HUDSONVILLE, Mich. (Detroit Free Press) -- Thomas Sikkema sat in the dugout, trying to cheer for his teammates, trying to give them hope, but the pain was unbearable. His vision was blurry and his head was throbbing with pain.
The tumor in his brain was growing.
"I couldn't take it anymore," said Sikkema, a junior at Hudsonville High School, the defending Division 1 state baseball champions. "The pain was 100 times worse than a migraine. Behind my eyes, it starts aching. Horrible. Horrible."
It was Saturday afternoon and Hudsonville was tied, 4-4, against Jenison in the district championship at Zeeland East.
Tired and weak, Sikkema had to leave. He gathered his teammates outside the dugout to say good-bye.
"Slow down for a second," Sikkema remembers saying. "Hey, I don't know what's going on with my head. Today has been a rough day. I think I'm going home. I don't know if this will be the last time I talk to you guys. If it is, I love you all. Good luck with life. Hopefully, I'll see you next week."
He pulled Curt Doornbos to the side. "This is yours," Sikkema remembers saying to his teammate. "I won't be here. It's usually me and you. You have to grab this one and take it. You are the leader of this team."
Doornbos became emotional. "He gave me the chills right when he started talking," Doornbos said.
And they hugged.
"I love you," Sikkema said.
"Keep fighting," Doornbos said.
Sikkema went home and fell asleep. When he woke, he found out that Doornbos had hit a double in the fifth inning to drive in the winning run in a 5-4 victory, giving Hudsonville the district title.
"I was super proud of him," Sikkema said, "and it was kind of emotional."
Sikkema had brain surgery Monday morning. A surgeon drilled a hole through his skull, burrowed through his brain and took a biopsy of the tumor. Sikkema was released from the hospital Wednesday and he vows to be back in the dugout Saturday when Hudsonville plays Muskegon Mona Shores in the regional semifinal in Hudsonville, on the outskirts of Grand Rapids.
"I love my guys," Sikkema said. "They are my family."
It started less than a month ago.
Sikkema was playing leftfield in a breast cancer awareness game May 10 against Sterling Heights Stevenson.
Yes, the symptoms of cancer appeared at a cancer awareness game.
Crack of the bat. Shallow fly ball.
And Sikkema ran for it.
As he looked for the ball, Sikkema started having vision problems. It was like he was watching a 3-D movie without the glasses. Everything was blurry. It was like two images kind of overlapped and didn't match.
"I was staring at the ball and it started ... almost ... bouncing up and down," he said. "I saw two balls, and I guessed right and caught it."
Now understand, Sikkema, 17, is a role player. He's the kid who stands in the dugout, in the same lucky spot by the bats, and cheers until his voice goes hoarse. He's the first kid out of the dugout to congratulate his teammates. The kid who loves to go warm up an outfielder when he's not in the game. The kid who found a niche as a courtesy runner.
So when he finally got a rare chance to play in the field - it was late in the game and Hudsonville faced a huge deficit - he wasn't going to let a vision problem keep him out.
"Once you get the shot," he said, "you have to take it."
Sikkema tried his best and opened his stance, so he could look at the pitcher with his right eye.
"It stinks, but it's life," he said. "I stayed in there. I'm a tough kid."
He struck out.
A few days later he had an appointment with a psychologist. Sikkema had been having strange symptoms for about six months. This outgoing, driven, happy-go-lucky kid had changed dramatically. He was depressed. He had trouble concentrating and couldn't sleep for more than four hours a night. He didn't have any drive and his grades were slipping - from a 3.7 grade-point average to a 3.1.
When the psychologist heard the symptoms that he had experienced during the baseball game, Sikkema was sent immediately to his pediatrician.
He underwent a CAT scan and an MRI, but he didn't want to wait for the results. Hudsonville was playing at Rockford in a huge conference doubleheader.
"I was so sick of waiting around," Sikkema said. "I'm a pretty rebellious kid, and I don't like sitting around, especially if I'm missing baseball."
Sikkema and his father, T.J. Sikkema, left for Rockford. They were almost halfway there when the doctor called. It was bad news. Thomas had to be admitted to the hospital.
There was a tumor about the size of a half dollar on his pineal gland, a small structure deep in the brain. It is a rare type of cancer. Inflammation and swelling around the tumor was causing the vision problems. Even worse, there was a risk that the tumor and swelling could block the flow of his spinal cord fluid.
"If it gets completely blocked, game over," T.J. Sikkema said.
