In front of a record crowd of 837 at the University of North Georgia's (UNG) Haines & Carolyn Hill Stadium, 13-year-old Emmalee Watkins of Acworth, Georgia, learned she is one week away from having her wish granted.
The Make-A-Wish foundation and UNG collaborated to hold a special reveal event in between games of a softball doubleheader; Watkins signed a one-day contract to help lead the Nighthawks to victory over Georgia College on March 29. She was listed on the team roster in the leadoff spot, and watched from the UNG dugout, surrounded by her new teammates.
"We're really excited to have Emmalee in the leadoff spot for us; she epitomizes what a leadoff hitter does — she's very competitive, she battles, and I think she's going to set a great example for her new teammates," Head Coach Mike Davenport said before the game.
After the first game, a member of the UNG Corps of Cadets made a special delivery to Watkins. Yellow smoke from a hill high above left field gave way to the cadet zip-lining down onto the field with briefcase in hand, containing "top secret information" for Watkins' eyes only.
"Dear Emmalee Watkins," Watkins read aloud to the crowd, "in just one week, you and your family will be granted your wish, and will be going to Turks and Caicos for a six-day vacation at the Beaches Resort. Sincerely, the Nighthawk Nation."
UNG split the doubleheader, and Watkins and her family enjoyed a special dinner outside the Coleman Field House.
"One of my favorite experiences was throwing a softball with Courtney Poole, one of the best pitchers in the country," Watkins said.
The doubleheader was broadcast nationally by ESPN3. The broadcast marked several firsts for both UNG and the NCAA; it was the first time any on-campus baseball or softball games aired on ESPN3 as part of Division II's new media agreement with ESPN.
"She enjoyed all of the events, but her interactions with the softball team were great," said Mike Watkins, Emmalee's father. "I could see how much fun she was having with them. Having Make-A-Wish and ESPN here to be part of this has made it even more special, and I can't believe how full of love everyone at UNG has been. We have felt like part of the family through the whole thing, especially in the care they've shown in personalizing Emmalee's experience — right down to making sure her name and number were on her softball jersey."
In 2015, UNG's Department of Athletics raised more than $11,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, marking the fifth consecutive year that UNG has been listed in the top five fundraisers among NCAA Division II schools. Twelve years ago, Division II began its alliance with Make-A-Wish, and since then it has raised nearly $4.1 million. That money has been used to grant wishes to more than 530 children across the country with life-threatening medical conditions.