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He Hit All the Bases

Zac Houck graduated early to begin his graduate work – which brought him right back to college sports

Zac Houck batted .292 and led his team in runs scored during his final season with Jacksonville. Today, he records data of a different sort, working as a graduate assistant in a concussion study. JACKSONVILLE UNIVERSITY PHOTO

Zac Houck’s story was a rarity when NCAA Champion magazine talked to him for the winter 2014 issue. That upcoming spring would have been the Jacksonville baseball outfielder’s senior season if he hadn’t decided to forgo that final year to chase his dreams of a pro career — as a concussion researcher.

Yes, Houck had been a Dolphin for only three years, yet he’d already graduated with bachelor’s degrees in psychology, sociology and social science. He needed more time during that fourth season to pursue his big-league dream of gaining entrance to the University of Florida’s Clinical Health and Psychology doctorate program, where he hoped to make a difference in the work of answering lingering questions about concussion.

But the universe of college sports – the world Houck left behind early – has since merged with his long-term goal. He got into Florida’s program and was invited to join a research team participating in the Concussion Assessment Research and Education Consortium that, fittingly for a former athlete, is funded by the NCAA as well as the U.S. Department of Defense. The CARE Consortium is the largest-scale concussion research project in history and aims to find definitive answers to the injury and its effects.

For someone who has long hoped to make a difference in concussion research, the opportunity to join what aims to be a landmark research project was a grand slam.

“I really just hope to contribute to the knowledge of the field,” Houck said. “If we are able to get scientifically supported information in the hands of parents and athletes, then they will be able to make more informed decisions on return to play, or maybe when it is the right time to stop playing.”

Houck’s motivation comes from personal experience.

Like many young athletes, he harbored childhood dreams of a pro baseball career when he was an all-state performer at Eagle’s View Academy in Jacksonville, Florida. But a pair of concussions suffered while a Dolphin – one when he was hit by a pitch during batting practice, and another in a collision with the outfield wall – redirected his goals.

Now in his second year at Florida, where he is specializing in neuropsychology, Houck is one of two graduate assistants entering data that researchers are gathering from student-athletes. And while that data is informing Florida’s segment of the CARE study (it’s one of 17 sites participating in the CARE Consortium’s clinical study), it is also fueling Houck’s first-year project on the non-injury factors of sports-related concussion, such as how socio-economic status and learning disabilities factor into the injury. That work will feed into Houck’s master’s thesis next year.

The answers may still be years away, but Houck hopes to play a role with this new team in making a discovery that knocks our understanding of concussion out of the park


About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.