Hunter Dawson is adept at first base, a position he has played since he fell in love with baseball at age 5. He’s also solid as a relief pitcher coming out of the bullpen, a role he’s grown increasingly confident in the more Birmingham’s Spain Park High School baseball coach Will Smith calls on him.
But the coach had something else in mind when filling out his line-up for the third and deciding game of the 2013 6A first-round playoff series against rival and then top-ranked Thompson High School. He looked beyond Dawson’s immediate skill set and asked the junior to do something he had not done all season.
Smith, the head coach at Spain Park for the past 10 years, tapped Dawson as his starting pitcher for the pressure-cooker game. Though Dawson had only pitched in relief last year, Smith believed the righty was ready, confident his biting slider and darting change-up would keep the Thompson Warriors off balance.
What’s amazing about this turn of events is that just four years earlier starting a playoff game would have been unthinkable due to a serious disability that almost forced Dawson to hang up his cleats.
The Warriors, who had won 18 of its last 19 regular-season games to capture the No. 1 ranking, certainly weren’t going to roll over. They had the crowd on its side playing at their own James “Peanut” Davenport Field in Alabaster, Ala., about 25 miles south of Spain Park’s home in Birmingham.
Spain Park’s Jaguars, 24-16 and unranked, quickly jumped to a 1-0 lead in the top half of the first. But Dawson had a shaky start as Thompson’s Drew Avans lined a single to center, then stole second. Trey Matherson followed with a walk. But the 6-foot, 200-pound Dawson settled down and got Blake Grill to pop up in foul territory. He bore down and struck out Houston Davenport swinging, before jamming Trevor Flynn, who grounded to short, forcing Matherson out at second.
After Spain Park spotted Dawson a 3-0 lead in its half of the second, Thompson answered with two of its own, chasing the pitcher, who managed to get one out, a fly ball to left.
Spain Park broke the game open, though, with six runs in the fourth, going on to win 9-6, earning the right to face Pelham High School in the next round.
Those teams split their first two games, but Spain Park could only muster one run to Pelham’s nine in the concluding showdown. Dawson pitched to the final four batters in that contest, giving up a single to center before getting flyouts to right and left and a groundout to first. Spain Park’s batters went three up, three down in the bottom of the seventh, icing the victory for Pelham.
“Losing to Pelham in the second round was definitely tough,” said Dawson, reflecting on the April 27th loss.
“But my highlight for the year was getting to throw the first pitch in the deciding game against Thompson,” he explained. “I hardly had an outing over an inning or two prior to that, so to start game three was unbelievable, but nerve-racking for sure. It was such a big game, and I got through almost two innings with minimal damage, and we won.
“That’s definitely my top high school memory so far,” he noted.
Dawson hopes to add to that highlight reel once practice begins in January. He’s one of 13 seniors returning to the team, which Coach Smith believes will be back in the championship hunt.
“Hunter’s right there at the core, and he’s a significant part of what we’re trying to do,” Smith said. “He’s a great teammate, and his leadership is making an impact.”
Smith envisions Dawson possibly taking on the closer role. “He’s got a very good personality and composure for that. He throws a lot of strikes.”
Or Dawson could be entrenched at first. “Defensively he’s fine,” Smith explained. “We just need additional offensive production, which we focused on during his junior year. Overall, though, Hunter is going to have a bright future, even beyond high school.”
A bright future—three amazing words that sound so golden. Menacing storm clouds back in August 2010 almost robbed Dawson of that possibility, jeopardizing his playing days when he entered his freshman year.
One day during those hot summer weeks, Hunter walked into the kitchen of his family’s home and told his mom, “My legs look weird. I can’t put my feet together.”
Tarra Dawson assumed her son was just focusing on his looks, like other kids his age. “I initially brushed it off, not at all thinking there was something serious going on,” she said.
Just in case, though, Tarra purchased insoles for Hunter’s shoes. But the problem grew worse. Hunter started complaining about his knees making click, click, click sounds, as if they were popping.
That’s when Tarra and her husband, Scott, took Hunter to a specialist, who pinpointed the problem. The Dawsons just weren’t ready for the diagnosis: OCD lesions in both knees.
According to the Mayo Clinic, osteochondritis dissecans (os-tee-o-kon-DRY-tis DIS-uh-kanz) is a “joint condition in which a piece of cartilage, along with a thin layer of the bone beneath it, comes loose from the end of the bone.” It is most common in the knee and most often occurs in young men. The Mayo Clinic reports that “surgical repair may be necessary if the fragment comes loose and gets caught between the moving parts of your joint.”
What caught Scott and Tarra off guard was when the surgeon flatly told Hunter that she believed his playing days were over. Hunter, however, was more stoic. “We’ll just have to see what the Lord says about that,” he responded.
