04/10/06 — Even after a serious injury, Josh Carter leads the Trojans

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Even after a serious injury, Josh Carter leads the Trojans

By Dan Friedell
Published in Sports on April 10, 2006 1:57 PM

For 15 years, you have a routine. Every Saturday morning, you head out to the shed in the backyard and pull out the trusty lawn mower. You reach down and pull the cord, and the engine starts right up, as it should. You've always cleaned it, oiled it and made sure there was enough gas in the tank. For 15 years, it's never let you down.

But one fall day, you go out to get the mower, pull the cord, and the fibers that had been so strong for more than a decade start to fray. You find some electrical tape in the shed and wrap the cord, hoping that you can mow the lawn a few more times before the cord breaks.

You get through the rest of the fall and the winter and the spring, but each time you pull the cord, it doesn't feel like it did a few years back. You have to take it easy, and sometimes, the motor doesn't turn over.

One day you decide to remove the tape, and notice that it was the only thing keeping the cord together. Finally, it's time to get a new cord.

That's pretty much what happened to Mount Olive College first baseman Josh Carter. But for the 21-year-old Eastern Wayne grad, instead of a lawn mower cord, the tendons in his right shoulder had frayed.

"I always had a pretty live arm, kind of like a rubber band, like a whip," he said while sitting in the press box above Scarborough Field after practice last week. "It never really gave me any trouble. It never took me long to warm-up and I could throw anything. And I loved it. I was really fortunate to have the style of arm that I had."

Then one afternoon, during a practice in the fall of 2004, he felt a sharp pain in his throwing shoulder.

"I only threw two more throws and I went to the training room right then," Carter recalled. "I sat out the rest of the practice and I had ice on it. It was weird to me, because I had never hurt anything in my shoulder, I had been blessed."

Carter had never been seriously injured playing sports, which is surprising, considering he spent plenty of time at Eastern Wayne and MOC behind the plate. The most serious medical procedure he ever had was when his wisdom teeth were removed.

So unlike an athlete who breaks a toe here or a thumb there and knows the difference between bad pain and good pain, Carter thought some ice, ibuprofen and rest would have him back on the field quickly.

"I really didn't think it was going to be anything serious," he said. "I figured it would just go away, but the longer it was there, the worse it got."

Since he could hardly throw, Carter became the team's regular designated hitter last spring. It's not only impressive that he managed to start 52 of the Trojans' 53 games during the 2005 season, but also stunning that he was the team's leading hitter, posting a .389 average, eight homers and 48 RBI.

However, unlike a starter cord, you can't just make a trip to the hardware store to get new shoulder tendons. You need a trip to an orthopedist.

And as soon as the season ended in late April, Carter made plans with Dr. Kevin Speer in Raleigh to have surgery to repair his rotator cuff and labrum.

"Pretty much everything was tore up in there," Carter said. "It was probably the worse shoulder he'd seen. He hadn't seen something that bad in someone so young."

Speer agreed with Carter's account.

"It's an injury that has a high probability of retiring a lot young athletes from baseball," Speer said. "It's an unusually severe amount of damage in the shoulder to recover from."

He explained that Carter had two separate injuries which developed simultaneously, but reached a "tipping point" at the same time, causing the pain.

The surgery lasted less than an hour and left Carter with three small scars along the top of his right shoulder.

Speer pegged full recovery time at two years. May 3 will be the one-year anniversary. Carter said his arm feels good some days, and bad others. He's at about 75-percent.

"From a surgical perspective, he's healed it great," said Speer, who last saw Carter in September. "Is he willing to push himself to get this last 20-percent back? For many athletes, this is tough; this is where a lot of kids don't keep playing ball because it's just too hard. It's a special discipline and I think Josh has it."

With continued rehabilitation, Speer said, Carter should expect to be close to 100-percent by this time next year.

Mount Olive coach Carl Lancaster, who's seen his share of injured baseball players in his 20-year college baseball career, wondered whether Carter will be strong enough to catch a college game again.

"I think in the back of his mind, he thought that this year was going to be back like it was prior to his injury and he might get back behind the plate again," Lancaster said. "It's a labrum tear, and the labrum is flipping a coin."

Regardless of whether he catches again, Carter has earned himself a spot on the squad for 2007 with both his outstanding production (.416 avg.; 5 HRs; 55 RBIs through 41 games) and attitude this year. He plans to return for his final season of athletic eligibility, even though he has earned more than enough credits to graduate.

Since the 2006-2007 school year will be elective, Carter will focus on studying for the medical school admissions exam and some of the science classes he needs as prerequisites.

Some students might find such a broad choice difficult.

"Josh is one of my best students," said Jamie Kylis-Higginbotham, an instructor in the exercise science department and the school's softball coach. "We meet regularly about his academic plan, and he's very aware of his academics. He's probably the most on-track student I've ever met ... If you want to talk about a kid who's got his ducks in a row, he's amazing. Not only is he intelligent, but he's got a clue about his academic plan."

With Carter coming back, and injured players like Erik Lovett and Ted Pelech returning to full health, the Trojans (30-11, four wins better than last year in 12 fewer games) should have a strong team.

"He's been a thrill to have," Lancaster said. "Sometimes guys say, 'well, it's time for me to move on with my life,' but he enjoys the game and he's got the rest of his life to live and work. As long as he can swing the bat, I think he's going to stay around."

Lovett, a Southern Wayne grad who was drafted by the San Diego Padres in 2004, injured his knee in the Trojans' fourth game of the season and took a medical redshirt. He'll have two years of eligibility left, and is looking forward to spending one of those seasons on the field with Carter -- partly because he's noticed a change in his teammate's attitude.

"Not to say that he didn't play hard before," Lovett said. "But he plays like it's his last day. You can't take it for granted. Since the injury, that's what he does. When he's hitting, he hits like it's his last (at-bat)."