By Helen Buchanan, GoHeels.com
When Houston Summers was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2005, there was no way he could have imagined where he would be seven years later. As a self-described utility player, Summers has played nearly every position wherever he was needed and was bounced around through every level in the league. He signed as one of the top catcher prospects out of North Carolina who had played with and against the likes of Tar Heel greats Dustin Ackley and Greg Holt and could have competed for a starting spot against Tim Federowicz behind Chris Iannetta at Carolina.
"I don't think I've ever been super dominant at one particular position," says Summers, "I've always been the guy who can play a little bit of everywhere. That's kind of the role I'm in now even."
Now? Now he's a freshman in college living in the dorms and studying to one day become a pediatric orthopedist. On top of that, he's a freshman student-athlete throwing javelin for the University of North Carolina track and field team.
"It definitely wasn't my idea," Summers says of how he came to be a part of a new era of Carolina track and field under Coach Harlis Meaders. A trainer at former UNC All-America Scott Bankhead's North Carolina Baseball Academy in Greensboro, N.C., told Summers that even though his baseball career was over and he was embarking on an academic dream since childhood, he was athletic enough to play another sport collegiately if given the chance.
Summers leapt at the opportunity to continue his competitive drive, so the process began to find a sport at Carolina not only he could compete in but also had space on the roster. One of those calls connected to assistant coach Josh Langley of the track and field program and ended with the possibility of a 200 or 400 runner out of the former pro prospect.
"I did say that it was going to be tough for a baseball player with zero track experience to be a 400 meter runner on our team and [be competitive] in the ACC," says Coach Langley, "But I had some success turning old baseball players into javelin throwers so [I told the trainer] maybe he would be willing to go that route."
Summers met with the coaches shortly after arriving on campus in August and started the process of trying out for the team. "I talked to Coach [Meaders] and he said 'You may absolutely suck at everything we do, but I'll give you a chance to try out and if we like you and think you can compete and benefit the team, then you'll be on the team,'" says Summers.
"From the first day of tryouts Houston came out and impressed us from the start," says Coach Langley, "He was meticulous with his details, and he was in outstanding shape. He was so good Coach [Steve] Rubin was giving the sprinters a really hard time saying 'You let a retired baseball player beat you today.'"
Coach Langley says Summers still has a lot to learn, but that he is giving total effort to the cause. Fellow student-athletes on the team have also lent a helping hand, from changing Summers' phrasing of "clubhouse" to "locker room" and even help on practice gear and uniforms, most notably the transition to running tights.
From High School to the Pros -- "I knew my numbers were just as good as any catcher in the big leagues."
A lot has happened in the seven years since Summers graduated from Northwest Guilford; even more has happened since he started this journey as a freshman baseball player for his high school team. Summers says he hadn't always considered being drafted, mostly because of the number of injuries he suffered while playing.
His freshman season, Summers missed the majority of the season after a dive into second dislocated his shoulder badly enough to require season-ending surgery. As a sophomore, he came back to the game not only stronger, but the best catcher in school pushing him to the varsity ranks. As a junior, things started to click which rolled into pre-draft workouts and what was looking to be a stellar senior season.
"Senior year came, and I started out the season just on fire," says Summers, "At that time Dustin [Ackley] had actually transferred to North Forsyth and we were playing in a game against them and I dislocated my thumb. So I missed over half of my senior season recovering from that."
Despite the injuries, everything Summers had done prior in workouts and camps proved he could compete professionally. Naturally colleges wanted him, including UNC head coach Mike Fox and Virginia Tech's then-head coach Chuck Hartman.
"Chris Iannetta was the catcher here at the time and Coach Fox basically said 'We'd love to have you, but...'" recalls Summers, "The coaching staff here had brought in Tim Federowicz too, and we had played against each other a lot and it was basically going to be us two competing for Chris' spot whenever he left.
"Coach Hartman at Virginia Tech gave me a massive scholarship and said 'Look, you will be our starting catcher freshman year. You're going to play against all the same teams. We may not have the success that North Carolina is going to have but you're going to get the same exposure,'" adds Summer, "I weighed out those options and decided I needed to play."
Summers signed with Virginia Tech only to opt out of his scholarship when he was drafted in the 47th round as the youngest American-born player in Diamondbacks club history.
Life in the MiLB -- "If you've ever seen the movie Bull Durham, it's that and then some."
Summers was 17 when he was shipped off to Missoula, Mont., for rookie ball. There were already three experienced catchers listed on his team's roster so Summers knew things likely weren't going to happen in his first year. The next season he was sent back to Missoula but was quickly moved to Yakima, Wash., where he switched between A and AA teams for two seasons.
"Starting my fourth year is when things kind of got crazy. I was literally in AA one week and then they would send me back to A-ball," says Summers. "If someone was hurt or someone got called up to the big leagues, I would jump up to AAA to spot start. I was used here, there and everywhere. If we got in a tight game and there were extra innings, they would put me in the run bases or play second base. I really became a utility guy during that time."
In 2010 Summers was released from his contract with Arizona only to be signed by the St. Louis Cardinals soon after. Like many minor league veterans at his age who had played since high school, particularly for players without a standout position, Summers continued to be bounced around through the league ranks until his release.
While playing in the minors, Summers' life was typical for the baseball scene but atypical for most 18 to 24 year-olds. By the time he was done playing he had lived anywhere from Missoula, Mont., to Tucson, Ariz., and Palm Beach, Fla., to Batavia, N.Y. He learned very quickly how mature he had to be in order to make the MiLB life work, which he adds is helping him transition to college.
