An emotional moment that will shape a season
Charlotte FC takes steps toward getting back on the field in a moving ceremony at Bank of America Stadium honoring Anton Walkes, the 25-year-old defender killed in boating accident
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The tears flowed. The players hugged. And the coach says Anton will inspire extra strength.
Charlotte FC owner David Tepper and team members mourn the loss of Anton Walkes. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte FC.)
All the Charlotte FC players, staff and friends gathered Tuesday at the celebration of life for Anton Walkes were wearing black, so it was hard to distinguish one person from the next, especially from far away. But one stood out because she was smaller than the rest.
Scanning the field with my binoculars, I saw a young girl, maybe 3 or 4, standing near the midfield opening where Charlotte FC players run out from the locker room at Bank of America Stadium. She had one hand wrapped around her mother’s leg and another clutching a baby doll. That had to be Ayla Walkes, Anton’s daughter. I recognized her from pictures.
Many of those gathered to mourn Walkes’ tragic death in a boating accident were trying to imagine what a season of soccer without him would look like. Ayla was staring at a lifetime. And she couldn’t even begin to understand it. That was the first tug on the heart in an afternoon filled with them, even for many of us who just knew Walkes on the periphery.
Walkes with his daughter Ayla and partner Alexis. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte FC.)
Making the service all the more poignant was where it took place. Four sections of chairs were set up inside the 18-yard box. Walkes’ loved ones were sitting on the turf he used to defend. As Myers Park Methodist minister James Howell pointed out in his invocation, Walkes’ death at the age of 25 was a reminder that “we are vulnerable, fragile — even the fittest among us.”
I was sitting in the media section in the first row of the stands behind where the East goal would be. Normally it’s the supporters’ section, the rowdiest place in the stadium, where Charlotte FC fans wave flags, beat drums and chant, and lean over the railing searching for a player’s hand to slap.
On this day, media and fans alike were offered a commemorative pin and a package of Kleenex as they came through the gates. The cardinal rule for sports journalists has always been no cheering in the press box. Nobody tells you what to do about crying.
I can remember only one time vividly in 30 years of sports writing when tears welled up in my eyes while I was on the job. I was covering spring training with the Atlanta Braves and interviewing first baseman Freddie Freeman at his locker early one morning. He was telling me about how when he was 10, he would spend afternoons after school at the hospital with his mother, who was dying of melanoma. He told me how he used to watch Anaheim Angels games on TV and how she used to watch him.
That day, I swallowed down the tears pretty quickly. On Tuesday, they kept flowing. I’m sure it was the same for many others.
Celebration of life for Anton Walkes. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte FC.)
If the somber music and collage of Walkes photographs rotating on the big screen wasn’t enough, then it was seeing Walkes’ daughter. Or seeing Walkes’ partner, Alexis, wiping away tears long before the service even started. One Walkes family member covered her eyes as she was escorted to her seat, as though all of it was way too much to see, much less endure. And there were rows of Charlotte FC players, wearing black and mint jerseys, each one with “No. 5 Walkes” on the back.
It seemed like the entire audience drew in a collective breath when Walkes’ friend Mohamed Khalifa told those gathered he had received a FaceTime call from Walkes on the boat the afternoon he died. Teammate Andre Shinyashiki gave his entire remarks from the podium choking down tears, and for those who hadn’t started yet, many joined him.
The service ended with a tribute video put together by the Charlotte FC staff, which left the stadium in silence. At the end, it cut to an outtake of Walkes from a recent preseason practice. He was asked from off camera if he had anything else to say. “No,” he said. “Let’s go. Here’s to a good season.”
I was covering sports in Atlanta in 2002 when St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile died of a heart attack in the team hotel the night before a game in Chicago. That was from a safe distance, covering a different team. I wasn’t there to see up close how those players coped. I wondered what it would be like for these players.
Then I saw them at Tuesday’s service. I saw Shinyashiki bury his head in the shoulder of star striker Karol Swiderski, a player he shares a position with and last year, on some level it seemed, a sense of competition. I saw newcomer Enzo Copetti, having just arrived from Argentina, sitting in the midst of his new teammates in a Walkes jersey, showing his support for a player he didn’t know.
I saw McKinze Gaines leaving the field with his arm draped around teammate Adam Armour in a gesture that looked like something Walkes would have done.
Now Charlotte FC coach Christian Lattanzio is charged with an even greater challenge than when he took over as interim coach in the middle of the inaugural season last year: help the team pick up the pieces from a tragedy.
“I think Anton is somehow with us,” Lattanzio told the crowd. “We made a promise to him, that he is going to be with us, that I’m not going to talk about him in the past tense. … We will honor him on a daily basis … and the extra strength that we have this season, without a doubt, will come from Anton.”
To anyone else, those words might have sounded a little strange. Not to this group.
This time a year ago, on the cusp of Charlotte FC’s first season, they were a collection of players. Walking off the field under Tuesday afternoon’s fading sun, they looked like a team.
Swiderski embracing Shinyashiki after the service. (Photo by Carroll Walton.)
Up Next for Charlotte FC
The team quietly returned to the practice field on Monday in Charlotte before flying to Los Angeles on Thursday to resume its preseason schedule. Charlotte FC was scheduled for a closed-door friendly, or exhibition, on Friday against L.A. Galaxy.
The team will stay in Southern California to participate in the Coachella Valley Invitational, starting with a Feb. 1 match against D.C. United and a Feb. 4 match against Vancouver. Charlotte FC, which will return home Feb. 6 to wrap up the preseason, will open the 2023 season on Feb. 25 at Bank of America Stadium against the New England Revolution.
Carroll Walton is a longtime baseball writer with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution now cutting her teeth on soccer and Charlotte FC just as fans in Charlotte do. She would love to hear from you. E-mail her with questions, suggestions, story ideas and comments!
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