Whenever Taylor Tankersley pitches for the Florida Marlins, he has help from one of his best friends.

Eric Michael Smith died a half-decade ago, but his spirit lives on through Tankersley.

"Every time I take the mound, I feel he's with me," lefty reliever Tankersley said of Smith. "Whenever I'm having a bad day, whenever I'm struggling, I talk to him."

Both Tankersley and Smith attended Warren Central High School in their native Vicksburg, Miss. But Tankersley was blessed with good health and Major League talent. Smith only had the blessings of an indomitable spirit. That's why Tankersley has started a college scholarship program in Vicksburg called Eric's Legacy to perpetually honor a friend who had to battle brain tumors from age 8 until his death as a teenager.

"He was always in and out of hospitals his whole life, trying new treatments," Tankersley said. "He was a battler. He used to sit in our dugout while we were at Warren Central. He played when he was young. He was too weak, too fragile to play later on. But he loved baseball.

"Our coach was just moved by Eric. He talked to the team one day when there were tough circumstances, and we were not prepared to do what we were supposed to do. He said here's this kid who prepares for life each day in the face of adversity. Take a page out of his book. It isn't so hard, we don't fight anything. We had it easy.

"That was the gift Eric gave to us."

Smith died while Tankersley was attending the University of Alabama. He spoke at his friend's funeral, but that wasn't the end of his remembrance of Smith by any means.

"The blessings of his life, I need to share with others," Tankersley said. "I got here because his spirit was with me. Giving back in his name is to give knowledge of the impact he had on me. That's why I named a college scholarship program after him -- Eric's Legacy.

"Education in my household was a big deal, my parents made sure. I'm still one year short of my degree, and I promised I'd get it. What better way to help a kid going to college who needs help and who exemplifies traits Eric would have admired."

The scholarship program began in 2006, after Tankersley made a successful big league debut as the Marlins' left-handed setup man. The first winner was a girl who was involved in the Special Olympics throughout high school.

"If you want to help others out, we'll help you out," Tankersley said.

The $15,000 scholarship is administered by a panel of judges, including Tankersley's father, Tom, his high school principal and baseball coach. Tom Tankersley distributed applications throughout Vicksburg's high schools as the new school year began. Meanwhile, the younger Tankersley spread the word about Eric's Legacy throughout his community.

Applicants write an essay. Tom Tankersley reads the application material, and the candidates are narrowed down to a final five. The candidates then undergo personal interviews. The winner is awarded the scholarship at a December banquet.

"Requirements for the scholarship are not that strict," Taylor Tankersley said. "We like the athletic side of it, but it's not guaranteed [for] an athlete. You want to give everyone a fair opportunity. Give them that blessing, give to others what I have.

"We've gotten off to a great start. I try to spend time with kids when I can. When I think about being 8, 10, 12, 16 years old, and being able to look a Major League athlete in the face and talk to him, that's a window I didn't get. It's my responsibility to give that window to others if I can."

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial.