02/22/12 — A Saint in Heaven: Community gathers to mourn loss, but celebrate life

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A Saint in Heaven: Community gathers to mourn loss, but celebrate life

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on February 22, 2012 1:48 PM

A cold, cheek-stinging wind swirled throughout the Doyle Whitfield Athletic Complex as I walked out to center field Monday afternoon.

My shoes squished on the Southern Wayne baseball diamond, drenched from a day-long rain 24 hours earlier. But I didn't mind as I gazed at the bright orange letters "KW" and "#9" painted on the grass.

Choking back tears, I turned and glanced toward home plate.

I closed my eyes and envisioned Kevin Wise shagging a routine fly ball or making a spectacular, game-changing play that belonged on a highlight reel. My eyes shifted left toward the Saints' dugout and I thought about Kevin's engaging smile, and tricks that he used to play on his teammates.

Water puddles covered first and third base, but the plate -- fittingly -- was dry.

Just how many times did Kevin confidently step into that batter's box, dig his cleats into the dirt and fight off pitch after pitch before he delivered one of many memorable hits?

Oh man, we're going to miss you No. 9.

Family, classmates, friends, teachers and members of a well-knit Wayne County baseball community paid their respects to Kevin on Tuesday evening in a sweltering Southern Wayne gymnasium. The 17-year-old baseball phenom, who had signed a national letter-of-intent with the University of North Carolina, shockingly passed away in his sleep Saturday morning -- just 17 days before his 18th birthday.

No one will ever understand the reason for Kevin's passing.

But no one will ever forget this vivacious young man whose passion for baseball and zest for life rubbed off on all of those who knew him.

Kevin wore a baseball uniform with pride. He played the game with respect and was always his own worst critic. Extra practice sessions weren't uncommon and he constantly found ways to improve his game.

Baseball also bolstered Kevin's personal life.

He became part of a fraternity that taught him how to work as an individual, but also as a teammate. Kevin grew to become a model son and grandson, a fun-loving brother, an outstanding student-athlete, a dependable friend and a boyfriend who had a big, loving heart to share.

Southern Wayne head baseball coach Trae McKee, assistant coach Anthony Williams and mentor Terry Jones each delivered a moving eulogy that described Kevin not only as a player, but as a person. Tears flowed freely from the overflow crowd, but short bursts of laughter also filled the air as McKee, Williams and Jones shared their stories about how Kevin touched their lives.

Players from Eastern Wayne, Charles B. Aycock, Wayne Country Day, Spring Creek, Rosewood, North Duplin and two travel ball teams Kevin played with either wore their full uniforms or just their baseball tops in memory of their fallen "brother." Several shed tears as they greeted the family and shared stories of playing with Kevin.

Members of the Saints' varsity and junior varsity teams each signed a baseball with a message for the family. They placed the shiny spheres in a bucket in front of a chair with Kevin's blue Saints jersey draped over it.

A Carolina banner hung underneath and a colorful spray of flowers adorned Kevin's casket. His cleats were shined up for a new season. A signed baseball filled the webbing of his black leather glove. A red bat was also part of the arrangement that perfectly epitomized the game he loved from the first time his granddaddy, Charlie Swinson, taught him how to catch and hit a ball at the tender age of 4.

Resting in his white Southern Wayne uniform and wearing his trademark braided necklace with a cross, Kevin looked at peace while those around him mourned.

Kevin was laid to rest this morning at Wayne Memorial Park.

He'll no longer grace us with his physical presence, but his spirit will forever remain with us.

We will miss you No. 9.

To us, you will always be a Saint in Heaven.