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Tar Heel: A late start at college hasn’t held UNC’s Houston Summers back

Tarheel of the Week Houston Summers

VIDEO: UNC senior Houston Summers visits NC State Derr Track Friday, May 6, 2016 to compete in the Last Chance Meet in his track and field specialty - the javelin. Summers, 28, survived a brain tumor as a child, was drafted at 17 from a Guilford C
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VIDEO: UNC senior Houston Summers visits NC State Derr Track Friday, May 6, 2016 to compete in the Last Chance Meet in his track and field specialty - the javelin. Summers, 28, survived a brain tumor as a child, was drafted at 17 from a Guilford C

At 28, Houston Summers can count more life-changing experiences than many people twice his age.

There’s the time, at age 13, when his utter weakness after brain surgery taught him about the frailty of human life. Just a few years later, there was the moment he heard his own name called out in the major league baseball draft.

Summers counts his time as student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill – which ends Sunday with his graduation – as yet another life-changing experience, teaching him serious lessons about the nature of leadership and grace under pressure.

During his time at UNC, he became one of the nation’s top javelin throwers and a spokesperson for college athletics in the wake of the scandal centered on athletes taking fake classes. As student body president, he also presided over the controversial renaming of Saunders Hall, among other issues.

Dwight Stone, chair of the UNC-CH board of trustees, says Summers was an asset to the university at a key time – lending his perspective as a professional and student athlete and serving as an effective liaison between students and the board.

Stone calls Summers a “natural born leader,” with a magnetic personality and an unusual ability to consider divergent viewpoints, and a willingness to tackle difficult topics.

“Most people don’t like to tackle tough issues; they want to swim on the safe side of the pool,” says Stone, a Greensboro businessman. “He’s not afraid to swim with the sharks.”

From illness to baseball

Summers grew up in Summerfield, outside of Greensboro, the son of an engineer and a nurse. He showed promise in sports from a young age. Early on, his chosen sport was football, but he also participated in basketball, wrestling and baseball.

Just shy of his 13th birthday, Summers woke up with what he thought was a sinus infection. The pain didn’t respond to antibiotics, and in a matter of weeks his breathing became labored, he couldn’t hear out of his right ear, and his vision became blurry.

He was suffering several severe headaches a day by the time doctors found a brain tumor the size of a golf ball. It wasn’t cancerous, but it was growing quickly; by the time he went in for surgery two weeks later, it was larger than a softball.

The two-day surgery went well; the only remaining damage is that his right eye doesn’t produce tears. But the recovery was difficult.

“I could not walk five feet without being completely and totally out of breath,” he says. “It was the first time I was really aware that your life could be taken in an instant.”

Once recovered, he gave up football in favor of baseball in part to avoid blows to the head. The next year, as a high school freshman on the junior varsity team, Summers dislocated his left shoulder diving into second base, requiring surgery.

As a sophomore on the varsity team, he got hit in the face with a ball during batting practice and broke his nose. Junior year, he remained unscathed, but a few games into his senior year, he dislocated his thumb catching.

He was eager to play professional ball, but given his injuries didn’t expect the major leagues to show any interest in him.

He had signed to play at Virginia Tech when the Arizona Diamondbacks drafted him.

“At that point I’d played a total of about 25 high school games, but the Diamondbacks saw something and they wanted me,” he says. “It was really, really cool but really surreal.”

He spent four years playing for the Diamondbacks’ farm teams in places like Missoula, Montana and Yakima, Wash., often shifting between locations with little notice

“It’s so much fun, but it’s so taxing,” he says. “You play 162 games in 180 days, not including spring training.”

After almost four years with the Diamondbacks, he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2009, and spent most of the next two years with its minor league team in Palm Beach, Fla.

After a second shoulder surgery made it clear his baseball career wasn’t going in the right direction, Summers headed home to Greensboro. He coached youth baseball and started applying to college.

A new sport, a new school

Although he never played a major league game, Summers considered himself lucky to have had his experience in professional baseball. He was also fortunate to have his college tuition paid for as part of his contract with the Diamondbacks.

Once admitted to UNC, Summers became a walk-on on the track team and took up javelin throwing. By the end of his first semester, he was throwing 200 feet, and now is among the top 30 throwers in the country.

His first year coincided with the university launching an investigation into allegations that student athletes were allowed to take fake classes to remain eligible to play. That development moved him to become more active in university affairs, he says.

He applied to be on the student athlete advisory council, a liaison with the NCAA, which was investigating the scandal, and later served in a group that advises the chancellor on athletics issues.

“There was such a disconnect between what I saw around me and what was being portrayed,” says Summers, who is graduating with an A average. “I saw how hard my fellow student athletes work, how hard I worked.”

He was asked by the previous student body president to consider running, and soon staked out time between his classes and sports for student government, making speeches and attending board of trustees meetings, among other commitments.

His first vote as a trustee was to rename Saunders Hall, named after a Ku Klux Klan leader. In a later controversial measure, he voted to allow Barnes & Noble to run the university’s student stores.

“The debate was emotional,” he says, “but with all the money going back to student scholarships, it was hard to argue with that.”

Summer will graduate with a double major in neuroscience and industrial and organizational psychology. He also has a double minor in anthropology and a new program of study in medicine, literature and culture.

He plans to move to Atlanta for a few years, where he will work as a consultant for Deloitte. He wants to earn his pilot’s license, and to continue working for Unlimited Potential, a faith-based group that offers free baseball camps to children.

His most ambitious goal for the future is to make it to Olympic trials in javelin. He says it would take a miracle to get him to Rio de Janeiro – or maybe just one more life-changing moment.

Houston Summers

Born: August 1987, Greensboro

Residence: Chapel Hill

Career: Student body president, UNC-Chapel Hill; former minor league baseball player

Awards: Order of the Golden Fleece, UNC-Chapel Hill, 2016; Buckley Public Service Scholar, UNC-Chapel Hill, 2014; All-American, USA Track & Field & Cross Country Coaches Associations, 2013; N.C. Scholastic Athlete of the Year, 2005

Education: B.A. psychology, UNC-Chapel Hill

Family: Parents Harold and Laurie; sister Holly and brother Hayden

Fun fact: Because of a long-standing tradition in his father’s family, all the children’s names start with the letter “H.” “That’s why I am Houston,” he says. “We have Hastings, Holden, Howard. It’s getting hard to come up with new ones.”