A Road Less Traveled
A friendly chat in the truck cab reveals a student’s former life in pro sports
One can never predict where a conversation will lead while a truck driving student and a driver trainer are logging hundreds of miles behind the wheel.
“I never saw this coming,” says TwoFeatherz Rake, Fox Valley Technical College driver trainer. “For the life of me, I would never have imagined learning this about one of our students here.”
Who threw TwoFeatherz and her husband/fellow trainer, Keith Rake, for such a curveball? Meet Tommy Hawk: a student in the truck driving program. And, a former MLB draft for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Conversation is a training tactic
Tommy Hawk was sent to FVTC by his employer to train and obtain a Class B commercial driver's license (CDL) which was a requirement for his position with the City of Neenah. As part of this two-week full-time program, students drive more than 700+ miles for their behind-the-wheel practice.
“When we’re in the truck together, we know our students are nervous so we’ll ask questions about their hobbies or what kind of work they did in the past,” TwoFeatherz explains. “We use the conversation to keep them calm while they practice their driving skills.”
During one of those instructor prompts, Tommy shared a glimpse into his former life. In spring 2003, ready to graduate from a high school about 50 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, California, the Milwaukee Brewers organization took a shine to his pitching.
Steering his career
“I got drafted by the Brewers in the 17th round and I was picked 489th overall,” Tommy says. “I already had a scholarship lined up to play in college so I had to decide whether to play professional ball or play college ball and get a degree. I decided to play professional baseball because that is every boy’s dream; it’s everyone’s goal to get to this point and I just wanted to get my foot in the door.”
Once he signed a contract, Tommy knew there would be many hurdles as he tried to work his way through the five levels of the minors. While at extended spring training in 2004, the Beloit Snappers called Tommy’s coach, looking for a pitcher and Tommy stepped foot in Wisconsin for the first time. It was an exciting but brief stint for Tommy. While taking the mound for the Snappers, he suffered a serious elbow injury that required what is commonly known as Tommy John surgery. The goal of the procedure is to repair a torn ligament inside the elbow and rehabilitation from it usually takes about a year.
“It was 12 months of physical therapy before I could even throw a ball and unfortunately, the surgery did not work for me,” Tommy explains. “Many players who have the surgery come back throwing even harder, but after I got healthy and started throwing again, my velocity was down and I never fully recovered. There was nothing more I could have done. It happens.”
Talking about the past while preparing for the future
Tommy returned to California, but family commitments brought him back to Wisconsin in 2015. He lives in Kaukauna and is raising his three children while he works for the City of Neenah. With one requirement of his job being to obtain a Class B CDL, Tommy completed his program at Fox Valley Technical College in late summer.
“I had never been to FVTC before and the experience was great,” Tommy says. “I think I had five different instructors, plus the tester, and everyone was very knowledgeable. They would let you know when you were doing something wrong and how to do it right. They were just very knowledgeable in their field and knew how to teach others.”
“We know that if we bring up a conversation about something they are passionate about, it will keep the student calm behind the wheel,” TwoFeatherz shared. “It is very much part of the training process.”
Little did Tommy know that in addition to hundreds of miles of driving, a trip down memory lane was also part of the program.
“I never lost interest in my past but it has been 20 years since I played, so it was nice to bring it back to light with the instructors,” Tommy says. “I don’t think about it as much anymore, but then when I walk downstairs at home and I see my baseball jersey in the frame, it reminds me that it was a pretty cool experience.”