His son was even more blunt: "If that thing becomes completely blocked, I could die."
As Thomas Sikkema sat in the hospital, he found peace. He never freaked out. Never cried.
"God planned this with me in mind," he said. "I just kind of faced it, accepted it. It's there. It won't go away until they either cut me open or give me chemo or radiation or God performs a miracle. My dad and I have been saying, 'It is what it is.'
"Most of the time, when you hear about people getting brain tumors, it's really depressing and it's sad. I'm going to beat it with happiness."
Sikkema is deeply religious and his faith gives him strength. "I don't know what I would do without my church family, God and all the people supporting me," he said.
On May 16, Sikkema underwent a spinal tap so the doctors could determine if the cancer was benign or malignant. That was also the day Hudsonville was playing another huge conference game against Rockford. Only this time it was at Hudsonville.
While Sikkema was in the hospital, his teammates took his No. 21 jersey out to the cage for batting practice. They carried it onto the field for the national anthem and hung it in the dugout, where Sikkema usually stands.
"They made sure I was there no matter what," Sikkema said.
A doctor cleared him to leave. He shoved his stuff in a bag and threw it in the car and left the hospital and raced to the game. "I was wobbling around, trying to get there," he said.
He showed up and everybody was stunned. "They freaked out," he said. "I told them, 'Let's get this done.' "
And they got it done, with a 4-2 victory.
After the game, there was an impromptu prayer vigil on the baseball field. About 200 people came together, several circling around Sikkema, praying for him. They released lighted balloons to the heavens, carrying messages and prayers.
"After we got done praying," Sikkema said, "I kind of said, 'We win, I win!' "
We win, I win.
That's become the team motto.
"That's been the motivator," Sikkema said. "Hopefully, that can carry us a long way. We are all really close. We have all grown up together. I've known some of those kids since I was 2 years old. It has affected all of us in different ways. There are some kids who get really mad and emotional. I take them to the side and say, 'Don't worry, we'll get through this together.' "
Sikkema was put on steroids, which helped reduce the swelling. His vision returned to normal and he started feeling better. For a short time, as the season winded down, he even started practicing with the team again.
"Everybody likes Thomas," Hudsonville coach Dave VanNoord said. "He's a special kid. I think it's made our team closer. Life is hard to explain. I think, at times, our team has played better because we are connected somehow and connected to Thomas.
"I think it's good for Thomas to be part of a team with all this going on, if it helps him take his mind off things. That's got to be good for him."
Sikkema planed to spend Sunday with his family. Just a quiet day.
But his condition worsened - the headaches returned and his eyes were bothering him again - and had to be rushed to the hospital.
The tumor had grown.
On Monday, he underwent brain surgery. Back in Hudsonville, there was a Twitter campaign (#Pray4Thom) to get all of the students to wear blue and grey clothing to support him.
A surgeon drilled a hole through his skull and into his brain and then took a part of the tumor for testing.
The surgeon also performed a procedure to create a new pathway to allow the fluid to flow into the spine.
Sikkema came out of surgery in great shape and was starving, so he promptly ate 20 chicken McNuggets from McDonald's.
"Recovery is going very well and they are amazed by how fast I'm going!" he wrote in a text message, from his hospital bed. "An hour after surgery, I was walking and talking, so I couldn't be more blessed."
On Wednesday morning, the results came back. The tumor has been diagnosed as a treatable form of brain cancer with chemotherapy and radiation, although the family has not been told a prognosis. He will start treatments next week.
"God is so good!" the family posted on a care page. "We just got the results ... and we are rejoicing with all of you. Your prayers have not only carried us through darkest moments but also have been answered in the form of the best possible outcome."
Sikkema still has double vision, but he has been told that should clear up. His head was shaved for the surgery, but, shoot, girls dig bald heads, right? Especially on fun-loving teenagers. And he plans to be at the regional semifinal Saturday.
But his father will keep a close eye on him.
"He's not going to sit on the bench the whole game," T.J. Sikkema said. "We have already discussed that. We'll push it as far as we can, but we have to be smart about it."
Through it all, Thomas Sikkema remains upbeat. Positive.
He's the kid who sits on the bench and keeps cheering, no matter the score. The kid who always finds the positive. The kid who makes everybody better. The kid who is going to beat this with happiness.
"I feel like I'm still a big part of the team," he said. "I know for a fact that my presence there has affected the community and team.
"I will make it. I will make it."
By Jeff Seidel, Detroit Free Press Columnist