In the six weeks since the tragic death of Litchfield junior Marcus Huhn, the weather has been largely gloomy — overcast, cold, rainy and windy.
On Friday night, as a crowd of hundreds gathered at Litchfield’s Optimist Park for a varsity baseball game and to celebrate Huhn’s life, the sky opened up and the sun shone down.
It was a beautiful evening.
“I’m speechless,” said Heather Bednarek, Marcus’ mother, as the Dragons played Dassel-Cokato in Wright County Conference action. “To learn that all these people would support such a young person — I’m proud to be a part of this community.”
Before the game, Eric Madsen and Daryl Wattenhofer — who coached Marcus across many years of youth baseball — manned the grill, serving roughly 500 pork chops to attendees.
All the proceeds from the pork chop feed went directly to the Marcus Huhn Memorial Fund, which will be used to fund scholarships for students, Bednarek said.
“Marcus was all about giving,” his mother said, “so it’s perfect.”
Donations to the memorial fund also made possible the purchase of a green-and-black bench that was placed behind home plate and is dedicated to Marcus’ memory.
Before the game, those in attendance observed a moment of silence for Huhn, Litchfield baseball legend Red Jones and devoted Dragon sports fan Maynard Watkins, who died earlier this month.
The game itself was nearly a disappointment, as the Dragons squandered a 3-0 lead to the Chargers in the final inning, when D-C scored three runs to tie the game and force extra innings.
But a Tyler Sangren single in the bottom half of the ninth gave the Dragons a 4-3 walk-off win — and a happy ending to an emotional night at the ballpark.
“If it was a movie, I guess that’s the way it should probably end, with the home team winning,” Litchfield head coach Jeff Wollin said, who also remarked upon the supportive, impressive crowd of community members gathered at the field. “… There were people there that just showed up to see what was happening. This was a pretty cool event.”
‘It all came together’
Friday night’s event began with the pre-game pork chop feed and was followed by the honorary first pitch being thrown out by Marcus’ father Patrick Bednarek. After Bednarek’s first pitch, the team embraced Patrick, Heather and Marcus’ grandparents near the pitching mound.
It was a touching, smoothly-run tribute made the more impressive for how quickly it cohered: after the delivery of Marcus’ bench, Huhn’s teammates, parents and friends of the family quickly brainstormed ideas of how to honor the former catcher.
“We just wanted to do something for him — our kids have been friends forever,” said Nancy Wattenhofer, whose son Carter, also a junior, sang the national anthem before the game and participated in Dragonaires with Marcus. “Everybody pitched in.”
“As soon as the accident happened, a lot of people in the community wanted to reach out and help,” said Jennifer Ridgeway, who helped organize the event and whose son Stan started Friday’s game on the mound. “… The boys really took it on after we picked this day.”
Wollin said he received a call from activities director Justin Brown, who had just received a visit from several Dragon baseball players asking to move the game from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. to ensure the game would draw a big crowd.
“Normally, we don’t do that until the weather’s much warmer,” Wollin said.
But the weather Friday night certainly cooperated.
“It just kind of all came together,” Wollin said.
A dugout absence
For Marcus’ friends and teammates, Friday night was both a fitting celebration of Huhn’s life and a reminder of how raw his death remains just six weeks later.
“It’s gotten a lot better,” said Marcus’ friend Sandi Hawley, a senior at Litchfield High School who attended Friday night. “But I feel like it’s a vague dream — like we’ve all been walking around like zombies.”
Huhn’s teammate Jake Jones appreciated the opportunity for Marcus’ friends and family to gather, celebrate and continue to heal.
“I think it means a lot, because it just shows our support throughout the community with not only just the family but people who are going through a tough time with it,” said the senior second baseman.
Litchfield senior Carson Deal reflected on the days he spent preparing for the season with Marcus: the pair of catchers went to the baseball hangar to take batting practice and work on catching technique for weeks leading up to the season — including the day before Marcus’ tragic death.
“That’s just what we did,” Deal said. “We played ball up until his last days.”
Beacuse Huhn died before he had a chance to ever play a varsity baseball game, many of the Dragons are left wondering what might have been.
“We were very excited for the season,” Deal said, “switching on and off (between catching) a little bit.”
“It’s like we never got to find out what he could have been as part of the team,” Wollin said.
Marcus’ newly christened bench and the “MH” decals the team wears on its helmets will remind the Litch baseball team of their lost teammate — to say nothing of his absence in the dugout and on the field.
“You can tell he’s not here because of his laugh,” Jones said. “When things would go great, he’d always be up and yelling. That was something we always looked forward to, and with it not happening it’s a slight reminder. It’s hard.”
But the Dragons want to do their best to use these daily reminders of Marcus’ death to galvanize, not demoralize, as they continue take the field without their teammate.
“It’s a thing where you either hang your heads and roll into a ball and just quit for the year, or you bring it in as motivation and play for him,” Jones said. “I think we’re trying to do that and not quit on him.”