CLEMMONS, N.C. -- The West Forsyth gymnasium is the typical high school facility, duplicated thousands of times across the country. It's very easy to envision the cheers at the varsity basketball game or the screams at a pep rally.
But Sunday, on a warm and cloudless October day in this North Carolina town, the Titans' home floor was anything but typical. More than 1,000 people poured into the high school to say goodbye to Erik Walker.
Walker, 23 years old, died in a canoeing accident just a week earlier. Reported missing on Saturday, it wasn't until Thursday morning that friends and family had news of finding Walker. Sunday afternoon provided them the opportunity for closure of a different sort, the chance to share their memories of a young man who impacted so many in a positive way.
The scoreboard in the gym was set to remind people of how far baseball had taken him, with a No. 17 (his high school number) in the home column, No. 23 (his college number) in the away column, and No. 40 (his number with the Hudson Valley Renegades) on the clock. Walker, Charlotte's career leader in saves with 26, had a stirring debut with the Devil Rays' affiliate in the short-season New York-Penn League, with a 3-1 record, seven saves and a 0.48 ERA in 37 2/3 IP.
Judging from the turnout for the memorial service, it was evident what kind of impact Walker's death, and more importantly, his life, had across countless communities. The gym was filled with members of the town where he grew up, his high school friends, members of the Charlotte 49ers softball and baseball teams -- for whom he starred as a relief pitcher for four years -- and people from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays organization, who drafted Walker in the 20th round of the 2006 draft.
"The number of lives he touched speaks volumes about the kind of person he was," said Lee Scaggs, one of Walker's Charlotte teammates who spoke eloquently at the memorial service.
As powerful as the program was, it certainly lived up to its title: "Celebrating the life of Erik James Walker." While the grief throughout the gym was palpable, it was striking to see the strength of those Walker knew best, watching them smile and laugh through the tears. Stories about Walker's fun-loving and outgoing personality were shared throughout the afternoon.
"You know he loved his hair," Charlotte coach Loren Hibbs said, echoing a common theme as people remembered Walker's carefully coiffed head. Hibbs recalled Walker never wanting to wear a hat. "He started getting fined for that in pro ball."
"There's that old saying, that just because you are a character doesn't mean you have character," said Travis Hancock, Walker's childhood friend and college roommate. "Erik proved that wrong.
"As his friends, we'll tell you, we were more brothers than friends and Erik was our biggest brother. You will forever be a legend. We should all consider ourselves lucky to have been a part of Erik's life."
Much of the service, from coach Hibbs to the minister, Dr. Robby Phillips, was directed toward the Walker family, who have been remarkable throughout this entire ordeal. Even after the service, Erik's mother, father and girlfriend -- who was with Erik when the accident occurred -- held themselves with tremendous poise and courage, greeting, embracing and sharing thoughts with hundreds in the gym.
"There aren't words to say what he meant to me and our program, so I'm going to speak right from here," Hibbs said, pointing to his heart. "I can't imagine what it's like to lose a child. But thank you for getting married, for having Erik and for letting us coach him for four years.
"The hardest thing to replace, probably for everyone in this room, was who Erik was as a person."
Admidst the sorrow, though, there was a clear message, fortified by each of the speakers and the strength of the Walker family: Erik Walker left an indellible mark on this world, even if for too brief of a time. That not only made people smile, but also made them realize that Walker can and should continue to be a role model for everyone.
"We're not guaranteed tomorrow," Hibbs said. "Erik lived every single day to the best of his ability."