OMAHA, Neb. -- Patrick and Cheryl Dusek sat in the comfortable shadow of the upper deck on the edge of Section 108 at TD Ameritrade Park on Sunday, 18 rows behind the Texas Tech dugout. Their oldest son, Dylan, leaned against a railing along the warning track to support his teammates in Tech's first appearance at the College World Series. Surrounded by family and friends on Father's Day with Dylan's 16-year-old brother, Logan, at their side, the Duseks could hardly imagine a more perfect setting.
"It's priceless," Patrick said, choking back tears before the game. "It's incredible. It's awesome."
He motioned to his wife.
"She pinched me," he said. "And I still don't believe it. This is a dream. We're here. It's something we have put all of our time and finances into, and look where we're at. It's paid off. We would never trade it for anything."
Dylan, a freshman All-American left-hander who has helped pitch the Red Raiders to victory in 13 of his 14 starts this season, must wait through Tech's elimination game on Tuesday. Coaches opted to go with another freshman, Ryan Moseley, against Ole Miss.
If Tech advances, Dylan figures to get the ball on Thursday. It would be another unforgettable moment for the Duseks, no doubt, the emotions of this CWS experience magnified by the pain of Dylan's childhood.
In August, Dylan, 19, plans to return to Texas Children's Hospital, an annual event to mark the recently passed 13th anniversary of the end of his nearly three years of treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia.
At age 6, he beat cancer.
The experience changed his family's outlook on life and shaped Dylan's perspective. Baseball helped him navigate the dark days. And today, when he faces a pressure moment on the mound, Dusek finds confidence in knowing he's defeated a more formidable opponent.
"I'm enjoying the ride," Dusek said. "Cancer's really changed some big things in how I think about life."
Primarily, according to his mother, it has fostered a sense of independence in Dylan. He learned earlier than most kids that it's OK to be different. When his friends celebrated birthdays at 4 and 5, Dylan had to attend early or late for fear of minor infection that might make him gravely ill.
He couldn't go to school on a normal schedule after his diagnosis in October 1998. Treatments occupied parts of nearly every day. Even now, Cheryl said, he won't give in to peer pressure.
"He doesn't look at life the same as a normal kid," she said. "He never has. We've always told him, 'Dylan, you're different.' He's different in that he doesn't go with the flow. Until something like that happens to you, you're just going along with life. But after, it makes you change drastically."
As a cancer patient at 3 years old, Dylan carried a ball and glove to his hospital bed and later memorized the statistics and batting stances of many Houston Astros. His participation in the Sunshine Kids, a Houston-based program to benefit kids with cancer, introduced Dusek to former Astros star Craig Biggio, who played with Houston for 20 years. Dylan ran the bases at Minute Maid Park and took swings with Biggio. They talked on the phone. And Dusek even wore Biggio's No. 7 through youth ball and his career at Kempner High School in Sugar Land, Texas.
Their interaction has motivated Dusek to help kids in any way his position in baseball allows. Recently, he sent a signed photo to the cancer-stricken child of a family friend. He's visited Texas Children's Hospital to speak with sick kids and said he wants to do it more often.
"It's just the perspective that he has on life," Tech freshman third baseman Ryan Long said. "It seems like he's always walking around with a smile. He never gets too down about baseball. I think he understands better than most of us that it's just a game."
The games grew more important for Dusek as his freshman season progressed. He began the year in a midweek starting role against the likes of Abilene Christian and Arkansas-Pine Bluff. In late April, Tech coaches moved him into the No. 2 starting spot.
Since May 6, he hasn't allowed an earned run in 23 2/3 innings over four starts, including eight spotless innings against host Miami in Tech's 3-0 regional victory on May 31. Dusek also started the clinching super regional game against College of Charleston, lasting five innings as the Red Raiders won 1-0.
He came to Omaha with an 8-0 mark and a team-best 1.94 ERA.
"When we were recruiting him, he had the 'it' factor," Tech pitching coach Ray Hayward said. "You could tell he was a go-getter. He'd come at you with everything. He wasn't afraid to fail."
Hayward joined coach Tim Tadlock's new staff at Tech as the Red Raiders began to pursue Dusek two years ago. A longtime scout for the MLB's Marlins and Tigers, Hayward traveled to watch the lefty throw at an event in Atlanta.
"I'm looking at body type, arm action, [velocity]," Hayward said. "He didn't have any of that stuff. He's throwing 83. His breaking ball is OK. His changeup is OK. But then I start looking at him as he went through the game, at his moxie."
Hayward called back to Lubbock: Let's get this guy, he told Tadlock. They wanted Dusek the competitor.
Later, they learned to appreciate his more fitting label: the survivor.