September 20, 2020

Tiny Mississippi leukemia survivor has wish granted, becomes Ole Miss cheerleader for a day

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.

“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.