Hall of Fame athletes have it, the intangible that separates them from other elite players and helps them transcend the game itself. Longwood’s Coury Knowles has his own version of it, too, and though he never took the field, he earned a rightful place with his teammates in the UF Baseball Hall of Fame
Born with cerebral palsy, Coury Knowles has always struggled with mobility, but he never let that stop him from participating in athletics. Though he never stepped to the plate or fielded a ball, Coury became an integral part of the University of Florida baseball team during his years at UF as an undergrad and graduate student. And today, 20 years after the 1998 UF team went to the College World Series, the university has decided to induct the squad into its Baseball Hall of Fame. Because Coury’s contributions to the team were so great, players and coaches insisted that Coury be inducted, too.
How is this possible? It’s quite a story, but it’s only one small highlight of Coury’s journey through sports and in life.
A Lakeland native, Coury was the first Polk County Public Schools student with a disability to be included in standard classrooms, but even that didn’t happen right away. Through fourth grade, Coury was bused more than an hour away to attend a school specifically for children with disabilities, but Coury found the schoolwork unchallenging. His parents, a teacher and an engineer, strongly advocated for Coury to be given the chance to explore his natural intelligence like any other precocious young boy.
“My parents were very influential in challenging me to do the best I could with what I had,” Coury says about his childhood. “My dad always told me from the time I could remember, ‘Your brain is the skill given to you. How can you use it?’”
During his youth, Coury endured five orthopedic surgeries to help him walk, and his parents encouraged him to do laps around the house to help build strength and endurance. Although there was much about the struggle he disliked, it never broke Coury’s spirit.
“My father would tell me that the drive to do things was just in me,” Coury recalls. “It was one of my gifts. I might have some balance challenges, but that drive to do my best was there from the beginning. And my parents nurtured it. They said to do your best and good things are going to happen.”
Reflecting back, Coury recognizes how fortunate he was to be surrounded by such a supportive environment.
“I rarely heard, ‘Coury can’t do that,’” Coury says of his closest friends growing up. “My buddies Jeff and Greg and Mike would just figure it out. Which way could Coury do it? I would play basketball and football with them on my street, and maybe I just played quarterback the whole time. But it didn’t have to be sports. We’d be doing whatever, and they’d figure it out. It was never, ‘We can’t do that because Coury can’t do it.’”
Coury started to fall in love with sports, but often found himself in the role of referee or umpire or some other non-athletic position. Coury remembers his mom encouraging him, “If you learn enough about a sport, you can always teach it. Someone can always help you with the physical piece.”
Although he never played an inning of organized baseball as a child, Coury recalls a chance encounter during the first two weeks of ninth grade that set him on a path to pursue the sport for the next 15-plus years. While in a hallway with his walker, the school’s baseball coach passed by and invited Coury into his office.
“I don’t know you,” Coach Mike Campbell said. “But you just seem like a guy that would be cool to be around. I think you should come out to practice.”
Coury spent all four years of his high-school career involved with the baseball team. When it came time for Coury to graduate, Coach Campbell offered to call head baseball coach Andy Lopez at UF and put in a good word.
By the time Coury started college, he was using an electric wheelchair to navigate the sprawling UF campus. Coach Lopez told him, honestly, that the jobs he had available were very physical and not something he felt confident Coury could do.
“But just like Coach Campbell, Coach Lopez looked at me and said, ‘But you seem like a guy who’d be great to hang out with. We’ll figure it out.’”
When asked what prompted him to give Coury a chance, Coach Lopez says, “His look and his spirit within him. The spirit within him is a man. He recognized that baseball was his calling then, and he made the best of his situation.”
For the next two years, Coury volunteered for the UF baseball team, doing whatever he could and just hanging out with the players.
“They treated me like I was a player, and I was not,” Coury says of the Gators, some of whom have gone on to play Major League Baseball (including Big League stars like David Ross and Sanford native David Eckstein). Coury took a liking to weight training and began lifting with the team. He also attended morning runs and did laps around the field from foul pole to foul pole. Gradually, Coury got stronger, and with the encouragement of the UF players, he stopped relying on his wheelchair. To this day, if Coury needs any additional stability at all, he walks with only a simple cane.
“I don’t think he ever understood what an impact he made on that team and those young men,” Coach Lopez says. “He was a real big reason for our success. He kept us balanced. In that season of life, when you’re young and healthy and at a big university with lots of success, it’s very easy to get caught up in yourself. But when Coury’s around, it’s pretty hard not to keep things real.”
After the team went to the College World Series in 1998, Coury earned a scholarship that allowed him to become a grad assistant and work with several UF sports teams while earning his (first) master’s degree – but that 1998 baseball team was special.
“College was the most challenging season emotionally because I wasn’t mature enough,” Coury admits. “That was the time I had to get good with myself. And that’s what baseball did for me. That’s what these guys did for me. It was like a big family, and that’s why I think we were very successful. It’s that relationship piece that allowed me to continually help myself to get stronger – not only physically, but also emotionally. That propelled me into what I’ve done professionally.”
In his 38 years of coaching, at three major universities, Coach Lopez says he’s never seen anything more impressive or more humbling.
“I think he might be the greatest story I’ve encountered,” Coach Lopez says of Coury. “Whenever I look back at my career, I see Coury Knowles. I think he might be the greatest thing I experienced as a coach.”
After college, Coury settled in Seminole County, where he served as an assistant coach for the Lake Brantley High School baseball team, even helping the squad win the state championship in 2008. He’s since earned two additional master’s degrees and his doctorate, all in the realm of education.
Coury says he wanted that doctorate for one reason: “I had, as a child, fought so much for people to see Coury, not the kind-of-short kid who walks a little funny. But now, when I walk into a professional arena, I’m Dr. Knowles. And you know what that title says? It says Coury has ability. Just by seeing my name.”
Coury currently works as a staffing specialist for Seminole County Public Schools, advocating for children with special needs and designing customized education plans for students who need more assistance in school. He married his wife Janice (a teacher at Lake Mary High School) in 2009, and they have an eight-year-old son, Ethan. Along the way, Coury has completed five 5K races and one 10K, although he says he’s officially retired because he’s “just getting too old!”
“Coury is a dynamic young man,” Coach Lopez says. “He’s married, has a kid, a great education, wonderful career. He’s living a life that some only dream about.”
In a conversation with Coach Lopez at the UF Hall of Fame induction ceremony in April, Coury told his old coach, “The game of baseball, I haven’t been in it since 2008, but it keeps giving to me. And all I was was the guy who got a chance from a high-school coach who said come hang out with us.”
As for the rest, Coury and his colleagues just figured it out.
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