Legacy. Tradition. A who’s who of American sport. As the Gatorade Player of the Year program celebrates its 30th anniversary year of honoring the nation’s best high school athletes, fans can count many a household name on the roster of former award-winners. Over the past three decades, prep sports’ most esteemed honor boasts Super Bowl, World Series, NBA, WNBA, MLS Cup, NCAA and Olympic champions among more than 13,000 State Players of the Year and 270 National POYs across 12 sports. Let’s not forget the scores of program alumni who have gone on to capture league-MVP, All-Star and All-American recognition. Today, we’re catching up with Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez.
Ninety-nine miles per hour. That was the speed of the fastest pitch Matt Harvey threw in his first spring training game last month. And, to be clear, he did so with a surgically reconstructed elbow that kept him from stepping on a pitcher’s mound in an actual game for more than 18 months.
Given that we are living in the apparent “Tommy John era” (some might even say “epidemic”)—when more players than ever are opting for the surgical graft procedure in which a damaged ulnar collateral ligament is replaced with a different ligament from elsewhere in the body—the New York Mets ace’s return to form seems almost commonplace.
But as any pitcher who has completed the long and grueling rehabilitation process that follows will surely attest, coming back from Tommy John surgery is no sure thing. It’s easy to take Harvey’s early post-surgery success (2-0 with a 2.25 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 12 innings through his first two starts of 2015) for granted, especially given his 2013 All-Star status.
Still, the road to recovery can be long, lonely and full of uncertainty.
“At first, when I got the surgery, I thought I was going to go a little crazy,” said Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, who has actually befriended Harvey—his National League East rival—as they have each worked their way back from Tommy John surgery. “But when you understand the process, you’ve got to take responsibility for what you’re doing. And when you respect all the work that my therapist, the team, my doctor, my family and I have put into my rehab, it’s really important how you handle it.”
Fernandez and Harvey are two of the more recent high-profile alumni in the Gatorade State Baseball Player of the Year family. The former earned his honor in 2010-11, producing a 13-1 record with a 1.35 ERA and 134 strikeouts in 93 innings as a senior at Tampa (Fla.) Alonso High. Harvey, meanwhile, captured the award in 2006-07, going 5-0 with a 0.37 ERA and 81 punch-outs in just 38 innings for Fitch (Conn.) Groton High.
While Harvey now strongly resembles the pitcher he was before going under the knife, Fernandez is hoping for similar results when he returns to the mound later this summer. And he certainly isn’t alone.
Harvey’s Mets teammate and fellow Gatorade honoree Zack Wheeler (2008-09 Georgia) also underwent Tommy John surgery earlier this year. Likewise, 2010-11 Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year Dylan Bundy is inching closer to a return, nearly three years after making his Major League debut for the Baltimore Orioles at age 19. His early returns have also been positive, as he threw three hitless innings in his season debut for Double-A Bowie last week.
With that kind of success, coupled with Harvey’s return to form, these athletes make it look easy, but they’ll surely tell you that’s far from the truth.
To see the legacy for yourself, visit the Gatorade Player of the Year winner archive, where you can relive history and see which future stars won their first national recognition as high school athletes. To see the cream of the crop, visit the roster of Gatorade High School Athlete of the Year winners, showcasing Gatorade’s top male and female National Player of the Year honoree, selected annually from each POY class.