It was one of the first days Scott Padilla worked with his 2016 Brevard Heat baseball team, and he instructed his players to kneel between benches for conditioning drills at an area park.
“They were to put one hand on the bench on each side of them to do dips,” Padilla recalled Tuesday. At the time, he had forgotten that sophomore Austin Thurman was born with one hand, his left arm ending just beyond his elbow.
“I totally forgot and went running over to him, apologizing to Austin for asking him to do it, and there he was doing dips. He figured it out himself.”
Padilla added that Thurman could do as many pushups as anybody on the team. Making his own way has been the life story of Austin Thurman, now a senior for the Heat as center fielder, occasional first baseman and, yes, pitcher.
In addition to eight years of baseball, he has played golf, and he learned to ride a bike with one handlebar lengthened by his dad.
“If I ever wanted to do something, I would ask how it’s done, and then I would try to do it. Nothing’s really stopped me from doing something I wanted to do.”
One heck of an athlete
His journey to baseball began on the soccer field with the sport he still considers his favorite. A striker, he only left soccer when his previous school didn’t have enough boys to field a team.
Now, he plays baseball for the Heat program started by his dad, Stan Thurman, in 2002. The Brevard Heat is a community program for home-schooled students who want to play varsity sports.
In Thurman’s final Heat regular-season home game last week, he started on the mound. He struck out two batters in the first inning. Then when he came to bat in the bottom of the inning, Thurman walked and stole second.
The Heat won, 21-1 over the Geneva School of Winter Park. With a 7-4 win over Covenant Christian on Monday, the team improved to 10-4, likely in line for a top-three seed in the District 4-2A tournament that begins April 30.
Thurman, who described himself as “a speed guy,” has stolen 35 bases while hitting .488 with three doubles.
As a pitcher, he has won three games with no losses and has a 3.23 earned run average. With a peak fastball of 65 mph, Thurman has struck out 17 of 46 batters he’s faced, including an opponent who made an audible comment about having two hands.
“I did go up and strike him out when he got up to bat.”
Bob Bowen, who coached Thurman for three years at Covenant Christian, first saw him play Little League baseball.
“His base-running skills were top-notch,” Bowen said. “He was extremely fast.”
When Bowen got the chance to coach him beginning in seventh grade, he used Thurman at several positions, including catcher.
“He was one of the best players I had,” Bowen said. “You cannot believe how fast he could turn that ball around.”
Learning to adapt
Moving the glove from his left arm, where he holds it clutched close to his body, to his right hand has contributed to what Thurman said has been his biggest challenge on the baseball field.
“As a pitcher, you don’t get much time to react if they hit the ball at you,” he said, though he hasn’t had too close a call yet. “If it’s a soft grounder, I just pick it up with my hand. I’m practicing being able to throw with my glove on, but you can’t throw very far that way. I have had to adapt and make the best of it.”
Thurman’s parents have let him do the adapting on his own, for the most part. Stan Thurman recalled a nurse expressing surprise at how “laid back” the parents were about their son during a visit to the doctor when Austin was 5.
From the first years of his life, they’ve taken the approach that doing things for himself was the best way they could help him.
“We showed him how to tie shoes, and he had to learn to adapt,” Stan said. “If you don’t let them do it, they don’t know how to do things on their own. They won’t even know how to cut their own food, and they’ll have to have someone do everything for them.”
Bowen suggested Austin’s challenges have made him better.
“You look at his limitations, and I think they’ve made him push himself. Certainly, the capability is there,” he said. “I’m not sure he would be the player he is (otherwise.)”
Quite the success story
The emergence of Shaquem Griffin, the one-handed UCF linebacker who played a major role in the Knights’ 2017 success, has spread some indirect fame onto Thurman, who gets approached to take photos with other members at his gym.
And his parents get approached by other parents.
“‘How does he do that with one hand?’ has become a common question,” Stan said.
While self-reliance led Thurman to on-field success, he’s also worked a part-time restaurant job the past four years and risen to the position of crew trainer. And he’s been good enough academically to be dual-enrolled at Eastern Florida State College.
He will be a full-time student there next year. Thurman will try to walk on to the baseball team, and he wants to continue his education at the University of Florida eventually. If he can continue to improve — building upper body strength has been a priority — he’d like to try to walk on for the Gators baseball team.
While Bowen stressed the long odds of any high school player reaching such an elite level, he wouldn’t completely discount Thurman’s chances.
“I don’t want to say ‘no,’ because I just don’t know,” Bowen said. “But are there universities that could use him? Of that I have no doubt.”