"My first season [I was barely 17 years old] so my Mom is like 'Oh here's my debit card, you can get gas, you can do this and do that,'" remembers Summers, "So I had her debit card with me but no bank account of my own, so all of my bonus checks, my meal money, all of that I just kept in a book bag. I would get home at the end of a season and literally go into the kitchen and put my cash and checks on the table. It was really funny looking back at how immature I was then and how quickly it forced me to grow up."
Moving away from home for the first time is scary for any young adult. But moving into a professional career versus college is a world all it's own according to Summers.
"It was really tough. It was something that I knew I really wanted to do and was really passionate about it," says Summers, "But at the same time, my old life was all I had ever known. I was born and raised in Summerfield, N.C., and the Greensboro area so I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
"One of the long-time scouts and my advisor who played baseball here, Scott Bankhead, he basically told me that this game is a machine. It's either going to chew you up and spit you out or you're going to suck it up and deal with it. For lack of a better term, that's what I did. I just had to grind away.
"There were times when I would drive home from the stadium just balling my eyes out -- I would have an awful game, I'd miss my girlfriend, miss my Mom and Dad, and I was just like 'I just want to go home.'"
Despite the struggles, Summers started his baseball career at 5'7 ½" and weighing 140 pounds but finished at 5'10" with 40 extra pounds of muscle having played catcher, pitcher, infielder and outfielder and competed at every level in the league. Another shoulder surgery that required 18 months of rehab looked to be the end of his professional career, but what he had left to accomplish couldn't be done on the baseball diamond.
A New Balancing Act -- "'Ten years ago could you imagine that we'd be here now?'"
As a child, Summers was diagnosed with a tumor that thrust him in front of doctors and all sorts of medical professionals deeply involved in the process to give him a normal life after the tumor was removed. Ever since Summers came out of his situation, he wanted to be a doctor, specifically a pediatrician because of the care he had received as a child.
"I thought that was the coolest thing ever and I want to help little kids like that," says Summers, "Orthopedics kind of came into it because of athletics."
Most minor league contracts have a clause denoting scholarship money paid for by the MLB, which can be used for college once a player leaves. To no surprise, much of that money for education goes to waste and Summers didn't want that to happen to him.
"I was always a good student in high school and I really enjoyed school," says Summers. "[Coming to a place like Carolina,] the teachers are fantastic and as athletes, everyone here wants you to exceed on the field, in the classroom, everywhere. There's so much help and everyone wants you to succeed. That's a really cool atmosphere to be a part of."
Getting back into the classroom hasn't been a complete culture shock for Summers. The regularity in the schedule is much like the training schedule he kept while playing baseball, just swap weights for study hall and autograph sessions for exams. The real change has been in earning a spot on the track and field team as a javelin thrower and a potential indoor sprinter.
First, throwing a knuckleball is a completely different arm action and idea than throwing javelin. In baseball, you throw downhill and curve the plane as much as you can; but in javelin, in Summers' words, "You just want to chuck it as high and as far as you can."
Despite the athletic differences, it's actually the time management he wants to give to all of his commitments and dreams at Carolina that is proving difficult.
"The thing I'm having the most issue with is, in baseball if I was having an issue with something I could get to the field at 5 a.m. and stay until I wanted to, until I fell asleep in my locker," says Summers. "Here I have to balance that out with lots of things: I have to go to class, I have tests I have to study for, so I can't completely dedicate every bit of my time to athletics."
No need to worry, however. Summers is well on his way to academic excellence at Carolina (potentially four A's and one B if his predications hold true for the fall semester) as well as athletic prowess on the track. The NCAA will not allow Summers to compete in the outdoor season giving him an extra year to perfect his javelin technique, and the sprints coaches at Carolina are working with him so he can compete and score for the Tar Heels during the indoor season.
Summers' biggest contribution at the moment is something hard to quantify: his life experience. At 25 beyond being a former professional athlete, he has lived all over the country and traveled all over the world with his charity organization Unlimited Potential, Inc. He has succeeded and he has failed, traits Summers says of his life experience that helps put everything in perspective, both in the classroom and on the field. He says playing professional baseball as well as the mentality it takes to make it in professional baseball pushes you to get up and push harder if things aren't going as expected.
"I told Coach Meaders and Coach Langley from day one that I have no idea what I'm doing," says Summers, "But I promised them that every day I'm going to work my tail off. That's all I can do. I don't know any of the technique stuff, of course I'm learning it, but I will promise you every day that I will bust my tail and there is no substitute for that hard work."
"I think the big thing that Houston brings is knowledge of what it takes to be an athlete at a high level," says Coach Langley, "You have a guy whose livelihood depended on his ability to perform and each year, there was a wave of new, younger players drafted and he had to try and out perform those guys. It doesn't matter what your sport, competing under pressure and competing at a high level translates over."
"Sometimes I feel a bit out of place being that I'm a freshman and have no idea about track and field yet I'm saying these things to my team members who some are All-Americas or All-ACC and all these other honors," adds Summers, "But it's not necessarily about what we've accomplished individually. It's about a bigger vision for the future of this team and program."
Summers says by the time he leaves UNC he wants to be a national champion in the javelin. He does admit he has a long way to go to get there, but adds that it's a mentality that every Tar Heel has: "We want to be national champions, period."