QUINCY -- Spending this summer with the Quincy Gems was good for Aaron Campbell.
It was the first time the to-be senior at Austin Peay University got a chance to play summer collegiate baseball. He did well, batting .300 in 100 at-bats. However, an arm injury he suffered during the spring came back to bother him right as the Gems are in the middle of a heated race for two playoff spots in the West Division.
Nonetheless, Campbell simply enjoyed playing baseball for the first time in a while.
"It was a stress-free summer," he said. "I got to meet a lot of new guys. They took me in like family, and it was one of the best summers I've had. No doubt."
That wasn't the case in the last couple of years.
Instead of focusing on enjoying the game and improving, Campbell used baseball as a way to distract himself from life off the field.
In a span of a little more than a year, Campbell and his family experienced hardships that tested his faith. Baseball became a way to escape those trials, even if it was for only a few hours at a time.
He's become a stronger person and developed closer bonds with his brother, Austin, and his dad, Alan.
He also has another strong relationship, one is more special to him.
Holidays in a hotel
Campbell, a senior in high school, arrived at the family home in Arlington, Tenn., with his dad after completing baseball workouts in late October 2014.
Everything looked as it should until Campbell opened the door into the house. He immediately was taken back by black smoke and a burning smell.
"You couldn't tell from the outside, but it was a heavy, heavy fog," Campbell said. "You couldn't see two feet in front of you."
Campbell and his father couldn't see any large flames. They found the source was an electrical outlet for a television that recently had been installed in his parents' bathroom. An aerosol can also had exploded, causing more damage on top of the small fire.
The worst part, however, was the mess caused by the soot.
"It was everywhere," Campbell said. "Shoes, clothes. It was even in stuff that was in drawers. Literally everything in the house had to be cleaned."
Aaron's mother, Sheila, and his older brother, Austin, weren't home, and no one was injured in the fire. The damage and cleanup was so extensive that the family temporarily had to live in a hotel.
The hotel room was a suite with two separate bedrooms and a place to eat, but it wasn't ideal for a family. The family couldn't have Thanksgiving or Christmas at their home.
"It was just tough living in a hotel," Campbell said. "The only good part was the free breakfast every morning.
"The hotel scene isn't really for me. I don't like feeling like I'm locked up."
Repairs on the house were finished after a few months, and the family's belongings were returned. Some renovations were made to the house, such as a new kitchen designed to Sheila's liking.
"She always wanted a double oven," Campbell said. "She got to remodel it herself. She loved it."
Little to the family's knowledge, another challenge was coming.
Sheila had beaten skin cancer once before, but Campbell heard hard news during his first semester at Blue Mountain (Miss.) College that the cancer had returned. Campbell also was struggling to get comfortable at Blue Mountain and decided to transfer to Northwest Mississippi Community College to be closer to home.
It was difficult for Campbell to focus on baseball and get acclimated to his new teammates while worrying about his mom's health.
"I tried hanging out with the guys to stay distracted, but it's your mom," he said. "You think about her everyday."
Campbell, a devout Christian, relied on his faith to assure himself his mom would be OK. She was getting treatment, which made him believe she'd beat cancer again. However, the cancer aggressively spread into her spine and head and developed into carcinoma meningitis. She was hospitalized at the end of January 2016.
Campbell, a self-described "momma's boy," took it the hardest.
"Just seeing your mom going through something like that is terrible," Austin said. "It was extremely hard for him."
Sheila, who also had epilepsy, suffered a seizure while the family was in her hospital room. Campbell was overwhelmed by the moment and stepped outside into the hallway, where his aunt followed him.
At one his lowest points of his life, Campbell's faith picked him up.
"This man came around the corner and asked if everything was alright," he said. "My aunt told him my mom wasn't doing well. This man came up to me, grabbed me and prayed with me. I knew that was God coming to me. I felt like it was God and my grandfathers all coming to me and telling me everything was going to be alright. That comforted me, but at the same time I still knew I was losing my mom.
"He walked off, and I never saw him again."
Sheila died Feb. 7, 2016. She was 51.
"The whole time she was in the hospital, it did bring us together," Austin said. "You have to be strong for one another."
Aaron used baseball to make himself stronger, too.
Sheila's funeral was held the day before Northwest Mississippi Community College's season opener. Campbell was surprised when his new teammates arrived.
"I was still getting used to the guys, but Coach canceled practice and they showed up," Campbell said. "They were family from then on."
Campbell played two seasons at NMCC before transferring to Austin Peay.
At the same time, his relationship with Austin grew stronger. They are 51/2 years apart, but they were close. They didn't live around many kids their age, so they played sports together in the backyard. When Austin went to Mississippi State, and Aaron started high school, they grew apart.
"You just don't do as many things," Austin said. "He's being shaped by high school, I'm being shaped by college, and we kind of grew apart because we aren't a family that talks on the phone all the time."
Aaron went to college to play baseball, and Austin moved to Dallas to become a practice administrator for general surgery at the children's hospital. Since their mother's funeral, however, they've become closer than ever.
"We definitely have a strong bond and look out for each other," Austin said. "When something tragic happens, it either causes people to go away from each other or bring them closer. It definitely brought us closer."
Aaron has found a way to stay close to mom, too. He wears a pink wristband everywhere he goes with his mom's name on it.
Life returned to some sort of normalcy after a spring season at Austin Peay and this summer in Quincy, though the arm injury ended his time with the Gems this week. Aaron won't forget the journey that made him stronger.
"You know dad's at home, but at the same time, home's not the same," Campbell said. "It never will be. When everything was going down, it was just difficult to be home. Getting away from home was nice, and my dad is my number one fan, but getting out and get back to myself, I feel like I did that in Quincy.
"It was nice to get away and get everything back together."