By: CHRIS BENDEL – Sports Editor
While his teammates study for final exams between games against St. Bonaventure University this weekend, April 25-27, one might find Cameron Neal of the University of Dayton baseball team whipping around indoor entertainment center Scene 75’s indoor go-kart track or grabbing a bite to eat at the local Olive Garden.
It’s not that Cameron doesn’t care about final exams. He just has more important things to tend to at the moment, go-karting and endless breadsticks among them.
Cut the kid a break; Cameron can begin worrying about college exams in a few years. Unlike the rest of his teammates, he’s only thirteen years old.
As the team’s adopted Honorary Flyer, Cameron is just one of the guys, laughing and joking around in the locker room, but one with a courageous story. Described by his teammates as a light-hearted young man, Cameron and his battle against a pediatric brain tumor inspire the UD baseball program both on and off of the diamond.
“He’s become a true inspiration for our team and we’ve become an inspiration for him,” head coach Tony Vittorio said.
“It’s a positive thing to have him around and realize what life’s really about… How we have struggles and battles and those types of things, but it’s nothing compared to that.”
FRIENDS OF JACLYN
The story of the relationship between Cameron, who is now a sixth grader at St. Helen Cathloic School, and the UD baseball team began several years ago when a documentary featuring the Friends of Jaclyn, an organization that strives to connect children battling pediatric brain tumors with high school and college sports teams, caught Vittorio’s attention.
The documentary described the story of Jaclyn, a 9-year-old girl diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor who connected with the Northwestern Women’s lacrosse team, which according to her father, dramatically improved her quality of life. The team adopted Jaclyn as an honorary member and walked with her every step of the way in her battle against cancer.
Jaclyn’s story inspired her father to create an organization with her namesake..
Intrigued and moved by Jaclyn’s story, Vittorio called her father the following day, hoping that his team could take part in the organization’s mission in the Dayton area. Vittorio said a few years later the organization received word of a young man battling a brain tumor in Dayton.
That’s when Cameron, who was diagnosed with anaplastic ependymoma in 2010, first entered UD’s baseball program and became part of the Flyer Family.
When student-athletes officially join college programs, they must sign a letter of intent, documenting their membership with a respective team. Naturally, Vittorio thought Cameron should do the same.
Alongside his future teammates and family – in only a few months the latter would develop into an interchangeable term with the former – the UD baseball team officially welcomed Cameron to the program on March 21, 2013.
Players and coaches huddled around Cameron as he signed his letter of intent, cheering when he officially took his place on the team as Honorary Flyer.
Shortly after the signing, smiling but still shy as the center of attention, Cameron began a post-signing press conference. There, he faced tough questions from his teammates.
What is your favorite number? 12 Cameron said.
And his favorite food? Pizza, he answered, drawing a loud round of applause from the team.
These were the type of questions a 12-year-old boy should be answering instead of ones marred with uncertainty and sadness. As a member of the UD baseball team, these questions replace the more difficult ones. Cameron can simply be a kid.
ONE OF THE GUYS
For the team, supporting Cameron is not a one-time deal, according to Vittorio. After all, a teammate’s job extends well outside the confines of a playing surface. It means making oneself available any hour of the day and any day of the week.
The team’s interaction with Cameron is no exception. Cameron can text his teammates at any time.
Shawnalee Neal, Cameron’s stepmother, makes every effort to get Cameron to as many UD games and practices as possible. The players are like big brothers to him, she said.
“The most important thing is when he shows up, he is a part of the team. He hangs out with us in the locker room and during practice,” Vittorio said.
When is our game? Who do we play next? Cameron will ask Coach V.
On his way to Philadelphia, where the team faced St. Joseph’s University April 17-19, Vittorio received a text from
Cameron asking him to wish the team good luck because he wasn’t able to take the road-trip.
Cameron even has his own locker in UD’s locker room.
“They have really had an impact on Cameron’s life,” Neal said. “The team has really brought his spirits up when he’s been sad.”
Cameron is undoubtedly part of the team, bringing a certain sense of humor to the program that only a sixth grade boy can.
“He’s not looking for sympathy,” Vittorio said. “He’s not looking for that type of stuff. He’s just an everyday kid. As a matter of fact, we all can treat him like a teammate. We clown around and joke around with him.”
Redshirt senior catcher Kuris Duggan remembers a moment where Cameron had him laughing for an entire practice. It began with a simple question he posed to Cameron before the start of team workouts one day.
Duggan asked him how old he thought Coach V was. He wouldn’t tell him, he promised.
When Cameron gave his best guess, Duggan exploded in laughter, realizing that his answer was correct give or take twenty years. The catcher enjoyed seeing Coach V through the lens of a 12-year-old.
After explaining how old Coach V really was, Duggan said for the rest of the practice, Cameron’s eyes danced between Vittorio and himself, still trying to figure out the truth.
“He likes to laugh and he likes to make people laugh,” Vittorio said, unknowingly coming up on the short-end of one of the moments of laughter that have become commonplace between Cameron and the guys on the team over the last year and a half.
Duggan first met Cameron on the sidelines during an early season practice in 2013. Duggan was sidelined, coming off of a fall season that required reconstructive knee and wrist surgeries that forced Vittorio to redshirt the catcher.
It was a rough year for Duggan; the season was supposed to be his final year with the program and his chance to finish playing ball with his teammates of the last four years.
According to Duggan, the day he met Cameron he had barely left his room over the previous three days. Cameron and his story snapped him out of his funk, creating a relationship between the two that Vittorio described as special.
It’s a moment Duggan will be forever thankful for. He gained a best friend. Cameron helped him see his situation differently.
“We talk every day. He’s my best friend. It’s just an amazing thing,” Duggan said. “More than anything, he’s just a friend to me. When we talk, when we hang out, it’s just having a good time, laughing, and nothing else matters.”
Not school, not injuries, not battles beyond the scope of what one can imagine.
Cameron and Duggan have gone to the movies, out to eat, and, of course, raced go-karts at Scene 75. Duggan said Cameron has been victorious in every race.
“The most surprising thing is how much some of us have gotten out of it,” Duggan said. “It’s amazing what we can get out of it, too, and it’s been a great relationship to have here.”
The relationship is one of mutual inspiration between Cameron and the players, according to Vittorio.
“I see what it does for the kid involved and I see what it does for our players at the same time. Right in front of our eyes, I see it,” Vittorio said.