I didn't know Austin Cadwallader. But I wish I had.
I wish I had gotten the chance to see this young whirlwind of a baseball player, smiling what I'm told was the hugest of grins; running with what I am told was the most determined of gaits; playing I am told with the fiercest desire; living life I am told as if it would go on forever.
Life, however, doesn't go on forever. Sometimes it ends prematurely. The goal then is to leave a mark, and 12-year-old Austin did that much better than others three and four times his age.
Though the zip left his step, the whip left his swing and his body could no longer carry on, this much was certain: his spirit could.
Just ask around the next time you visit the Greater Holiday Little League, where young Austin was one of the best players. They will tell you of a kid who when the chemotherapy could no longer battle his brain cancer, he fought it with joy.
"He's my hero," said Brett Decker, who coached Cadwallader two years ago on the 9-10 all-star team. "He just showed every amount of courage you wanted to see out of anybody. He showed so much courage."
Young Austin is the son of Ted and Meredith Cadwallader, who were unavailable for comment, which is fine considering everyone else was. It seems everyone has a story to tell about young Austin, many like the ones before, but each one tinged with a gloomy sadness and one common expression: "he was a great kid."
He was also "The Dominator."
That was the nickname Decker gave him in 1998, when Austin was 8 and trying out for Little League. Decker picked Austin, quite simply, because he was one of the best players. In all his years at Holiday, he was always one of the top hitters on his team.
"When I first drafted him, when he was 8, I told him when he was 9 he was going to be a good player, and when he was 10 and 11 he was going to be really good, and when he was 12 he was going to dominate," Decker said. "So we called him The Dominator.
"And I remember he said, "I don't know what a dominator is, but my dad calls me irresponsible.' "
It is Decker's favorite memory of young Austin. His least favorite was the following year, when young Austin was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.
Decker and his wife, Dawn, were with Austin's parents when they got the news. Together, they said, they would fight it. Young Austin lost his hair in the battle, but never his resolve. After chemotherapy, he returned bloated from the steroids but apparently the winner in his battle _ the tumor had been reduced and was no longer a threat _ to join Decker's all-star team in the summer of 1999.
Truth was, the fight was just in the middle rounds, as both the cancer and young Austin seemed to pause to catch their breath. He played last season but was troubled by some loss of feeling on his right side. He couldn't throw as well or run as fast, but he played just as hard. This season, he returned to his Dominator form.
He was going to be an all-star. When he went to bat, his teammates perked up. The Dominator was batting, and it was time for a hit.
"We were confident in him because he was confident in himself," said Cory Paterson, 12, a teammate of young Austin's on the Cardinals. "He could hit. He didn't have any real weakness in baseball.
"He was one of those kids if he had a bad play or made a mistake, he never got mad at himself. He was always cheerful and got the team in spirit and stuff. I remember, I'd strike out or something and he'd joke about it and tell me, "This is how you do it,' when he went to bat."
Cory was there the night before young Austin found out his cancer had returned. He slept at his house and remembers young Austin doing his exercises to strengthen his right side. He had no idea anything was wrong because young Austin had never let on that he was bothered, that he was slowing down or that cancer might be winning.
Soon, everyone would know.
"You could see him deteriorate a little during the season," said Robert Babcock, whose son, Lance, was young Austin's teammate. "By the end of the season he could hardly run and use his right side and hardly throw the ball. I've never seen a kid with so much heart. Never once did he complain."
If he could play back in 1999, when he was going for chemotherapy during the week in Gainesville and still making every practice and every game, he could play now. Maybe at night, in his room, young Austin would give in to his pain and allow, if just for a brief moment, cancer to have its way. But not here, not right here on the baseball field, on this protective diamond while playing the game that made everything feel better.
Not a chance.
"I think it played a tremendous role in (keeping Austin going)," Babcock said. "It gave him something to always look forward to. I think he was at every practice I can remember. And he always practiced hard."
"I remember the last game he played in," league president Rick Cummings said. "I was umpiring a game and Austin was running the bases, and I knew he could run faster and it just broke my heart. But he came home and slid underneath the glove and was safe. He didn't allow anything to stop him."
Young Austin raised the bar for the rest of Holiday's little leaguers. If young Austin could make every practice, and if young Austin could play hard, and if young Austin didn't complain, well then, how could anyone else?
Olivia Paterson remembers one day when her son, Cory, an all-star mind you, didn't want to go to practice. So she said, "Fine _ but you tell coach Ted. You tell young Austin's father.'
"I think that got his head back on his shoulders."
In talking to all those who knew him, there is just one thing for Greater Holiday to do to honor young Austin: create an award for the end of the season.
An award that only goes to the hardest working, gutsiest, toughest, most determined kid in the league. Make the winner write an essay, saying why they deserve to win an award named for the courageous young Austin.
Make the kids think.
Make the kids remember.
They came in droves last Sunday to say goodbye to young Austin, who passed away July 6. There were 400 strong, maybe even 500. It took Ted and Meredith two hours just to shake the hands of well-wishers.
Young Austin had touched a great many in his short time here. His infectious smile _ "It was the biggest smile," said Lance Babcock _ will never been forgotten. His inspiration will fill the hearts of those who go on.
This year, Holiday has had its most successful season ever. The 9-10 team won a championship Thursday and now moves on to sectionals. The juniors played Friday night, hoping to stay afloat.
"I know that my boys are pushed harder," juniors assistant coach Scott Penna said. "That last game we played we dedicated that to Austin, and boy we played our hearts out for him. When we see one of our own ... we see how fast it can be taken away. Maybe that's meant a lot to a lot of people."
Scott Hewitt was young Austin's neighbor and coach. His son, Matt, was one of young Austin's closest friends. In his first game after his buddy passed, Hewitt pitched his team into a championship game they would eventually win.
The 9-10 manager, Frank Messeneger, said it was for young Austin.
Quite a kid, to make his friends pitch for him, dedicate games to him, shave their heads for him as some did when he was going through chemotherapy, to win for him.
Quite a kid to have 400 to 500 people show up for his funeral, for a strong man like Scott Hewitt to struggle through his sentences when sharing memories, for a good parent like Brett Decker to resolve to be even better in his memory.
Quite a kid.
I didn't know him. But I wish I had.