Relatives Influence, Inspire Hammaker, Woodall
By Matthew D. Stokes
BerryVikings.com Staff Writer
Berry College sophomore women’s basketball player Alesa Hammaker does not have particularly vivid images of her father, Atlee, playing professional baseball.
Sophomore volleyball player Megan Woodall was quite young when her uncle, Brad Woodall, pitched professionally and never actually saw him pitch in-person.
Though neither remembers seeing their respective relatives compete, each says their family members inspired them to pursue college athletic careers for themselves.
From Basketball Sneakers to Baseball Cleats
Atlee Hammaker played varsity high school basketball at Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria, Va., before accepting a basketball scholarship to East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn.
In his first two years at East Tennessee State, Atlee played for head coach Sonny Smith, before one day being approached by the school’s baseball coach, Charlie Lodes. After seeing the hoops player throw, Lodes told Atlee that he had the potential to be a first-round draft pick in the near future. Going out on somewhat a leap of faith, Atlee traded his basketball sneakers for baseball cleats. By the summer of 1979, the coach’s prediction came true as Atlee was chosen as the Kansas City Royals’ number one draft pick after his junior season.
By 1981, Atlee had ascended the ranks and made his major league debut with Kansas City in the strike-shortened season, posting a 1-3 record with a 5.54 earned run average.
Right before the 1982 season, Atlee was shipped to the San Francisco Giants. It was in the Bay Area that he would spend the majority of the remainder of his career as well as where he would enjoy some of his most successful seasons. In 1983, his best statistical season, Atlee recorded a 10-9 record and led all starting pitchers in baseball with a 2.25 earned run average.
A Star is Born
By Aug. 1990, Atlee’s tenure as a Giant ended, and less than a year later, he and his wife, Jenny, had the couple’s third child, Alesa, on April 20, 1991.
Six months after Alesa was born, the family moved from California to Knoxville, Tenn.
Before retiring following his 1995 season with the Chicago White Sox, Atlee played minor league ball with basketball legend Michael Jordan on the Birmingham Barons in 1994, a memorable experience for the pitcher.
“It was an honor to be on his team because of who he was,” Atlee said. “One-on-one he’s a great guy.”
While Alesa witnessed little to none of her father’s career, she clearly recalls the commitment it required of him.
“I do remember him leaving a lot, and that was really hard,” Alesa said. “Me and my sisters used to sit on his bat bag and cry to him, ‘Please don’t leave! Please don’t leave!’
Leaving several daughters and a wife at home definitely broke his heart, and it was really hard for him each time he had to go.
“I remember him being gone a lot, and then my mom would say, ‘Well your dad’s coming home.’ And we’d be really excited, and we would make signs for him so that when he got off the airplane, we’d all be holding these little signs that said, ‘Welcome home, Daddy!’”
Family Comes First
Coincidentally, it was family, in part, that drove Atlee to step away from Major League Baseball.
“In 1995, I was on a road trip to Cleveland,” Atlee said. “I couldn’t get a hold of Jenny at home. One of our daughters, Christa, fell into a hot tub and almost drowned, and then she was in ICU for two days.
“I think that’s probably when it hit me that I needed to be home. I felt like it was time for me to come on home and be a part of the family.”
This decision left a huge impression on Alesa.
“He quit baseball for my sisters and me,” Alesa said. “He wanted to be there for us so he quit the game that he loved, and what he worked his whole life for just because he realized he wanted to do that for his family above doing what he loved. That was huge in my life because he saw what was more important.”
With her father now in Knoxville full-time, Alesa was able to play basketball with her dad as one of her coaches all through her middle school years. Along the way, she learned different things from the man she calls Dad.
“The biggest thing my dad taught me was confidence,” Alesa said. “Not being afraid because if you’re afraid, you can’t do anything. He was always real big on fear and how fear can’t limit you. Fear’s just something you shouldn’t have.
“You shouldn’t be afraid of failure. It should actually drive you and push you. Learn from your failures. Learn how to handle them.”
Atlee’s experiences in the highest level of his sport certainly shaped how he would go on to raise his daughters.
“I was motivated by fear of failure, and I didn’t want Alesa to be motivated that way,” Atlee said. “I wanted her to be motivated by having confidence.”
After her prep career at Christian Academy of Knoxville, Alesa decided to play for head coach Stephanie Dunn at Berry College. Now a sophomore at Berry, Alesa said her father still plays a big role in her life.
