For years, baseball has been a dominant part of Ben Emery's life, his performance determining his disposition, touching everything he thought or did. He had a schedule, a plan, to earn a baseball scholarship. So on June 29, Emery, 16, went to Georgia for a tournament. In his first game, he complained of stomach pain. "It felt like someone was hammering my insides," he said. Emery, who will be a junior at Dunedin High in the fall, believed it was food poisoning and he would be back on the field the next day.
His initial diagnosis was correct. But doctors also discovered a cyst while he was in the emergency room.
The following morning, Emery and his father, Dave, drove to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg for more tests. Soon after, he was admitted to drain an abscess and remove his appendix.
Exploratory surgery revealed something more severe: lymphoma cancer in Emery's abdomen.
"It was a blessing that he had the stomach pain and food poisoning," Emery's mother, Dena, said. "Otherwise, this might not have been diagnosed so soon.
"Thank goodness for Taco Bell."
"I was in shock more than anything," Emery said.
"I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I didn't think something like this could happen to me. I was a little bit scared."
The official diagnosis was Burkitt's lymphoma, a rare form of aggressive non-Hodgkin's lymphoma that commonly affects children but is also one of the most curable. The good news is it was discovered only in Emery's abdomen and had been there for only two weeks.
Still, Emery went from the peak of his career to the abyss.
A key member of the Dunedin Little League team that reached the championship of the Southeast Region in Gulfport in 2006, Emery continued his success in high school, starting at third base on the Falcons' district championship teams the past two seasons.
He was hoping to sign with a college early and was looking forward to a summer of impressing scouts on the circuit of elite offseason tournaments.
Now all of that is in jeopardy.
Instead, Emery faces six months of intense chemotherapy.
"I was crushed," Emery said.
He buried his head in his hands.
He asked why this was happening to him.
Dena Emery's heart was broken. So she did what a mother does, telling her son to hold on to hope, assuring him everything would be okay.
"It was a whirlwind," she said. "Ben was having a hard time processing everything. But I told him he was strong and that he would get through this."
A few moments later, doctors entered the room. Emery had one question:
"When can I get back on the field?"
Emery has given little thought to skipping his junior season, especially with nearly every player returning to a Dunedin team with state title aspirations.
"It's important to me to come back," Emery said. "I think we can go all the way."
The news about Emery spread through Dunedin, a small town where schoolboy baseball stars are household names. Emery's teammates have been his safety net. Nearly every player and coach has offered well wishes in person or via text message.
On Friday, Emery's brother, Brandon, 23, and sister, Caitlyn, 15, joined him at All Children's for more tests.
"The outpouring of support, from doctors to teammates, to friends and family, has been tremendous," Dena said. "I think it's something that has really given Ben a boost."
Emery is not going to let cancer keep him on the sideline for long. He plans on continuing light workouts, such as hitting off a tee, to get ready for the upcoming season.
"I want to get through this as fast as I can," Emery said. "Doctors say I have a chance (to play next season).
"Baseball is my life. Everything revolves around it."