The days of searching and dwindling hopes finally came to an end on Thursday morning, when Devil Ray Erik Walker's body was found. He was 23 years old.
Walker, who just turned 23 on Oct. 15, had been missing since Saturday after a canoeing accident on the New River in Virginia. Wardens with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries located Walker's body at about 11 a.m., near the same section of the river where he had been last seen on Saturday. That stretch of the river, known as Molly Shoals, has swift water and is filled with underwater logs, boulders and ledges.
Walker, a standout reliever for the Charlotte 49ers who was the school's single-season and career saves leader, was drafted by Tampa in the 20th round of the 2006 draft. The senior made his professional debut with the Hudson Valley Renegades in the short-season New York-Penn League and went 3-1 with seven saves, posting a 0.48 ERA while walking just six against 53 strikeouts. He was named to the NY-P League All-Star team and pitched a scoreless inning for the AL squad.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Walker family," Devil Rays director of Minor League operations Mitch Lukevics said. "We came to know Erik as young man who played baseball the same way he lived his life, full of enthusiasm, passion and joy. He was a good player, a good person and a great teammate. He was exactly the kind of individual we would want wearing our Major League uniform."
"Unfortunately, it's a tragedy," Hudson Valley Renegades general manager Dave Burke said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and his girlfriend.
"Erik was a true professional. He was a team player, well liked in the clubhouse. More imporantly, he was an outstanding individual. He always gave time for the fans or anyone else who needed it. He was a true asset to life."
Walker and his girlfriend, Charlotte softball player Christy Murray, were on a five-hour trip on the New River when their canoe got stuck on a group of rocks. The pair was able to get out of the boat and free it and were trying to wade downstream when Walker reportedly stepped into a trough and was pulled underwater by the current, forcing him to lose his grip on the canoe. Murray was able to get ashore and run to call for help.
The search, often hampered by cold water temperatures and windy conditions, yielded no results until Thursday morning.
"Water levels had dropped and water clarity had improved sufficiently for us to find him," Virginia game warden Jason Harris said in a statement.
It hopefully provided some closure to Walker's family, who knew this would be the inevitable outcome earlier this week.
"I had the sense on Monday they had accepted it, and it was just a matter of finding him," said Devil Rays area scout Brad Matthews, the scout who signed Walker and traveled to the area to be with Walker's family earlier this week. "I don't think there was the expectation they'd see him alive again."
Walker, by all accounts, was a selfless teammate, the type of player who never wanted to talk about himself. As a senior sign taken later in the draft, he had the tremendous self-awareness to realize he faced an uphill battle to realize the ultimate goal of pitching in the big leagues.
"He knew his situation as a high pick," said Matthews, who signed Walker across the street from Charlotte's campus. "He said, 'I'm going to have to go out there and do well or they're not going to keep me around.' Then he went out and did it.
"He was the definition of that guy who just wanted the opportunity to play and have the chance to prove himself."
It wasn't just people in the world of baseball who remembered Walker that way. During his time visiting with Walker's family and friends as the search continued, Matthews was struck, though not surprised, that everyone had the same kind of stories to tell about the well-liked pitcher.
"The common theme that came across when hearing people talk about him was how little he talked about himself, how much he cared about the guys he played with," Matthews said. "When I spoke to him during the season -- I called him after his first win and his first save -- he'd talk about the other guys on the team. It was amazing to experience that from all these other people.
"The last time I spoke to him was about a week and a half ago. He was trying to help a teammate of his at Charlotte to get him signed. He was genuinely that kind of person."
News of Walker's disappearance hit the Charlotte campus on Saturday. The 49ers found out when Charlotte baseball coach Loren Hibbs' wife came to tell him at practice that Walker was missing. Practice shut down and Walker's former teammates wanted to drive up to help with the search, but they were told to let the authorities handle it.
Walker wasn't just a good pitcher for the Charlotte program. Though he did set records in career saves with 26 and saves in a season with 12, he made more of a lasting impact with his personality, an upperclassman who went out of his way to mentor the younger members of the team.
"It's been really difficult for our coaching staff, and really difficult for our players," Hibbs said at the time.
"The university is deeply saddened to learn of the tragic loss of Erik Walker," Charlotte chancellor Philip Dubois said in a statement on Thursday. "He was an outstanding representative of us as a Charlotte 49er and as a UNC Charlotte student. While we mourn his loss as an academic and athletic community, we also extend our thoughts to Erik's family as they face his tragic loss."
"The entire Athletic Department, student athletes, coaches, and staff, are grieving over the loss of 'one of our own,'" said Charlotte athletics director Judy Rose. "Erik was a stellar baseball pitcher who was on path to graduate in the spring of 2007. More important than his athletic prowess is that Erik was just a super person and a tremendous role model. He will be greatly missed, but never forgotten by the 49er family. Our heartfelt sympathy is extended to Erik's family."
Memorial services for Erik Walker will be Sunday, October 29 at 1:30 p.m. at West Forsyth High School. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to the Charlotte 49ers Baseball program.