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Tennessee Wesleyan catcher Alex Balter, right, had inspirational 8-year-old Neyland Pickel accompany him on the field for his senior day recognition.

The young man many feel is the most important member of Tennessee Wesleyan University's NAIA national championship-contending baseball team weighs less than 100 pounds, hasn't collected a hit or thrown a pitch all season and is attempting to beat back demon cancer for a third time as an 8-year-old second-grader at City Park Elementary in Athens, Tennessee.

"I'm not sure we're where we are without Neyland Pickel," junior catcher Shamoy Christopher said Wednesday, just before the No. 1-seeded Bulldogs flew to Lewiston, Idaho, for the NAIA World Series. "He's helped us stay strong together."

Added junior infielder Bryce Giles: "When Neyland was added to the team, he was that extra spark we needed."

Noted TWU coach Billy Berry: "He's a big, big part of this program. Neyland's done so much more for us than we've done for him."

It all started last September, a few weeks before young Pickel headed off to Vanderbilt for his second bone-marrow transplant in three years in an attempt to finally silence the leukemia that now twice has threatened his life.

"It really began as an innocent invitation to come watch us practice baseball one afternoon," Berry said. "Neyland goes to the same elementary school as my daughter. I'd heard about his situation from her. The first time he came to practice, he was really sick. He had to wear a mask. We gave him some gear. That was about it."

However, despite his condition, word soon arrived that Neyland would like to come by another practice.

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Mark Wiedmer

"One practice turned into two, then three, then five, then 20," Berry recalled. "We decided to make him a permanent part of our team."

What's happened since then let's you know that youth is not always wasted on the young. During the 120 days that Neyland remained at Vanderbilt after the transplant — his 5-year-old brother Cooper has been his marrow donor both times — numerous members of the Bulldogs team went to visit him.

"You always hear about sports teams reaching out to individuals," said Neyland's father Jason, an Athens police officer. "(The players) call them their little brother, and I think they mean it. They don't just talk it, they live it."

Neyland's first battle with cancer occurred in 2013 when a brain tumor was discovered. Not long after he was believed to have conquered that, leukemia appeared. Then it returned last summer.

"How Neyland's dealt with this is a lesson for us all," Berry said. "He's got every reason in the world to stay away, to just crawl up in a ball and feel sorry for himself. But he never complains. He shows up every day. His is a purpose-driven life."

In a way, though the Bulldogs all say otherwise, they helped each other.

"There's really know way to describe what this means to Neyland, my wife (Sylvia) and me," Jason Pickel said. "Now we consider the team our family. Baseball has changed Neyland's life."

The players have come to see him as equally inspirational to them. Senior catcher Alex Balter had Neyland escort him to the mound for senior day ceremonies.

Christopher remembered a particularly hot day when Neyland ran onto the field squirting the whole team with water.

"He was just running around and laughing," he said. "So fun."

Added Giles: "He sits right next to us at games, spreading smiles. When we won the regional in Kingsport to advance to the World Series, I've never seen a bigger smile on a kid in my life."

Said Jason Pickel: "When we show up late, if they're losing, they say as soon as they see Neyland they know they'll win."

But when they won the Kingsport opening series to advance to Lewiston, it was supposed to be the end of the road for Neyland. Plane tickets and hotel rooms are expensive, especially for a police officer's family with four children total — daughters Aubrey (16) and Kaileigh (14), sons Neyland and Cooper — who must also navigate a mountain of medical bills.

"When he realized he couldn't go to Idaho, he cried for a good while," Neyland's dad said. "I don't know that I've ever seen him cry like that."

The Bulldogs, especially Berry, couldn't bear the thought of attempting to win a national championship without the youngster. A few phone calls were made. A few folks with really big hearts bought plane tickets for Neyland and Jason to fly to Lewiston.

"Just to see his face, how happy he is now, means everything," said Jason, who, like his son, had never been on a plane prior to Thursday.

Reached that night after landing in Spokane, Washington, and before beginning a two-hour drive to Lewiston, Neyland said what he liked most about the flight was "the maple-flavored waffles" and "when we landed."

Asked if he expected the Bulldogs to win, "Yes. I'm really excited."

So when TWU began play against Indiana Tech in the double-elimination tournament on Saturday, Neyland was there, presumably shouting his customary "Where are my Dogs at?" which reportedly has played an indispensable role in Wesleyan winning 52 of its 61 games heading into the World Series.

And should they win it all, do the players believe Neyland deserves a ring?

"Oh, absolutely," Giles said.

Said Christopher: "Of course. Neyland's been there with us from the beginning."

As for Neyland, when asked how he expects to react if the Bulldogs finish No. 1, he replied, "Jump and scream."

Which is what a lot of folks from Athens to Nashville and multiple points in between surely will do if Neyland's next bone-marrow MRI in September shows him to be once more cancer free.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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