One of his closest friends was shot and killed in a case of mistaken identity. The prep school program he signed on to play for suddenly folded. And his family – including his newborn son – was more than 400 miles away.
For Tione Womack, life after high school proved to be an unexpectedly jarring introduction to the real world.
“It was just like a pause on my life,” said Womack, who graduated from Randallstown in 2008 and enrolled at Queen City Prep in North Carolina. “I was down there, wanting to come back home to be around my family. Nothing in my life was getting better. I was waking up, going to the gym and coming back to the dorms. That was it. It really felt like I was done with it.”
Thanks to a supportive family, a return to Baltimore, and a timely phone call from a junior college coach, Womack decided against giving up on his basketball dreams. Now three years removed for those dark prep-school days, Womack couldn’t be more pleased with his decision to keep playing. On Thursday, the 6-foot, 165-pound point guard signed a letter of intent to attend Houston.
“All the hard work I’ve put in with school and basketball is finally paying off,” Womack said. “It’s an opportunity to show my ability on the court and off the court. It’s just a really big blessing that I was waiting to receive. I didn’t know when it was going to come. I’m at a loss for words, really.”
Womack had it all figured out on the court coming out of Randallsdown. He helped the Rams to four straight state finals, winning two championships. As a senior, Womack averaged 12.5 points, six assists and three rebounds, earning Baltimore Sun first-team All-Metro honors. But Womack neglected his academics and missed NCAA qualifying standards, forcing him to take a post-grad year in North Carolina.
It wasn’t too long into his Queen City Prep tenure that the basketball team prematurely ended its season. Womack continued working out and practicing, but without game competition, he headed back to Baltimore at the end of December that year. The former Rams star – still devastated by the murder of his close friend – was ecstatic to be reunited with his family, but it wasn’t an easy time for any of the Womacks.
“Those six months were a hard time for me and my family. It was rough for us,” said Womack, who lived with his mother, brother, sister, son and nephew. “Moving around, city to county, county to city, it was a lot of tough situations. … [But] every day, I never gave up. Just wake up first thing in the morning, go to the track or go to the basketball court. I matured, stayed around my family and worked hard to do what I needed to do.”
That summer, a Hagerstown Community College coach found out that Womack was back in Baltimore and called to see if he wanted to try out for the team. Womack headed to Western Maryland and promptly earned a spot on the JUCO powerhouse’s roster.
From the beginning, it was clear to the Hawks coaches that Womack was a Division I-caliber player. But in the classroom, Womack still had plenty of work to do.
“It was just a matter of growing up and maturing academic-wise,” he said. “That’s what was really always the main thing I had to work on. As I went through the first year playing, the second half of the semester, I had to sit out because I was academically ineligible. I really had to turn it around and focus. No more playing. Nobody is going to give you a free pass. I finished the semester with two As and in summer school I got two more As.”
Womack, who averaged 12.5 points and 6.1 assists in 15 games for the Hawks (26-6) as a freshman, had finally turned a corner academically. As a sophomore, he regained his starting spot and averaged 10 points, 7.6 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 2.1 steals. After leading HCC to the Maryland State JUCO championship and earning MVP honors, Womack said a scout tipped off the Houston coaches to him. A Cougars staff member came to scout Womack, was impressed and invited him to take an official visit.
As Womack toured Houston’s campus, seeing pictures of Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon and other players from the Phi Slama Jama era, he completely understood the significance of being recruited by the Cougars.
“It didn’t hit me until I went on campus and saw the Hall of Fame. It just like gave me chills,” Womack said. “I just realized a lot of legends came through here. [Houston assistant] coach [Alvin] Brooks said he’s trying to make new legends. He said that and it gave me a boost of energy. It’s just an opportunity to make a lot happen for me and my family. Legends walking around the same campus, the same gym lets you know you’ve got to prepare yourself to be great. I’ve got to work hard every day and hope I can become like that one day.”
Womack, who is considering a major in sports management, has two classes to finish up at Hagerstown this summer. He plans to enroll at Houston in July and compete for a starting spot on a team that finished 15-15 during the 2011-12 season but is bringing in a Top 20 recruiting class nationally.
Womack said the Cougars coaches want him to “be like the extended version of the coach on the floor. I really had that mindset. The point guard is always the extended coach on the floor. They told me to come in and work hard and try to earn a starting position and be the coach on the floor. That’s what I’m going to try to work hard for.”
It’s somewhat surreal for Womack to think about playing for a soon-to-be Big East program while reflecting on his struggles after high school. Through it all, Womack said, his family has supported him every step of the way. He’ll have them to thank once he takes the floor for the Cougars this fall.
“Everybody was in my corner supporting me, telling me not to give up,” Womack said. “So everybody’s excited for me. It’s just a blessing that we received. We knew it could happen, but never knew when it was going to come. They don’t want me to let nobody down. They pushed me to do the right things. I’m excited to take my talents to Houston and take this opportunity for me and my family.”