Hunter underwent knee surgery to implant titanium screws to correct his knee alignment. A major surgical procedure was also recommended to promote blood flow and healing to the injured cartilage and to repair the lesions. “We prayed over that and trusted God to bring healing, while working to strengthen the muscles around the knee,” Tarra explained.
Braces were required to keep Hunter’s knees immobile, and he needed a wheelchair to get around. He missed a week of classes but kept up with his homework assignments.
“Your freshman year is a very difficult transition, and a lot of kids fall behind for multiple reasons,” explained Candace Strickland, Hunter’s ninth-grade English teacher. “Hunter was astounding, keeping in constant contact with me, and he turned things in on time. He came back probably more prepared than some of the kids who were there every day during his absence. His diligence was jaw-dropping for a freshman boy.”
What buoyed Hunter’s spirit, and bolstered his faith, were lessons he learned from watching both his mom and dad handle major trials of their own in 2008.
Tarra faced the possibility of losing her eyesight due to open-angle glaucoma. She and Scott solicited prayer from friends worldwide, asking God for healing and for clear direction. The Lord led them to Dr. Wade Joiner, a renowned glaucoma specialist in Birmingham. He immediately squeezed her into his schedule, and on the day that Tarra thought she was to undergo emergency surgery, Dr. Joiner discovered that the pressure in her eyes had dropped dramatically and that surgery was not needed. He told her that God had intervened and “the Great Physician had done a mighty work.”
That same year, Scott’s evangelistic ministry experienced a precipitous drop in income. Scott also reached out to friends, seeking prayer for God’s provision and direction. The Lord led Scott to approach his donor base with a rare emergency appeal, and they graciously responded.
So, when Hunter stared at his trial two years later, he drew strength from how God met his parents’ needs. Hunter had committed his life to Christ when he was around 5 years old, about the time he discovered his love for baseball, but now he was trusting God to fulfill His promises in his personal life. A Bible passage that especially spoke to the teenager was 1 Peter 5:6: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” Hunter took that verse to heart, and God blessed his step of faith.
“What’s so gratifying to Tarra and me as Hunter’s parents is how we’ve seen his own faith blossom,” Scott said.
When the braces came off, Hunter still walked straight-legged, almost like a penguin. Nearly two months would pass before he could walk properly. When his doctor cleared him to begin therapy, Hunter looked to Todd Polhemus, who owns the Sports Medicine and Fitness Institute in Birmingham with his older brother, David. Polhemus devised an appropriate regimen of exercises that would help get Hunter back into proper shape so he could consider playing baseball again—if that indeed was God’s will.
“Hunter’s work ethic is a 10 out of 10,” Polhemus said. “And his character is 11 out of 10. Hunter walks the walk. In Hunter’s situation, just the speed of recovery and the ability to get back to where he was that quickly was remarkable to me.”
Hunter’s faith has especially been nurtured through a Thursday morning Bible study before school. It began with Hunter and four of his friends back in the fifth grade, and has grown over the years and now includes about 50 students each week. They keep each other grounded and accountable.
Josh Whitt, who was Hunter’s seventh-grade math teacher at Berry Middle School, helps Scott lead the study. Whitt said he was impressed with how Hunter trusted God with his knee condition and whether He would allow him to play again.
“As far as Hunter’s faith perspective, he consistently believed God was in control and left his future in God’s hands,” Whitt said. “I believe God showed Himself true and faithful to Hunter.”
The OCD lesions healed properly, and Hunter was back on the playing field for practice in January 2011. He never missed a season.
That’s the miracle, but Hunter was prepared to call it quits and turn his attention completely to ministry, if that’s what God wanted him to do. “I love baseball, but ministry is my main passion,” he said. “That’s probably where I will end up after baseball, so if God had not allowed me to return to the diamond, I would have figured He wanted me to get a head start on ministry.”
Scott Heath, student minister at Shades Mountain Baptist Church, where the Dawson family worships, can easily envision Hunter going into vocational ministry down the road. “I can see Hunter following in his father’s footsteps,” Heath said. “Maybe not through the Hunter Dawson Evangelistic Association, but as someone who God calls and leads to do direct ministry and engaging a lost world for Christ.”
One individual who Hunter has influenced for Jesus is Josh Rich. The two have known each other since first grade and have played baseball together as long as they can remember. And they’ll play and lead as seniors and graduate from Spain Park next spring.
Rich says he will cherish a much more important memory than what was forged on the baseball field. “Hunter was with me the night that I got saved,” Rich said. “I was in the sixth grade when I gave my life to Christ. That was a big moment for me, and Hunter was right there.”
Hunter said he could not have traveled down this road without his parents and younger sister, Hope. “It wasn’t just me beating this thing,” he said. “It was victory by committee.”
Most of all, the 18-year-old praises God for all He has done. “The Lord has not just given me the drive to push forward, He has given me hope,” Hunter said. “I’m grateful God’s arm reaches every aspect of my life. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
By Richard Greene
Richard Greene writes for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and is a contributor to Sports Spectrum magazine.