“My dad’s definitely my hero and role model,” Alesa said. “I think that I shape everything that I do around what my dad does and try to put in the work that he puts in because he inspires me. If anything, he teaches me the kind of person who I want to be.”
When the going gets rough in college, Alesa said she always knows whom she can call for honest advice.
“My dad’s not easy on me,” Alesa said. “It’s not like he just caters to me. He never gives in to me complaining.”
In reflecting on his daughter’s athletic career and how it fits into her life in general, Atlee said he is proud of Alesa.
“You can’t always control results, playing and a lot of other things,” Atlee said. “But the things that you are in control of, you need to realize that you’re trying to glorify God through your actions, speech and attitude. Alesa does a great job of that.”
It’s All in the Family
Similarly to Alesa, Megan Woodall was a small child when her uncle, Brad Woodall, her father’s brother, was pitching in pro baseball. She was too young to fully grasp and appreciate the uniqueness of her relative’s chosen profession.
Before embarking on his professional career in 1991 as an undrafted free agent, Brad played ball for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 1988-1991, a time he spoke glowingly of to his young niece.
“He always talked about it in a positive light,” Megan said. “He’s just very thankful for the opportunity he had to play. He really emphasized the benefits of it, whether it be friendships or skills that helped him transition to the professional level. The lessons he learned from being a college athlete influenced his life even to now. He’s still using what he learned in college.
“He said it was obviously a huge time commitment. It’s a hefty workload, especially balancing classes and athletics. He always said it was well worth It, though, and you definitely shouldn’t do it if it’s not something you love. But if you love it, you should definitely go for it because the benefits are much greater than the hard work you have to put in.”
Following several seasons in the minor leagues, Brad made his major league debut in the strike-shortened 1994 season with the Atlanta Braves, the organization he joined in 1991, and would remain with through 1997. Pitching for the Braves afforded Brad to play alongside the likes of Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, all of whom may one day be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. By 1999, Brad’s pitching career was winding down as the Chicago Cubs granted him free agency after that season. He would not pitch again at the major league level.
Me? An Influence?
When asked about his influence on his niece, Brad said it was rather indirect, refusing to take too much credit for her decision to pursue college athletics.
“As far as being a role model, I never really thought about it that way,” Brad said. “I just wanted to go out and do my job. There’s work ethic that’s mandatory in playing at that level. Megan may have seen that, and said, ‘Yeah. I want to do that too.’ I think I helped her a little bit along the way, but I think she worked hard. That’s about it.”
Megan opted to attend Berry and play volleyball for head coach Mika Robinson after graduating from Ridge View High School in Columbia, S.C., in the spring of 2010.
Though her uncle may be slow to say he set a good example for her, Megan said he undoubtedly did.
“His dedication to being an athlete has really inspired me for sure,” Megan said. “It’s the fact that he played from the time when he was a young kid, kept with it and kept persevering through it.”
Though their careers as college student-athletes will be certainly different when it is all said and done, they both appreciate the common ground.
“I think it’s awesome to be able to say that I have a relative who went through the same stuff that I’m going through,” Megan said.
“It’s really neat to be able to say that both of us did it,” Brad said.
As Megan carries on a Woodall tradition, her uncle said he is proud of how his niece has carried and continues to carry herself.
“She has such an even temperament, and that helps,”
Brad said. “She doesn’t get too down when she
doesn’t do too well. She doesn’t get too high when she
Additionally, he is proud to call her family.
“She’s been a very good niece,” Brad joyfully laughed. “She has very good work ethic, and I think she’s going to succeed in really anything she does.”
Other Berry College Student-Athletes With Relatives in Professional Sports
Holli Gibbs, sophomore on the women’s
Her cousin, John Davis, played in the National Football League. He was a member of the Buffalo Bills during a time in which the team had a stretch of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances in the 1990s.
Josh Hughes, sophomore midfielder on the men’s
His grandfather, Jack Delveaux, played professional football in Canada and was on several Grey Cup-winning teams.
Gretchen Kaufman, freshman middle blocker on the
Her grandfather, Robert Arthur Johnson, played in the National Basketball League, which was a precursor to the National Basketball Association.
Matthew Pinson, freshman first baseman on the
Related to Jack Pinson, who played minor league baseball in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Kristen Stoll, junior first baseman on the softball
Her uncle, Steve Stipanovich, played in the National Basketball Association during the 1980s.
(Atlee and Alesa Hammaker photo courtesy of Atlee Hammaker)
(Brad Woodall photo courtesy of Brad Woodall)