On Thursday at J.F. Webb, a Warrior softball player signed to play in college for the first time in what is believed to be at least five years.
Brooke Wheeler as the student-athlete with the pen in her hand makes the achievement much more remarkable.
Wheeler’s athletic exploits are impressive enough; the senior can play any position on the softball diamond and she grew up playing competitively in boys baseball leagues.
But the Meredith College signee, recruited as a shortstop, faced an arduous journey to the next level.
First, back surgery stemming from a collision at the plate with a catcher kept Wheeler on the shelf and out of an entire summer of travel ball following her freshman year at Webb.
“It was a play at home and I slid into the catcher and hurt my back,” said Wheeler, “but I didn’t know it was my back at the time. We ended up going to the doctor and they told me that I had slipped a disc in my back.”
Later on in high school, something far more serious threatened Wheeler’s playing career.
In December of her junior year, Wheeler began experiencing sharp pain from the back of her neck down to her middle finger.
“And her leg and her arm were going numb,” said Brooke’s mother, Cindy Nealon. “They thought she had a pinched nerve and it turned out she needed emergency brain surgery.”
Wheeler was diagnosed with Chiari malformation type I, a condition in which the skull presses on the brain and forces it downward.
Had Wheeler not had the surgery, performed during her winter travel team’s season, she could have been paralyzed.
Wheeler wasn’t out of commission long; she was back in softball action in only three weeks.
The Warrior captain didn’t allow either of the surgeries to slow her down significantly on the field, but the memory of the health scare her junior year isn’t likely to fade soon.
“It feels good,” Wheeler said of signing Thursday, “but you still have to worry all the time whether you’re going to get hurt again or whether it’s going to come back. When I hit somebody or run into somebody, it could easily come back.”
According to her father, Lane Wheeler, Brooke was more concerned about her softball future than undergoing the procedure on her brain.
“I think that was more on her mind than the surgery,” said Lane Wheeler, an assistant softball coach at Webb. “She was worried about whether she could come back and play or not.”
Brooke did — and that toughness was formed, in part, on diamonds in Granville County Dixie Youth Baseball.
Brooke even made the baseball team at Northern Granville Middle School before finally electing to make the switch to softball after playing with the boys for several years.
“You’re tougher,” Brooke said of playing with guys. “It’s nothing to get hit with the ball.”
Webb Principal Angela Salisbury remembers the first time her husband, Larry Salisbury, the Warriors’ former softball head coach, saw Wheeler play baseball as a 10-year-old at Granville Athletic Park.
“My husband saw her out there and said, ‘Oh, my God. I want her at Webb,’” said Angela Salisbury.
Wheeler is likely to play shortstop or second base at Division III Meredith, but also pitched for the Warriors and played most of this season at catcher.
“She keeps everybody pumped up,” said Webb head coach CeCe Duke. “She keeps everybody together as a captain and a player.”
Brooke has kept it together in the classroom too, boasting a 3.6 GPA.
She thinks keeping her grades up to standard while managing the hectic schedule of a college athlete will be one of the biggest challenges on the Raleigh campus.
Of course, those challenges are minor compared to what she has already overcome.
The tenacious attitude she met the obstacles with didn’t surprise those close to her.
“She bounced back,” said Lane. “She’s tough.”
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