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Rob Summers: Making history with every step

Former baseball pitcher finds new drive in recovering from injury

It was Feb. 17, 2006 and the Oregon State University Beavers were just getting their NCAA title winning baseball season underway. It was their first road trip of the season. And as road trips go in college baseball, not many top Malibu, California.

Rob Summers recalls every detail of the game at Pepperdine University with his college teammates as if it was yesterday.

“From home plate, you could see the Pacific Ocean,” Summers said. “I remember the day; it was a light breeze, southern California sunshine.”

Summers, a flame-throwing pitcher with a 90-plus mph fastball, had redshirted in 2005.  Now, at the start of the 2006 season, he was rehabbing an injured hip flexor.

As it turned out, his middle relief stint against the Waves that day would be the only inning he pitched in college baseball.  With the Pacific Ocean as his backdrop, he struck out the first Pepperdine batter and got two groundouts for a routine 1-2-3 inning.

Three months later, everything changed.  In an instant, Summers would go from a promising baseball prospect to a quadriplegic fighting for his life after a passing car careened into him while he was reaching into his car to retrieve a gym bag for a late-night workout.  His ankle was shattered in the collision as Summers was thrown up onto hood of the car. Sliding off the hood, he broke his neck and tore all the ligaments and tendons supporting it when he hit the ground.  The driver never looked back.

Summers shouldn’t have survived. Not after lying in the street for four hours, unconscious. Not after three days in intensive care and a week in trauma care.

But he did. And that is where his real story begins.

“I spent six, eight hours a day pushing myself,” said Summers, whose goal was to leave the hospital early. The doctors eventually released him six weeks ahead of schedule.  Not satisfied, he immediately went into more intense physical therapy to regain more upper body movement.

There were “why me?” moments and bad days to be sure. But the ex-ballplayer’s drive and motivation made all the difference. Then, in December 2009, he made a life-changing decision in an attempt to regain even more motion.

At the University of Louisville, researchers were developing an electrical stimulator that, when implanted on the spinal cord, could retrain nerves in the legs to work with the brain. The doctor leading the effort chose Summers to be the first patient to have the implant mostly because of his unwillingness to quit.  

“The doctors said they were five to seven years from doing this procedure with anyone. I stepped in and worked with the doctors to speed the process along,” he said. “I was just dedicated and willing to work harder than anyone else.”

Summers’ competitive spirit really kicked in following the surgery.  Assisted by the stimulator, he became the first known quadriplegic to do two-a-day treadmill training sessions, the first to record a handstand pushup and, incredibly, the first to stand independently.

Five years since his first electrical stimulation, Summers has regained control of his upper body and is now hoping to walk again unassisted. He still makes regular visits to Louisville, and with the stimulator he can now stand and take a couple of steps on his own, flex his ankles, toes and knees on command, and even feel something as subtle as a breeze against his legs.

The desire to pitch in the major leagues has been replaced with the desire to walk.

Summers said his athletic background plays a major role in his continuing saga. He says being an athlete who knew how to work hard and not give up were just as important to his comeback as the surgical implant.

“Not to say a non-athlete couldn’t step up and do this — I believe they could,” Summers said, “but I definitely believe that having an athlete’s edge and background gives you an idea of the work ethic that goes into this.”

His is a story with serious legs and an improbable positive outcome. The ex-quadriplegic now works full-time in the finance industry.  In recent years, he has traveled extensively as a motivational speaker in partnership with the Chris and Dana Reeve Foundation to raise money to cure paralysis.  He is working on a book and has been approached by a group looking to produce a movie about his life.                       

As Summers puts it: “I view my story as a way to showcase what one person goes through when a tragic injury changes the course of their life.”

An understatement to say the least.

Rob Summers can be reached on Twitter @RobSummers27 .

Photo credits: Oregon State University; Creative Artists Agency; Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation; Summers family / Rob, Jean, Mike; Jaime Valdez / The Times; Christopher Volker