Bayler Teal loved the South Carolina Gamecocks. And, they sure loved him.
The little boy inspired the ballplayers with his passion for the team, and how he courageously and without complaint fought cancer.
The team adopted him. Players visited him. He threw out the first pitch of a game in March. When the Gamecocks break team huddles, the players chant "1-2-3-BAYLER." They also wear his initials on their caps.
Bayler's two-year battle against neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer, ended last week. The 7-year-old died Thursday, about the same time the Gamecocks were rallying to beat Oklahoma in a 12-inning elimination game after being down to their last strike. Bayler was wearing his Gamecocks cap the day he died.
"He fought like a Gamecock to the very end," said Bayler's dad, Rob Teal.
South Carolina coach Ray Tanner paid tribute to Bayler after the Gamecocks beat UCLA 2-1 in 11 innings Tuesday night to win the national championship.
"He's gone to a greater place now," Tanner said. "I'm sure he's watching down on us right now, smiling."
With South Carolina winning a spot in the best-of-three College World Series finals last Saturday, a movement started among Gamecocks fans to pay for Rob and Risha Teal and 5-year-old son Bridges to attend the games against UCLA at Rosenblatt Stadium.
A flight cancellation looked as if it would scuttle the Bishopville, S.C., family's travel plans, but a person who knew their story, Ashley Gilfillan of Irmo, S.C., offered to pay for a private plane to bring them to Omaha. They arrived for the second inning of Game 1 on Monday and will be here until the CWS' final out.
"The whole baseball team followed him, and they were a real good support system for him," Rob said. "We can't put into words how thankful we are for what everybody has done for us."
The connection between the Gamecocks and Teal family is associate head coach Chad Holbrook, whose son, Reece, is a childhood leukemia survivor.
Bayler's funeral was Sunday, and Rob and Risha hadn't seen Holbrook since Bayler died. Holbrook, other coaches and the players embraced the Teals when they walked onto the field after Monday's 7-1 win.
"I don't think the team could begin to understand how much it means," Rob said. "This is such a tough time for all of us, and it is uplifting to know how much they cared about Bayler.
"It's bittersweet. It makes you want Bayler to be here that much more because he would have loved this."