Finding his love for the game: Neck injury helped Landon Cato fall in love with baseball

Published 3:38 pm Tuesday, March 5, 2019

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor 

NORTH SHELBY – “I hated the game of baseball,” isn’t something you normally hear from one of the best high school baseball players in the state, but that was the boat Oak Mountain’s Landon Cato found himself in until a broken neck forced him to give up football and unbury his love for the sport of baseball.

Growing up with a dad and two grandfathers that all played baseball, exposed Cato to the sport at a young age.

Cato’s first introduction to the game came when his dad picked up a whiffle ball set from Wal-Mart.

“I was kind of natural at it,” Cato said. “That first day of playing in the back yard, he called my mom back there to watch and I started hitting the ball. It just took off from there.”

Over time, however, that natural ability didn’t pair well with his passion, which quickly became football.

“I was a big football fan,” Cato said. “There was one point where I hated baseball. I wasn’t a big baseball fan.”

Then, when he was 7 years old, his entire life was turned upside down.

Out of his control

While everything officially changed then, it was actually something that happened five years earlier that would have the biggest impact on his life to this point.

At 2 years old, Cato was with his mother when they got in a car wreck that at the time did damage they were unaware of.

“I cried about it a lot,” Cato said of the wreck. “My parents took me to the doctor’s office, and they did X-rays but didn’t find anything wrong.”

He went on to live the next five years of his life without experiencing major problems aside from some minor complaints about his neck, but what he didn’t know was his body was growing around a much more serious injury.

When he was 7, the injury made its first serious impact.

“I was at church, and a guy picked me up around my head and neck just messing around with me, and when he picked me up, I just hit the ground,” Cato said of the serious and scary moment.

He immediately went back and got another X-ray to determine the problem. Yet again, the doctors said they couldn’t find a thing wrong, but this time, they sent him to a specialist to be safe.

Cato ended up at the specialist and received an MRI, which finally discovered the underlying problem.

“They saw that my C1 and C2 were broken in multiple places that you couldn’t see on an X-ray, and the only thing that could have done it was a car wreck,” he said.

Damage to the C1 and C2 vertebrae isn’t just rare, making up 2 percent of all spinal cord injuries, but it’s one of the most severe.

“They also said my body had tried to heal itself by growing around the injury, but I had no idea,” Cato said. “I complained about it some growing up, but never knew anything serious was wrong.”

The injury, however, was a serious one and while he was told he couldn’t do things like roller coasters, water slides and trampolines, only one statement from the doctors sunk in.

No more football

“They told me I couldn’t play contact sports,” Cato said simply.

That meant no more football. And with that came disappointment.

“It broke my heart,” he said.

That’s rightfully where his first thoughts went after hearing the news, but the road ahead was also a battle that was going to take a tough physical fight—something he relished as a football player.

“It was super hard,” Cato said. “I had to have surgery five days after that diagnosis. Of course, I didn’t really understand being 7 years old, but my parents were hysterical.”

The doctors told him and his family that there was a chance he could come out of the surgery and have difficulties walking and with his range of motion.

Cato described himself as a “wild boy” that loved to be outside playing or swimming. He never stayed inside, but over the next 10 months, he was forced to basically be in a bubble as he described it due to the neck brace he was forced to wear following surgery.

“That was definitely the toughest part, just having to stay inside,” he said.

But all the time away gave him a chance to reflect on what would be next. He knew contact sports like football were out of the question, but he wasn’t ready to give up on sports altogether.

Unburying his love for the game

Before the injury, Cato admitted that he had decided to quit baseball and focus on his passion for football.

“I knew baseball took some touch with it,” Cato said. “You can’t swing the bat as hard as you want to; you have to have some touch when you swing it. Same in the infield. You couldn’t do things as physical and hard at 110 percent because there is more touch involved.

“That’s the kind of kid I was. I liked hitting people as hard as I could, and that’s what I got to do in football. I wanted to go 110 percent all the time. I knew if I did that at the plate, I’d never touch the baseball.”

Cato throws out a base runner during a game earlier this season. He is off to a strong start to his senior season featuring 10 RBIs, two home runs and two doubles. (For the Reporter/Dawn Harrison)

After the surgery, however, he could hardly turn his neck and head, much less try to go tackle someone.

“Honestly, baseball became one of the only options I had that sounded like something I wanted to do,” Cato said.

Falling in love with the game was difficult, however. Once he got back into it, he tried to quit after making the middle school team.

“I freaked out,” he said. “I’m not sure why, but I just didn’t want to play anymore. That’s where I owe my parents because they told me to stick with it, and I did.”

It didn’t really become clear until his sophomore year of high school, eight years after his surgery and three years after almost quitting the game for good in middle school.

“Sophomore going into junior year, I learned to love it,” Cato said. “It seems kind of late, but it’s the truth. Better late than never I guess.”

Cato said he really amped up his work ethic for the game because several people told him he could go as far as he wanted with the sport, which in turn led to his newfound love.

“I knew I was behind people that had been in love with this game for much longer than me, so I really had to turn it up going into my senior year,” he said. “I really kicked it into gear in the weight room and in the batting cages, taking everything a lot more seriously.”

In time, baseball actually helped with his range of motion post neck surgery due to him looking over his shoulder toward the pitcher when batting. He can now fully turn his head to the left, while he still has very limited motion turning to the right.

He’s not only seen those benefits, but his hard work leading into his junior season has led to him becoming one of the best baseball players in the state.

Becoming the best

As a junior third baseman with the Oak Mountain Eagles, Cato was named to the All-County first team thanks to batting .430 at the plate and finishing with a Shelby County high 42 RBIs. That’s a county that saw several players on last year’s first team go on to play Division I baseball.

And now, so will Cato.

The now senior at Oak Mountain has signed to continue his playing career at Auburn University as a member of the Tigers’ baseball team.

“I’ve definitely had a change in passion and it’s ended up being a God thing for sure because if I would have stuck with football I wouldn’t be near as good at football as I’ve become at baseball,” Cato said.

So far as a senior, Cato has picked up right where he left off batting 4-for-11 at the plate with 10 RBIs, two doubles and two home runs through five games.

It’s crazy to think a guy with that much talent hated the sport as much as he did and tried to quit on many different occasions, but now his love for the game may be stronger than most.

“It fires me up just to think about it now,” he said. “I thought football was my passion, but it’s crazy how God shifted what I really loved to a sport I wasn’t very fond of, and then I end up loving it.”