‘Not your everyday story’
Summers leaves baseball to pursue studies; learns javelin
Until seven months ago, Houston Summers had never seen a javelin in real life.
Last week, the 25-year-old freshman from North Carolina competed for the Tar Heels at the Atlantic Coast Conference Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
While he may not have won the javelin, Summers placed sixth and scored three points after throwing a mark of 62.97 meters in the event. Not too shabby for a converted baseball player who had never picked up a javelin less than a year ago.
But Summers is an athlete, which has helped him tremendously in this new adventure. At 17 years old, he was the youngest player drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks when he was picked by the organization in the 47th round in the 2005 Major League Baseball Draft. He spent the next six years in the minor leagues -- five years with the Diamondbacks and a season with the St. Louis Cardinals organization before retiring in 2010 and deciding to pursue an education.
Summers had always had intentions to return to school, and realized his dream of becoming a doctor, especially after a serious health scare as a young teenager.
“When I was 13, I was diagnosed with a tumor called a juvenile nasopharyngeal angiofibroma and it was about the size of a softball,” Summers said. “Ever since I had that removed, I’ve always had this passion for medicine and for wanting to help kids.”
A native of Summerfield, N.C., Summers underwent 16 hours of surgery for the benign, yet life-threatening tumor growing inside his head.
“It was going to kill me because it was putting so much pressure on the inside of my head,” Summers said. “I couldn’t see out of my right eye, I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t smell. It was literally migraines constantly. It was awful. Luckily, the doctors removed it and the only side effect I’ve had is I can’t cry out of my right eye.”
The doctors at Wake Forest saved his life and Summers fully recovered after about six months, but it was not his own surgery that inspired him to pursue medicine, and a career as a pediatric orthopedic surgeon.
“There was a kid from Russia who was flown over to have pretty much the same procedure around the same time,” Summers said. “He had undergone something like 40 attempts to remove this tumor, but none of the doctors in Russia could remove it. He was flown to the U.S. and the doctors at Wake Forest removed it. I couldn’t imagine going through that 40 times and every time it being unsuccessful. The fact the process was so easy for me was amazing.”
Summers enrolled at UNC last fall with that motivation driving his quest. But, after a lengthy baseball career, Summers found concentrating on strictly academics was not in his makeup.
“I thought about [being a normal student] and that was the original intention,” Summers said. “I was going to devote 100 percent of my time on academics and not worry about it. In all honestly, I’m one those people who needs to go, go, go. I missed the team atmosphere and the competition.”
But with baseball out of the picture, the list of sports he could try at UNC was limited because of his experience and skill set.
“Track and field was my only option, but I had nothing to do with the sport before in my life,” Summers said. “I never ran in a race or set foot on a track in a competitive sense.”
Summers, however, was not discouraged. He knocked on the office door of head coach Harlis Meaders, and asked him about trying out for the team.
“He looked at me like there is no chance you’re making this team, but he was obviously curious because my story is not your everyday story,” Summers said.
Summers went to tryouts in hopes of being a sprinter in the 200 or 400 meters. While Meadors and the coaching staff knew he wasn’t sprinter material, they still thought they could use his athleticism somehow.
“[Meadors] pulled me aside and brought the team over and said, ‘I don’t know what this kid can do. He might be absolutely awful but he has the drive we’re looking for so he is going to be on the team,’” Summers said.
Assistant coach Josh Langley took Summers under his wing, and introduced him to the javelin. Langley had known some former baseball players whom had turned into javelin throwers, and thought Summers’ arm strength would be an asset. But it was only just the beginning.
“I knew he had been a pitcher for the last couple years,” Langley said. “So, I told him he had to forget basically everything he had been taught about throwing because the javelin has a unique style of throw. There are some things that translate pretty well, but there are certain things that are habit that he’s trying to break.”
“There’s a completely different motion,” Summers said. “Arm strength and hand speed and rotational core strength -- all of those translate [from baseball], just at a little different angle.”
The first time he picked up the javelin, Summers hit himself in the back of the head with the tail end. It flew a paltry 30 feet.
“Throughout the course of the last six months, I’ve gone from throwing it 30 feet to 120 feet,” Summers said. “It’s been quite a ride with a nice progression.”
Summers has competed in meets unattached this season, but coaches decided to use him in ACC championships and see what he could do, hoping he would score some points.
“Coming into it, he was a little banged up but we talked about the goals for the weekend. His first responsibility was to score points for the team and his second was to try to get a mark that would qualify him for NCAA Regionals,” Langley said. “He accomplished the first one, and with the second it looks like he’ll be on the bubble. But he has one more shot to try to get a better mark [at a last-chance meet in Virginia].”
Entering the week, Summers’ mark from ACCs would qualify him for the NCAA East Regional as the top-48 performers are accepted based on the descending order list for the season. It would be quite an accomplishment for an athlete learning a new skill -- and sport -- in such a short time.
“I’m like a little kid when I go out to the track,” Summers said. “I don’t really know where to go or what to do. My coach had to walk me to the check-in tent to get my bib number.”
Summers has enjoyed learning about track and field and hanging out with his teammates, despite the age difference.
“I think a lot of times we forget [about the age difference],” Summers said. “The guys want to hear about baseball stuff and funny clubhouse stories. It is a lot of fun.”
While he may have been a surprise addition to the team, Summers is certainly a welcome one.
“It’s unusual to have a freshman who is a great mentor, but he is that for life skills,” Langley said. “In return, his teammates kind of mentor him on track and field. Plus, he’s a blast to coach. He keeps me laughing daily, telling me stories about life in the minor leagues.”