By Nick Talbot

Killeen Daily Herald

Gayle Dudley struggled to cope as she pulled her car into the Harker Heights parking lot.

She had not made the short walk up to the baseball field since her husband, Marc, died last June.

The diamond holds too many memories for her.

Her husband spent years giving all he had to the Harker Heights baseball team.

Paul Noyes' son, Jack, did the same.

But Paul wishes one game never took place.

At a playoff game in May 2003, Jack slid into third base and didn't get up, breaking vertebrae in his neck.

He died a year and half later of complications from the injury.

The scars remain for the Noyes and Dudley families. They always will.

But both Gayle and Paul now have a reason to go back and remember.

Tuesday, in a gesture that showed how much the community in Harker Heights cared and remembered, the Knights baseball team retired two numbers - No. 1 in honor of Marc, who was labeled the team's No. 1 fan, and No. 7 in honor of Jack.

Now the two tragic deaths are intertwined in the minds of the Harker Heights baseball community, their passion and their love of the game remembered forever.

"It means a lot that people still remember him and cherish the memory and it really touches home," said Paul Noyes Jr., Jack's older brother. "It is hard coming out and seeing it. It brings back some of the memories."

Falling down

It was supposed to be a memorable day for the Harker Heights Class of 2003.

The Knights were playing Montgomery in a Class 4A baseball playoff. With a .459 batting average during district play, 5-foot-10, 170-pound Jack Noyes was the best hitter on his team.

Jack had a date to the prom, which was later that night. His rented black-and-white tux and shiny black shoes were tucked neatly in his bedroom closet. Flowers for his date had been ordered.

But the game came first. The Knights were down by a run in the eighth inning and Jack was on second base with his whole life in front of him.

Jack knew he had to make something happen, so he took off.

The Heights senior attempted to steal third and appeared safe when the ball arrived. But he slid past the base and got caught in a rundown between third and home.

Jack scrambled back to third with a headfirst dive, a move he had made countless times before.

About six feet short of third, everything stopped.

His chin hit the ground hard and his head jerked back. Lying motionless with his face down in the bright orange-brown dirt, he cried because he knew something was terribly wrong.

"I knew immediately that it was bad," said Paul Sr. "To see him go down and not try to get back up you knew it was serious. He would have tried everything he could to get back to third."

The ball went into the outfield.

If Jack had been able to stand, he could have gotten up, dusted himself off, walked to home plate and tied the game.

But he never rose. His fifth vertebra was smashed beyond repair.

Instead, Jack was tagged out near third and Harker Heights lost. But the game became meaningless at that point.

So did the prom. Instead of celebrating, 20 teammates in dirty baseball uniforms drove to Scott & White Hospital in Temple to show their support, wondering how it all went wrong.

Behind the scenes

Marc Dudley always loved Christmas.

His house was one of those you could see from an airplane, it had so many lights. But as the cancer ripped through him, he no longer had the strength to do it anymore.

That's when his second family - the Harker Heights baseball team - came to his aid.

With Marc directing traffic from his wheelchair, the team plugged in light after light until Marc had a house lit for the season.

It was a small way to give back after everything Marc gave them for so long.

"Besides his family, in the last 12 or 13 years of his life ... Harker Heights baseball (was) where he spent most of his time," Gayle said.

Marc was actively involved in the Harker Heights Booster Club, serving as its president and as a baseball sponsor - even after his children graduated.

"When they were gone, he could have passed the torch on but he continued to be a very special person to the program," said Harker Heights baseball coach Glenn Cunningham.

Helping the Knights was his real full-time job. The one he cherished most.

"He devoted any free time he had to those kids," Cunningham said. "During the season, he traveled and organized who was going to take care of duties at the field.

"He was just a special man. He went far behind anything you could imagine, he loved the kids and had such a passion for the game of baseball."

But that came crashing to a halt when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Marc had surgery and spent months in the hospital as he battled a disease that causes nearly 8 million deaths a year.

"It is difficult to see anyone to go through that, but especially your dad - someone you admire and love so much," said his son, James.

While treatment sometimes kept Marc away from the game he loved, he never stopped caring about the Knights.

"He was able to participate fully in life until about eight months before his death," Gayle said. "After his surgery in February, he was able to participate in the kickoff of the season. He stayed as active as he could."

After the 2011 season came to a close, so did Marc's battle with cancer. He died June 18, 2011, at age 58.

A long 18 months

Time goes quickly.

Initially, Paul Noyes and his wife, Yi Cha, kept a vigil near Jack's bedside 14 hours a day. Along with Jack's friends, they took turns sleeping on a cot in the room.

"I was at work when it had happened. ... As soon as I heard the news I rushed down to the hospital," said Paul Jr. "It was heart breaking to see my little brother that way.

"He was so full of life; so full of joy."

A month later, flash-bulbs popped from the rafters. Friends yelled his name. A near-capacity audience at the Bell County Expo Center erupted as he accepted his high school diploma from a wheelchair.

Initially paralyzed from the chest down, Jack battled to regain feeling below his elbows and minimal control of his hands.

Three months later, he enrolled at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, majoring in accounting. His long road to recovery was supposedly getting shorter.

When the Knights opened the 2004 season, then Harker Heights head baseball coach Ty Oppermann arranged for Jack to throw the first pitch.

But several months later, his health took a turn for the worse.

By Christmas 2004, 18 months after his initial fall, the future looked bleak.

"He was out with his friends all the time and he just came home that evening and wasn't feeling good," Paul Sr. said. "I loaded him and took him to the hospital Christmas morning and they kept him in Christmas night, and the next day he had cardiac arrest. I was in the room with him and I was there when they were trying to revive him."

A blood clot caused a heart attack, and Jack died at age 20 with his father by his side.

The last pitch

With emotions running high on Tuesday, Marc Dudley's son James bounced the opening pitch three feet in front of the catcher.

It brought much needed laughter to his family.

As his wife, Sarah, handed James his 6-month-old son, it showed that life, and a little bit of Marc, will move on.

"It was a little hard to pull up today," Gayle said. "One of the things that made (Tuesday) so special is that two of my boys graduated from Harker Heights. When we pulled up, a whole bunch of their friends showed up.

"It had been a long time."

Not that time matters.

It's been nine years, but Jack Noyes' family is still coming to grips with the tragedy.

Paul Jr.'s eyes welled with tears. His voice was haggard as he remembered the brother he lost.

"It is emotional and it is still hard. It is good to know that everyone still loves him," he choked out.

For some, the combination of pain and inspiration left behind by Jack Noyes and Marc Dudley is overwhelming.

"I don't have words to express how much this means to me, because I know of all the things and all the ways he could be honored this is what he would have wanted and appreciated most," Gayle Dudley said before the ceremony began.

Paul Noyes Sr. added: "It means a lot. It means the school and the community can remember Jack and what he represented. ... (Baseball) was always in his heart.

"He played with the determination and the will to win, but more importantly to have fun."

No matter how much time passes, the pain will linger.

But with their numbers forever ensconced on the outfield wall, so will their spirit.

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