Like so many young boys growing up in Thomasville, Georgia, Nick Herndon loved sports. But while most of his friends played multiple sports, he was focused on just baseball.
“I loved to play other sports with my friends, but as far as playing organized sports in the leagues around Thomasville, I always wanted to play baseball,” he said.
Herndon said that while his parents (Joey and Frances Herndon) supported him, there was no pressure to take up sports.
“I really just took up baseball on my own,” he said.
Herndon not only liked the game of baseball, but he was pretty good at it. As an eighth-grader, the high school coaches took notice of Herndon’s abilities and invited him to play with the high school squad. He played through his ninth- and tenth-grade seasons with the varsity Thomas County Central team.
At that point of his high school career, Herndon had been used only as a position player. Then, in his junior season, he gained weight and began to get stronger. He began doing arm exercises to increase his velocity. Coaches took notice, as he was clocked at 90 miles per hour while throwing off the mound. His high school coaches, while continuing to play him in the outfield, started to use him as a pitcher too. According to Herndon, this began to put added stress on his arm. He recalled a region game when he pitched about six innings.
“I threw right at 90 pitches, and I noticed the next day my forearm and elbow were sore,” he said.
He decided to take a few days off to let his arm rest. Then, with the next game, Herndon was scheduled to pitch. He made it through the first inning, throwing a total of nine pitches, but he knew something was wrong.
“My arm felt like it was on fire,” he said. “I couldn’t even lift it.”
Within a week, Herndon was in Gulf Breeze, Florida, at the offices of famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews. Herndon said he knew about Andrews, as a friend had gone through the same surgery as Herndon was scheduled to have, and the friend and his family had recommended the doctor.
“I knew he was a big-time guy,” Herndon said. “You see all these famous athletes walking around his office, so you know right away how talented a doctor he must be.”
Herndon was also struck by the doctor’s low-key demeanor.
“He treats everyone the same,” Herndon said of Andrews.
Andrews performed Tommy John surgery on Herndon on March 29, 2018. It is formally known as Ulnar Collateral Ligament Transplant surgery and is nick-named after Dodgers left-handed pitching ace Tommy John, who was the first athlete to undergo the then-unknown procedure. The surgery consists of transplanting a tendon from the patient’s forearm or leg and using it to replace the damaged UCL in the patient’s elbow. Andrews is known today as the expert at performing the procedure.
Herndon began rehab within a week of the surgery. He worked with therapist Chris Jarrett at Thomasville Physical Therapy, following a regiment set forth by Andrews.
“Chris and I would call Dr. Andrews periodically and update him on my progress,” Herndon said.
The physical therapy lasted nine months. Herndon remembers the first time he picked up a baseball and was cleared to throw again.
“It was really, really weird,” he said.
Slowly but surely, Herndon regained his strength and confidence, and he was in the starting lineup, playing centerfield and batting second in TCC’s first game of his senior season. The number of throws he could make from the outfield was limited, and he had a pitch limit of 35 pitches. (He didn’t return to the mound until the end of the season).
Herndon picked right up where he left off: He finished his senior season with a .514 batting average and .886 slugging percentage. He was also named the Region Player of the Year.
Herndon is now the starting center-fielder for Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida. He played 22 games for Santa Fe before their season was cut short due to COVID-19. In the short season, he finished with a .356 batting average, two home runs, and 18 RBIs.
During a one-week stretch of the season, Herndon batted .545 (18-33) with 11 runs scored, four doubles, one triple, one home run, and 10 RBIs. For his standout performance in just eight games, he was selected as the FCSAA State Player of the Week. Because of the shortened season, he will be ruled a freshman for the 2021 season.
Despite his great success, Herndon understands that his injury could have easily ended his baseball career, and he is grateful for getting another opportunity.
“My set back with Tommy John surgery wasn’t easy, but it made me a better person and a better ball player,” Herndon said. “This game will put you through highs and lows, but through it all I’m thankful that God was, and still is, with me every step. I’m blessed to have parents who love me and support me and my love for baseball.”
Written by: Phil Jones | Photography by: Brandon Pham