like athleticism runs throughout this family.

Cardwell says his youth was defined by water skiing, hunting, and fishing as well as playing every kind of sport.  Joe himself grew up skiing and barefooting on Lake Cardwell in Windermere, Florida while also playing football and baseball at West Orange High School, a large school, with his graduating class numbering around 600.  He said, “At that time, Windermere was nothing but orange groves.  All my friends played sports, but football and baseball were where I excelled.  Nowadays, I would say that baseball and landscape photography are my passions.”

Cardwell shared that many of his buddies went on to play at the next level.  They included an all big-ten wide receiver, baseball at Central Florida, a quarterback he snapped for who started at East Carolina for two years, and another who was the right tackle at the University of Florida.  He commented, “I grew up around guys who were pretty talented.  Many of them had the “It” factor.  Whatever that is, I had the “It” when it came to my left arm.  It was my gift.  I liked baseball because I was good at it. I like doing things I’m good at, so that’s where it all started.”

Cardwell recalled pitching in the 16-18 division of the Little League World Series where he faced the Republic of China (Taiwan).  He also talked about striking out every batter as a twelve-year-old in Little League because of his overpowering stuff.  After high school he attended Rollins College in Winter Park.  He talked and laughed some about that experience saying, “I started my college pitching career there, and after a year I had a 1.8.  The bad news was that it wasn’t my ERA, but my GPA.  I left there to academically rehab and played my second spring at Valencia Community College in Florida.  It was then that I had an epiphany while cutting 50 pound bags of onions in a local restaurant kitchen that the successful students were ‘cheating by going to class and studying.’  From there I went on to South Carolina to pitch for the Gamecocks where I found finance and ‘cheated and studied’ my way to a 3.7 GPA in my finance core curriculum.  That, combined with my accomplishments on the field, led to being selected as one of the Metro Conference’s Top Scholar Athletes.  I really came to enjoy competing in the classroom and beating the kids who were supposed to be the top students.”  He added, “I like to tell any kid who will listen, don’t do it the way I did.  School is easy, easy, easy if you go to class, study, and turn your stuff in on time.  Don’t go to the brink like I did and then have to dig your way back out.”

All Cardwell did on the mound was come out of school with a 15-6 record as a left-handed pitcher who said he threw in the mid to upper 80’s.  The 51-year-old’s baseball card had him listed at 6-2, 205.  He was selected to the first team All-Metro Conference in 1988, had a 10-win season his junior year, went 2-0 and 3-1 against archrivals Georgia and Clemson, and pitched a shutout over Ohio State.  He also had the opportunity to pitch in the NCAA Regionals at Miami where he faced Georgia Tech but lost. The old Metro Conference was made up of Florida State, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Cincinnati, Memphis, Southern Mississippi, and South Carolina at the time.  He was coached by June Rains.  South Carolina now plays in the SEC.

However, his fastball wasn’t all that much when he stepped into the college ranks.  That’s where he says he had to learn how to pitch.  “A mid-80’s fastball at that level isn’t going to overpower many hitters.  If you’re going to be successful at that level, you have to develop a devastating changeup.  We had a Dodgers pitcher working out with us and he showed me how to throw the split finger.  I have large hands so I developed a circle change where I gripped the ball way down in my fingers where it comes out the back.  That pitch made everything better for me.  Also, I had a lot of guys tell me I threw a ‘heavy’ fastball.  I never caught myself so I’m not sure what that meant, but that’s what they called it.”

He told us that he doesn’t get back to Columbia that often, but did reminisce about his first appearance in the annual South Carolina alumni game a few years back.  “I think I was about 42 at the time and the first batter I faced was only two years out of school.  He was about 20 years younger and was a horse!  The next batter was the father of one of my teammates.  I popped the big guy up and then faced Dear Old Dad, as we called him.  He was about 70 or so.  He kept telling me to bring it down so he could hit it.  We had so much fun.”  Cardwell suffers from a torn labrum these days and is no longer to participate, but wishes he could.

The avid outdoorsman now says he’s addicted to the outdoors.  Whether it’s fishing in states with magnificent landscapes he can photograph, hunting turkey with his brother, taking a two-day Harley Davidson bike trip across Costa Rica, or any other of many outdoor activities, one thing’s for sure.  You’ll always find Joe Cardwell out in the wild.

It’s about time we had our first-ever non-MCHS player to join the vaunted “Morgan’s Finest” list.  No doubt that he fits the bill of representing our county in a positive way.  Congratulations Joe.  You deserve it.

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