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Triple play: 3 degrees, 3 years

Jacksonville outfielder earns bachelor’s trio early and hangs up his glove to pursue concussion research career

The baseball coach in Tim Montez would love to see Zac Houck return for his senior year, bat at the top of Jacksonville’s lineup this spring and chase down liners in center field. Houck just had to say the word after finishing as one of the Dolphins’ top hitters last spring.

But when the father in Montez talked over the possibility of his wiry center fielder leaving a year early, the Jacksonville head coach knew the decision was an easy one to make.

Three years were enough for Houck to collect bachelor’s degrees in psychology, sociology and social science, while doing a little clinical research on the side. Now it’s off to a new playing field: pursuing medical school and a career in concussion research.

“The other players just shake their heads like, ‘Man, I have a hard enough time getting through college algebra, and he’s got three degrees in three years,” Montez said. “They’re just amazed. Like, how does he do it?”

There was little Houck couldn’t do in the classroom or the baseball diamond during his Jacksonville career. One day he would be starting in center field for the Dolphins, leading the team with 16 stolen bases and 29 runs scored. Then on his day off, Houck would drive to Gainesville, Fla., to perform brain segmentation research from magnetic resonance imaging exams on war veterans, hoping to play a role in finding solutions to one of the most serious medical problems facing sports.

“I’m busy every day down here, so that’s taken away from the mission of baseball,” Houck said. “It’s definitely the hardest decision I ever had to make. But all my coaches were really supportive.”

Houck came to Jacksonville in 2010 as a solid baseball prospect still clinging to childhood visions of a pro career. He was a first-team all-state performer at Eagle’s View Academy in Jacksonville, Fla., with impressive performances: a .410 batting average as a senior and a 5-2 record and 2.50 ERA on the mound.

But the most impressive numbers weren’t on the stat sheets: Houck participated in a dual-enrollment program at Eagle’s View and entered Jacksonville with 43 college credits and a 3.95 high school GPA.

Two baseball incidents then directed his intellectual potential toward his future career goal.

Houck was taking batting practice during Christmas break of his sophomore year when a 90 mph fastball thrown by a teammate came in tight and struck Houck’s right temple, sending him to the ground with the first concussion of his career.

Then last season against UCF, Houck ran back at full speed to make a play at the warning track and slammed his head against the outfield wall for career concussion No. 2.

Those collisions gave Houck a personal examination of the serious nature of traumatic brain injuries. Naturally curious, Houck was also motivated to learn more about them.

So while posting a 3.61 GPA at Jacksonville, Houck got involved with two University of Florida medical researchers and began volunteering with Athlete Brain, an organization focused on promoting concussion education and awareness among Florida communities.

Houck is now applying to medical schools while helping Athlete Brain conduct free baseline concussion tests. He hopes his next home run will be hit through his research.