A phone call from FGCU softball coach David Deiros changed player Carmen Paez’s life. Twelve years later, another call cemented her improbable journey from school dropout to Hall of Famer.
In just two years, Paez became one of the most decorated softball players in the 17-year history of the Eagles program, earning All-American and Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year honors and setting several school records. For her achievements, the ASUN inducted her into its Hall of Fame on Oct. 7. She joined Chris Sale (baseball) and Brooke Youngquist Sweat (volleyball) as the only Eagles to earn enshrinement.
The Paez way is to be humble and that is how she accepts the honor and her career. “I felt like there were so many better players out there, but somebody thought I deserved this,” said the 35-year-old. “I do stuff and don’t expect anything in return.”
But there was a time when an All-American honor and a Hall of Fame induction seemed unfathomable for Paez, who grew up in the Lake Okeechobee community of Belle Glade.
Paez earned a full scholarship to play softball at Indian River State College, a junior college in Fort Pierce. But academics took a back seat to friends and partying. She failed class after class and dropped out of school. “I basically dug a hole I could not get out of,” Paez wrote in a lengthy letter about her life, which she hopes will help inspire young women. “I ruined the best thing I had worked for my entire life over wanting to go out and doing things that were so temporary. I caused my parents a lot of disappointment and sadness.”
Happiness returned with the birth of her son, PJ, who is now 14. “No longer did I feel my life was ruined,” Paez wrote. She went to work as a substitute teacher and girls’ softball coach at Glades Day School. She also took a job at a local convenience store called Norman’s Drive Thru.
Then came the surprising news from Deiros. He had called Dale Atkinson, Paez’s former coach at Indian River, asking if the college had any current players who could fill FGCU’s need for a power hitter. Atkinson gave a few names, but “not what we were looking for,” Deiros said. The next day, Atkinson called back with another name: Paez. “Dale didn’t have to do a lot of convincing. We had competed against Carmen (while she was at Indian River), and we knew about her from her high school days at Glades Day, where she was coached by her mom.”
Paez met with Deiros, who offered her a full scholarship if she completed the necessary academic work to enroll at FGCU. She refocused on school and getting back in shape after not playing softball for two years. She passed an exam to graduate from Indian River and made the Dean’s List. “I decided I wanted a better life for my son and myself and made it a point to pass that exam,” Paez wrote.
Her softball workouts were intense. Paez ran the rugged Herbert Hoover Dike, which borders Lake Okeechobee, up to 20 times during training sessions with her dad. She ran the sugar cane fields, chasing rabbits. She hit bucket after bucket of softballs.
During her first game against Palm Beach Atlantic in 2007, she went hitless in four tries. In the second game against Palm Beach Atlantic, Paez hit a two-run home run in her first at-bat. “That is what changed everything for me,” she wrote. “I knew I still had it in me.”
On her first day on campus, Deiros recalled, “Then Athletic Director Carl McAloose was passing by my office after she left and asked, ‘how good is she?’ I said she would hit 25 home runs and drive in 60 runs. I was wrong.”
She went on to set NCAA Division II records with 28 home runs and 80 RBI that season and was named national player of the year.
But there was more to overcome. Paez played third base that year and hated it. She developed a fear of hard-hit ground balls off aluminum bats. She felt out of control. She wanted to play in the outfield but needed to increase her speed in order to chase down fly balls. She lost 40 pounds between her junior and senior seasons, cutting out ice cream and sugar, and improving her fitness routine.
In 2008, the Eagles’ first season in NCAA Division I, Paez was named the ASUN Player of the Year, hitting 22 home runs and helping the Eagles to a share of the league championship.
She remains the Eagles’ record holder in batting average (.430), slugging percentage (.934) and OPS (1.521), is second in career home runs (50) and fourth in RBI (148).
In her Oct. 7 induction speech at the ASUN 2019 Hall of Fame banquet and ceremony at the Cohen Center ballroom, where she joined Lipscomb’s Ann Mullins (volleyball, 2005-07) and College of Charleston’s John Kresse (men’s basketball head coach, 1991-98) in this year’s class, Paez thanked the coaches and schools who helped turn her life in a better direction.
“Thank you to FGCU for letting me finish my college career here and giving me a second chance,” said Paez, who graduated in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. “Also to my coaches, Dale Atkinson and David Deiros. Having Coach Deiros believe in me and put his name on the line for me changed everything for my son and my family, so I appreciate it so much.”
Today, Paez lives in Port Charlotte with her husband and three children. She works at the Walmart Distribution Center in Arcadia and is attending medical school at Suncoast Technical College in Sarasota, studying to be a surgeon’s assistant.