Will Small wears many hats at The Citadel — all of them extra large, according to his boss.
“Will, what size do you wear, 8 1/4?” asks Kevin Yeager, the Bulldogs’ director of athletic equipment. “You’re not the BMOC, you’re the BHOC — Big Head on Campus.”
Small, who works as bat boy for The Citadel’s baseball team and for the football team on Yeager’s equipment staff, merely smiles in reply.
“These guys like to tease me a lot,” said Small. “But I like to give it right back to them.”
Small, 21, is a constant presence around Citadel athletics. He’s been a bat boy for the Bulldogs’ since he was eight years old, and in recent years has been dubbed the “Director of Laundry Operations” by Yeager.
Small helps process some 2,200 pounds of football laundry a week during spring practice, loading and unloading the giant washing and drying machines next to the equipment room, and keeping them in working order. He stocks bins for more than 100 players with practice gear and towels, cranking up a metal gate when it’s time for the players to dress out, and helps set up for both baseball and football practice.
But Small does much more for Citadel athletes and coaches than fold and dry.
“Will is an inspiration to our athletes on this campus,” said Citadel baseball coach Fred Jordan. “He instills a smile on their faces every time they see him.”
Mr. West Ashley
Will’s ability to inspire stems from the way he deals with a condition known as apraxia, a neurological issue that makes it difficult for a person to speak.
“The best way I can describe it,” says his mother, Cherie, “is that the computer — his brain — is fine, and the printer is fine. But there’s a breakdown somewhere between the computer and the printer. He’s got some learning issues, but the genetic testing we had done never really labeled it as anything.”
Will didn’t speak until he was five years old, when he said the word “apple” during a session with a speech therapist. His family already had begun to learn sign language, not sure if the youngest of three children had hearing problems.
Will traces his love of sports to sitting by his grandfather’s chair to watch games on TV. Will played youth baseball, but it was at Orange Grove Elementary School where his connection with Citadel baseball began.
One of his teachers was Chris Lemonis, a Citadel assistant who’s now head coach at Indiana University. A neighborhood friend, Chris Altman, played for the Bulldogs from 2002-05. Will and a friend named Sean Campbell, who went on to play baseball at Winthrop, began working as bat boys for the Bulldogs about the same time.
“Without Chris Lemonis and Coach Jordan,” Small likes to say, “I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
At West Ashley High School, where Small’s older sisters Katelyn and Erin went to school, athletic director Richard Luden pulled Will aside on his first day of school.
“I’ve got someone I want you to meet,” Luden said, introducing Will to football coach Bobby Marion.
Will went on to work for the football, baseball and basketball teams at West Ashley, becoming a fixture around Wildcat athletics. Former baseball coach Mitch Miggenburg retired Will’s No. 16 jersey, and Will won the school’s “Spirit of West Ashley” award as a senior.
“I had no idea that was coming,” Small said of the night his jersey was retired. “I just about lost it.”
But after Will graduated from West Ashley, Cherie and Kevin Small were not sure what was next for their son.
That’s where The Citadel came in.
“When Will graduated from West Ashley, I was sort of frantic,” Cherie Small said. “Here was this neat kid, but I didn’t know if he’d be able to get a job without some help. I called Coach Jordan, looking for some help.”
Working with the S.C. Vocational Rehabilitation Dept., Jordan and former football coach Kevin Higgins were able to hire Small for Yeager’s equipment staff, alongside managers Austin Wiles and Robbie Wagner. There, Will has come to mean as much to The Citadel as the Bulldogs do to him.
“As his mom, it feels right for him at The Citadel,” Cherie Small said. “Kevin Yeager is amazing with him. He gets Will, and they do so great together. He truly has been a blessing.”
Yeager sees it that way, too. He says Will knows the numbers and backgrounds of every Citadel player and can reel off their statistics. Ask Will the mascot of almost any Division I school, and he can provide the answer.
And if Will shows up at a Citadel baseball game with a South Carolina Gamecock sticker on his helmet — courtesy of a Yeager prank — that’s part of what makes it all work.
“I really think it gives him a purpose in life,” Yeager said. “Will does not like not being here. If he’s sick or has to go out of town, he’s not the same person. And it’s the same for us when he’s not here. If you don’t smile when Will’s around, there’s something wrong with you.”
That means a lot to Citadel athletes, who are struggling with the daily success and failures in class, in sports and in the Corps of Cadets.
“He’s kind of the life of the team, for me,” said quarterback Dominique Allen. “Will’s always around, always cracking jokes with us.
“At The Citadel, things can get monotonous. You do the same thing day after day. So when you see Will and he says something smart to you and you start going at it, it adds a little spark to your day.”
And some perspective, too, Jordan said.
“Will has never had a bad day, and loves every part of athletics,” Jordan said. “He helps our guys see that going 0-for-4 is not the end of the world.”