Mark Wiedmer: Neyland Pickel will always be the best of the Tennessee Wesleyan Bulldogs

Apr. 10—ATHENS, Tenn. — In a few hours, the Tennessee Wesleyan Bulldogs would give their honorary baseball teammate/mascot/little brother Neyland Pickel, who recently died of cancer at age 11, the kind of celebration of life he so richly deserved.

For more than eight years — ever since Neyland was first operated on at Vanderbilt University Medical Center for a brain tumor in 2013 — it had been the kind of life no child should have to go through, as such unfair fates always are, especially when the victims are young and bright and their future all in front of them.

Two bone marrow transplants from younger brother Cooper would soon follow that first surgery in Nashville, each requiring a 100-day hospital stay in the Music City. There were too many rounds of chemo and radiation to count. There were literally hundreds of trips to East Tennessee Children's Hospital in Knoxville, often as many as three times a week, right up until the day Neyland passed away on March 28.

But as Jason Pickel stood outside the Wesleyan baseball field early Saturday afternoon, the sky cloaked in somber gray, a frigid wind whipping at his face, he said of his oldest son: "Family, friends, the Bulldogs — those three things meant everything to him. There was nowhere Neyland ever wanted to be more than at this stadium."

So after the Bulldogs split a doubleheader with Georgia's Point University on Saturday, losing 6-5 before winning 17-5, the nation's No. 2 team in the latest NAIA poll and coach Billy Berry said a few words in Neyland's honor. Bagpiper Keith Sinclair delivered a haunting rendition of "Amazing Grace." The whole team lit candles. The Pickel family — Jason, his wife Sylvia, daughters Aubrey, 19, and Kaileigh, 17, and son Cooper, 8 — later sprinkled Neyland's ashes under the stadium sign recognizing the 2019 national champions, a team Neyland accompanied all the way to Lewiston, Idaho, for that year's NAIA World Series.

"He probably talked about that trip every day," Jason recalled. "We could have taken him to Disney World, and he would have said Idaho was better."

The biggest argument between Tennessee Wesleyan players and the Pickel family that championship spring of 2019 centered on which side helped the other more.

Noted Berry just before that year's World Series began: "Neyland's done so much more for us than we've done for them."

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

But Jason saw it far differently, saying three years ago: "There's really no way to describe what this means to Neyland, my wife and me. Baseball has changed Neyland's life."

You couldn't understate the importance of Pickel Power that season. More than once, often after a hospital treatment, Jason and Neyland would reach Jack Bowling Field at Athens Insurance Stadium to find the Bulldogs trailing. As soon as they were spotted, a comeback began, always winding up in victory.

Said Berry, after the season ended, in recalling the most dramatic of those triumphs: "Let's put it this way: In our first regional game, we played at 1 and Neyland had a chemo session at 10 a.m. By the time he and his dad got to the game, we were behind. When the players realized he was in the stands, we rallied and won."

It all became such a heartwarming story nationwide that when a group of Tennessee Wesleyan boosters got together to give Jason and Neyland an all-expenses-paid trip to Idaho for the Series, the NAIA brass had him throw out the first pitch before the Bulldogs' title-clinching win.

Said senior Addison Adams of that pitch as he walked off the bus that returned the team to campus: "Best first pitch I've ever seen. Standing ovation. I started crying. It was awesome."

In a perfect world, Neyland Pickel would have gotten better after that, the cancer disappearing, his body growing stronger, the arm that threw that pitch one day tossing breaking bullets for the Bulldogs.

Instead, he made everybody around him feel better as he got worse.

"Neyland taught all our oncology nurses how to be oncology nurses," said Katie, who works at East Tennessee Children's Hospital. "You could always count on Neyland befriending kids, no matter how he felt that day, and no matter what they were going through. He knew how to light up a room. He brought so much joy to all of us."

According to Berry, he also still knows how to light up the scoreboard, even while looking down from heaven.

"Just this week, I said, 'Hey, buddy, if you're paying attention up there, we sure could use a run right now,'" Berry recalled. "Two pitches later, he got us the run we needed."

Berry later said: "When Neyland passed away, it was felt from West Coast to East Coast, as the huge number of social media posts showed."

As hundreds filed out of the stadium Saturday evening, the early cloudiness and sprinkles having been replaced by a perfect setting sun, the words of another nurse were on display for everyone to see and hear. Said Nurse Anna in referring to the Pickel family's uncommon grace under pressure: "What the Pickel Jar did in pulling an entire community together, I'll never forget."

The celebration officially ended at 7:42 p.m., which was basically 42 months after the Bulldogs first embraced Neyland as a forever teammate.

Neyland's father was asked if he wanted to keep attending Bulldogs baseball games now that his son will no longer be in the dugout.

"Absolutely," Jason replied. "This is the one place I can go and know he'll be here."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.