Wish Granted: Leukemia Survivor Becomes a Cheerleader

Rowan Neff’s little feet flew up and she landed on her back with her eyes facing the ceiling of Tad Smith Coliseum. She laughed loudly just as she finished the flip. 

Rowan Neff reaches for the sky during practice with the University of Mississippi’s cheerleading squad. Neff, who overcame leukemia, is the 2019 Ole Miss Wish honoree. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

“It’s so easy,” Rowan confidently told the assembled group of University of Mississippi cheerleaders who watched her. 

The 4-year-old from Pontotoc was so sure of her skills that she decided to teach the cheerleaders the move, and they dutifully followed her instructions. Being there was extra-special for Neff, who has spent the last 2-1/2 years undergoing treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

She was declared leukemia-free in September.

On this day, she found herself practicing with the Ole Miss cheerleaders as the 2019 recipient of the Ole Miss Wish. The Ole Miss Student Veterans Association uses the event each year to honor a military family facing a life-threatening illness. Rowan’s father, Chris Neff, is a member of the Mississippi Army National Guard.

Her mom, Naomi Neff, looked on as she practiced, and said the years she was in treatment were hard for the active and outgoing child, who wasn’t really able to leave the house because she was so vulnerable to infection, which can be deadly.

“Just watching her get to go to preschool and do things she never got to do is really fun,” Naomi Neff said, choking back tears. “She’s just starting it all at 4 years old, but she’s getting to experience so much.” 

Rowan was an honorary cheer captain for the weekend, and performed with the cheerleaders Nov. 9 during the Ole Miss vs. New Mexico State game. She, her mom and dad, and the couple’s sons – Caden, Ridge and Miles – were welcomed into the Lyceum on the day before the game.

There, Chancellor Glenn Boyce and Provost Noel Wilkin, who were joined by cheerleaders and Tony the Landshark, signed a proclamation declaring Rowan kid president for the weekend. The family got a campus tour and lunch at the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority house. From there, they went to Ole Miss cheer practice in the Tad Smith Coliseum, where she worked with the cheerleaders.

The family joined the football team on the Walk of Champions through the Grove and visited with head coach Matt Luke before kickoff.

Andrew Newby, UM assistant director of veterans and military services, works with the Student Veterans Association to organize Ole Miss Wish, which is part of Military Appreciation Week. He said Ole Miss Wish is one of his favorite parts of the job. 

“I get to work with families who’ve experienced incredible things, from deployments and military service to facing a life-threatening illness,” Newby said. “Helping these families to feel a sense of belonging in the Ole Miss family is wonderful, and it is my pleasure to make a child feel seen and feel important.

“Rowan is such an amazing girl, and I’m so happy to play a part in her celebration of defeating cancer.”

Chris Neff, who graduated from Ole Miss in 2007 with a degree in criminal justice, will retire from the Mississippi Army National Guard in January. He spent nearly six of his 23 years in the Guard deployed, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

He was on active duty while Rowan was being treated, but was able to stay home and work to support those deployed overseas. He is grateful to the university and the Student Veteran Association for recognizing his daughter and his family. 

“I just really appreciate that they let us do this, and that Ole Miss appreciates us veterans so much,” Chris Neff said.

Rowan was diagnosed in February 2017 with the form of leukemia, which is usually curable but requires a lengthy treatment period. She spent the first three months living in Memphis to be close to St. Jude. The last phase involved more than 100 treatments, which required the family to drive two hours each way from their home in Pontotoc to Memphis every Monday. 

Rowan has faced it all with a steely kind of calm, her mom said.

“She never let it get her down,” Naomi Neff said. “Once she realized she had to do it, she’s just stayed very strong. She isn’t scared of very much.” 

The ordeal has also been a learning experience for the entire family, she said.

“It certainly changes everything,” Naomi Neff said. “It changes the way you look at life, and the way you appreciate things.”

When Rowan was declared free of leukemia on Sept. 3, that same day she was on the field at her brother’s football game working up the crowd alongside South Pontotoc Middle School’s cheerleaders. She’s become interested in the sport since her illness subsided and she’s been able to venture out of the house and be exposed to new things. 

Inside Tad Smith, big smiles greeted the small figure as she emerged from the portal and walked out on the squad’s practice area. She was given her own set of Ole Miss pompoms and a T-shirt, as well as a poster signed by the entire cheer team.

Head cheer coach Ryan O’Connor said her brother, Trent Martin, beat the same kind of leukemia Rowan had in 2013, so she cherishes an opportunity help out with Ole Miss Wish. 

“This is why you want to be an Ole Miss cheerleader,” O’Connor said. “You want to make a difference in people’s lives. Just to know she wanted to spend her wish with the Ole Miss cheerleaders is really special.

“We’re glad she’s healthy and excited and that she gets to be on the field with us.”

The whole squad has learned from the experience, O’Connor said.

“They sometimes don’t realize that when you’re in that Ole Miss uniform, people think you are a superhero,” O’Connor said. “I always tell them to soak it up because after the last time you wear the uniform, people don’t look at you like that anymore.”

Cheerleaders Maddie Van and Brianna Berry said after practice that they were honored to spend the weekend with Rowan. 

“She is the cutest thing,” said Berry, a sophomore biology major from Brandon. “It’s so rewarding to be in this position to have people who come in and love us and to be able to make their day. She’ll remember this for the rest of her life.”

Van, a junior elementary education major from Brandon, said seeing the family that has gone through so much, yet remain grateful, helps the team keep the proper perspective on life’s important things. Also, seeing Rowan exemplify a kind of courage and strength that belies her young age is powerful, she said.

“Her story is a testament to her life, and hopefully she will get to use that to impact others,” Van said. “She will make a big impact by telling that story. God gives us this opportunity.

“Whenever you pour your life and your heart into something, you always get back more than you pour out.”

At the game Saturday, Rowan cheered loudly in the northeast corner of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium as the Rebels crushed New Mexico State 41-3.

Chris Neff stood on the sidelines, watching it all. He said the last time he was at field level there was as a student during Ole Miss’ postgame celebration of the 2002 victory over then-top 10-ranked Florida.

He was happy to be there with his daughter and his family, and surrounded by fellow vets.

“It’s always great to come home to Ole Miss,” Chris Neff said. “I’ve always sat in the stands and never thought I’d be able to do something like this.”

Rowan’s mom watched Rowan from the VIP area on the sideline Saturday. She said nothing about her daughter’s confidence alongside the cheerleaders in the large stadium surprises her. 

“She will try anything,” Naomi Neff said. “I can’t wait to see what else she does in her little life. It’s so fun to watch her now that she feels better.”

The Student Veterans Association accepts nominations for Ole Miss Wish through email, and requests can be sent to Andrew Newby at veterans@olemiss.edu.

By Michael Newsom

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