Back in business

Wadley's JaMichael Angel delivers a pitch against RCHS in his first game in nearly two years. Angel missed his entire junior season after being diagnosed with cancer last February.

If it were just another game it would have been one to forget.

Wadley lost to RCHS 7-0 Thursday. The Bulldogs managed just two hits, and one of their senior starters went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts and hit into a double play. That same senior starter also pitched an inning and a third and gave up five runs on four hits, a walk and a hit batter.

If that were the whole story of the game for Wadley and its senior starter there wouldn’t be much more to write about.

But that is not the whole story.

It was not just another game.

And it was one that the senior starter, JaMichael Angel, will probably remember for the rest of his life.

The game marked the first time in two years that Angel has played in a high school baseball contest after a year-long fight with cancer.

It was a fight that robbed him of the junior season of the game he loves the most.

It was a fight that temporarily robbed him of his ability to walk.

It was a fight from which he never backed down because he wanted more than anything to be exactly where he was on Thursday – in the middle of the baseball diamond competing alongside his teammates.

“We were pushing for that right when we heard the news that I had cancer,” Angel said. “Baseball season, would I be able to play my senior year?”

The mission to play this season began at the end of football season in 2017 when Angel first noticed symptoms of what was eventually diagnosed as a cancerous tumor in his bladder.

“Every five minutes I had to use the restroom, and nothing was coming out,” Angel said. “So I was just confused. I was like, I’ve got to go to the doctor. I was scared. That’s not normal.”

He went through extensive medical testing in early February of 2018 – just before the start of baseball season – and they discovered a golf ball sized tumor that was creating a blockage in his bladder.

He got the bad news on Valentine’s day. Cancer. Treatment starts immediately. No more baseball.

“I thought about my athletic career at the time,” he said. “Then I was wondering how I was going to make it through, and then I was scared for death. That was my main concern because cancer is nothing to play with.”

He was admitted to Children’s Hospital of Alabama in Birmingham where they installed a port near his heart through which they would begin administering the chemotherapy. They also gave him a full-time catheter that created such discomfort that he was unable to walk.

“It hurts. They put different sizes in me, and it made me not want to move,” Angel recalled. “So I had to lay down all the time or sit in a chair all the time.”

In addition to being mostly immobile, Angel suffered from bouts of nausea from the chemo. He also endured painful bladder spasms.

“It’s a cramp where your bladder tightens and your stomach tightens at the same time, and you just have a mad cramp,” Angel said.

Plus, during the chemo treatments he required close monitoring to ensure that no complications were arising. Those check-ins from the nurses came at all hours, making it difficult for Angel to get extended sleep.

“It’s not fun,” he said. “You’re just sitting there looking at the nurse coming in every 10 minutes to check your blood pressure and everything.”

It all made for a nightmarish stretch for Angel.

“Those five or six months were the worst months I’ve ever lived. It was rough,” he said. “But there was a lot of support.”

He got visits from the Auburn baseball team and the Birmingham Barons, who encouraged him to keep fighting towards his goal of making back onto the diamond.

But his greatest source of encouragement throughout the ordeal was his mother Patrina.

“Behind the scenes sometimes I felt depressed. I was really depressed sometimes,” he said. “But that’s when my mom or my grandma would walk in and talk to me and tell me everything will be all right. That’s what kept me going.”

The difficulty of those first few months of treatment eventually began to pay off. The tumor was shrinking, so much so that the doctors were able to remove the catheter that had immobilized Angel. That led to what Angel says was a major turning point in his treatment.

“When I could walk I thought, since I can walk I can do anything,” he said.

Not that he just jumped to his feet and began turning cartwheels as soon as the catheter was out. After nearly four months of not standing he had to re-learn one of the most basic of human activities. The first time he tried to stand up he immediately fell over.

“I would wake up, I would try to stand up, and then I would sit down,” he said. “Then I’d try to walk, and I would wiggle a little bit. Then I’d grab the little stand or something, get my balance again and start trying again.”

After two days of trial and error he eventually regained his footing. As time went on he expanded his activities to running, and then to throwing a baseball and swinging a bat.

“It doesn’t feel the same, how I run. I don’t feel the same at all,” Angel said. “Before I knew how I ran, I knew how I hit and pitched. I had to redo my whole lifestyle basically. It’s like restarting all over again.”

All the while he continued his treatment, a regimen that typically lasts about 18 months. But Angel was ahead of schedule, and on March 13 – almost a year and a month to the day after his diagnosis – he was cleared to play baseball.

Not that he heard a word the doctor said.

“I was talking to God at the time, so I wasn’t hearing anything the doctor was saying,” he said. “Mom was like, did you hear anything that she said? I was like, nope. Nothing.”

“I was just in there in shock. I was like, is this real?”

It was very real. And Thursday it became even more real as Angel took the field for the first time since the end of his 10th grade season.

“I took a deep breath and my heart was pumping really, really fast. I was nervous,” he said, describing the experience. “Whenever I got on the mound I was shaking so bad, I really didn’t know what I was doing.”

With those first-game jitters out of the way, Angel got his first taste of success the next day when his Bulldogs played a doubleheader against Loachapoka. Wadley won the first game 23-3 and the second 24-2. Angel started both games and went a combined 4-for-7 with a triple and four RBI.

The games were area contests, so the wins mean that Angel’s final high school season will almost assuredly reach the playoffs.

Angel is not quite done with his cancer treatment. He will receive one more round of chemo this week and return for a final checkup April 3.

And if he gets the all-clear at that checkup, that will be another day that he will never forget.

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