CHAPEL HILL — Houston Summers has overcome obstacles his entire life. Whether it was a remediable tumor near his brain, struggling as a young minor league baseball player or entering a Division I sport he had never tried, Summers has persevered and prevailed.
In 2005, Summers at 17 became the youngest American-born drafted player in Arizona Diamondbacks history. He’s now a 25-year-old freshman javelin thrower at North Carolina and enters the ACC outdoor track and field championships as the oldest and rawest participant in the event.
“This has been absolutely crazy,” Summers said. “Being 17 and being drafted, I could have never imagined that just a few years later I would be here at UNC.”
He had a backup plan, though, just in case. Summers’ baseball contract included a clause that Arizona would pay his full tuition if baseball didn’t work out.
“I remember sitting in the kitchen with a scout and telling him I wanted to go to North Carolina when I finished playing,” he said. “I never doubted myself that I could make it in baseball, but I needed a better option.”
Summers grew up in Greensboro. Before starting high school, he was diagnosed with Juvenile nasopharyngeal angiofibroma – resulting in a tumor the size of a softball, as he described it.
“The tumor was located in my nasal and para nasal sinus cavities,” he said. “Pretty much any open space in the front of my head was being filled by this tumor.”
Summers said the tumor “changed the way I viewed everything. That should be an excited time in someone’s life, and all of sudden I have a tumor that needs to be removed. That was terrifying.”
The tumor was not cancerous but was considered life-threatening because of its location. Summers could not smell or taste. He had horrible vision in his right eye can couldn’t hear out of his right ear because of the tumor putting pressure on his frontal lobe, optic nerves and auditory nerves.
Summers had the tumor removed at Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem, where he said the doctors had a profound effect not only on his present but also his future. It’s why he wants to become a doctor. A psychology major, he is on a pre-medical track and plans to attend medical school to become an orthopedic surgeon.
“The doctors and the staff there were so great and really helped calm me down,” he said. “I was 13 years old and I trusted them. The effect that they had on me made me want to have that same effect on children that are in similar situations.”
After months of surgery and rehab, Summers began playing baseball at Northeast Guilford High. He was a pitcher and catcher. The game seemed easy, relatively speaking, and scouts noticed his arm strength.
“It was literally a complete 180 for me,” he said. “I literally used my previous experiences as fuel to get me through. When I looked back on what I went through, going through a slump really didn’t have that big of an effect on me.”
He played six years of professional baseball. He started as a catcher, switched to pitcher and retired after spring training in 2011. At age 23 he decided to start over. Again.
Tough hill to climb
He took a year off. Traveled the world, taught baseball and bible study before preparing for his freshman year.
The javelin wasn’t his first choice or even his idea.
“Coach’s suggestion,” he said. “My speed wasn't quite where it should be for a D1 sprinter and since I had an above average arm as a baseball player he basically put a javelin in my hand and said lets see what you've got.”
The first time he picked it up, Summers said it was an experience he’d like to forget.
“I had literally never touched or seen a javelin in real life before meeting with (assistant) coach (Josh) Langley,” he said. “The first time I went out to throw, the tip hit the ground then it spun around and hit me in the back of the head. I just said, ‘Oh man, this is going to be a long process.’”
Summers quickly found similarities between throwing a javelin and a baseball. Both involve rotational speed, arm strength and hand speed.
"I basically make an ’L’ with my thumb and finger, lay the javelin in my hand, wrap my fingers around it, and leave my pointer finger pointed up the javelin ... if that makes sense,” he said. “As far as the release is concerned, it leaves off the tip of my pointer finger just like a four-seamer (fastball). The motion begins like throwing a football but is more like baseball in that it’s like trying to really turn over a two-seam fastball.”
During his first event on March 23 at the Kent Taylor Invitational, Summers threw the javelin 65.29 meters, which still ranks as a top 30 throw in the country – far exceeding Langley’s expectations.
“He has had a very fast rise to the level that he’s at,” Langley said. “When he told me his goals at the beginning of the season, I kind of chuckled. I told him to tone it down initially, but he didn’t deter from the goals he set for himself.
“We set expectations and he has surpassed them.”
Summers will have to overcome another obstacle Friday. He recently was injured and hasn’t thrown in two weeks.
“He has four athletes in front of him that have been throwing for a long time,” Langley said. “I expect him to go out there and earn points and get a mark that will get him into the first round of the NCAA championships.
“He was realistic about it and sees who he has in front of him. But he still told me, ‘I’m just going to go for it.’”
Smith: 919-829-4841; @RCorySmith