It would have been easy to count out Brooks Benton.
At the age of 17, the former Chapel Hill High School quarterback and baseball first-baseman was lying in hospital bed with both arms incapacitated and a leg in traction. Doctors had recently removed a 4-centimeter tumor from his right arm; his left arm was broken and his knee ligaments ruptured by a fall just days into his post-surgery recovery.
It would be weeks before he could walk, let alone run, or do the one thing he longed to do more than anything else – play baseball.
“Basically, I lost my junior year,” Benton said recently.
A high school athlete’s junior year is a pivotal one in the college recruiting process. Most NCAA Division I programs begin to firm up their plans a year before an athlete matriculates. Some baseball programs lock up their recruiting commitments before the end of a high school senior’s fall semester.
Benton, who had wanted to play college baseball ever since he was a Pee Wee player, would have had every reason to think he had no chance of making it to the next level.
Not so, he said.
“One of my favorite sayings is that ‘God gives his biggest battles to his toughest soldiers.’ Things have a crazy way of working out, but God makes them work,” Benton said.
Things have indeed worked out so far for Benton. Despite missing his junior year of sports at Chapel Hill High School, he’s signed up to play this year at Louisburg, one of the nation’s best junior-college baseball programs.
“He has all the basic skills needed,” said Louisburg baseball coach Keith Shumate. “When I saw him, he clearly showed the potential to hit.”
Benton never foresaw this path to college ball when he was an underclassman at Chapel Hill.
His career seemed on cruise control when he was a freshman, playing junior varsity football and baseball, sometimes getting some time with the varsity squads. But his sophomore fall semester, despite the success of the football team, was marked by persistent pain in his right elbow.
“I couldn’t straighten my arm. The pain was really bad,” he said.
An MRI revealed a tumor inside his ulna. Already bigger than a golf ball, its growth was slowly cracking the arm bone from the inside out.
On March 2, 2012, surgeons from Duke Cancer Center successfully removed the tumor – benign – and grafted bone matter over the wound.
But seven days later, not realizing antibiotics had weakened his tendons, Benton suffered a ruptured right knee while playing at his home and fell, breaking his left arm as he attempted to brace himself.
That put him right back into a hospital bed.
Playing football in the fall was out of the question.
“No one is going to push an athlete back onto the field,” CHHS football coach Issac Marsh said. “The coaches, parents, trainers and doctors are all part of the conversation, but it’s ultimately up to the athlete.”
Benton considered himself lucky that he was able to get back to the baseball plate by February.
“I was cleared to play in the late fall (of 2012), and the knee was healed, but I still had a lot of work to do,” he said.
With his friend Grant Cabell firmly established at first base, his old position, Benton went into the lineup as the designated hitter. He averaged above .300 in the spring, and then had an even better summer in American Legion ball, hitting .470 in 34 at-bats.
“He got better every game, from day one to the last day of the season,” Chapel Hill baseball coach Tarron Robinson said.
Accepted at other colleges last spring – but without baseball offers – Benton contacted Louisburg’s coaches, seeking a tryout. They needed about 15 minutes to make up their minds.
“When you get contacted by a kid who’s coming off an injury, you question whether they can really play at the level they say they can,” said Louisburg’s Shumate. “But it was obvious he had the skills to play.”
Shumate, in his second year at a school that has made 10 appearances in the Junior College World Series, knows that so-called juco players all hope to make it into NCAA Division I programs, or beyond. It’s a role Louisburg embraces.
“We’re a very player-driven program,” Shumate said. “It’s the role of junior colleges to provide opportunities for advancement. While he’s here, he’ll have time to catch up on the playing time he missed.”
“I’ve still got a long road to follow,” Benton said. “But God has a plan for me. Stuff has a way of working out.”