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Tragedy and triumph: Union City baseball players lost friend, teammate 11 years ago on field

UNION CITY, Ind. — Sitting in the visiting dugout at the Union City baseball field during practice this week, Zack Fulk paused for a moment and glanced toward the ground when asked about one of his former teammates.

“It’s been over a decade now,” Fulk said, his eyes moving up to his teammates practicing on the field. “That’s crazy.”

Fulk was on the field that Tuesday in July of 2013, practicing with his Union City little league all-star teammates. He remembers Dylan Williams’ father, Erick, shouting his son’s name as the ambulance raced Dylan to the hospital. Another teammate, Corbin Richards, remembers seeing Dylan just moments earlier, grinning and swinging his arms as he stood on first base.

Erick, Brianna and Georgiana Williams at the Union City baseball field with Dylan's No. 16 sign behind them on outfield fence.
Erick, Brianna and Georgiana Williams at the Union City baseball field with Dylan's No. 16 sign behind them on outfield fence.

That grin. That is the memory of his middle son that can still cause Erick Williams to pause. The way Dylan would hit the ball and run to first base while simultaneously blowing a bubble with his gum. No matter how many times Erick, the first base coach, told him to stop with the bubble blowing, Dylan would just smile. And that was that.

“That little grin,” Erick said. “And it would be like, ‘OK, whatever.’”

There are four high school kids out here at practice who were on the field that July day in 2013 when everything changed. This Union City baseball team became the first in program history to win a regional title, rallying for a 7-6 victory on Saturday over Wes-Del in Logansport in the rain. For years, those four kids and many more of their Union City teammates played for Dylan’s Dawgs, a team named in honor of their former teammate.

Members of the Union City baseball team who played for the Dylan's Dawgs baseball team with regional championship trophy.
Members of the Union City baseball team who played for the Dylan's Dawgs baseball team with regional championship trophy.

They say time heals all wounds. They are lying. Erick still follows the team, texts with fathers of players on the team and feels a strong connection to the boys who were once Dylan’s teammates. But watching them play in person …

“It’s hard,” Erick said. “It’s still hard.”

But if you drive a mile south of here, as Erick will after stopping by baseball practice, you can find an outlet for that grief. On the south side of State Road 32, just a few long home runs from the high school field, there are kids running and playing on the four baseball diamonds. Cars and trucks fill the lot on warm June evenings and moms and dads, aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas pull up a seat behind the chain link fence to watch. “Run all the way through the base!” a coach shouts on one field. Just as he does, another young player, maybe 6 or 7, slides into home plate on another field. Safe. He looks down and admires the pile of dirt he left on home plate and dances back to the dugout.

Dylan Williams (middle) with sister Brianna and brother Derick in a photo at Dylan Williams Memorial Park.
Dylan Williams (middle) with sister Brianna and brother Derick in a photo at Dylan Williams Memorial Park.

This field, designated “Dylan’s Field”, with a sign on the fence above home plate and the words “Forever an All-Star” is where Dylan Williams died playing baseball on that July day 11 years ago when he was struck in the back of the head and neck by a thrown ball.

He was three months from turning 9 years old.

“Our biggest fear,” Erick said, “is for people to forget about him.”

But that’s the thing about Union City, a community of 3,400 in Randolph County on the Ohio state line. They don’t forget. And if there is a neighbor in need, well, they are going to be there to help.

'I didn't think we saw what we just saw'

Jason Dowler coaches the Union City baseball team, which is 16-6 and will play in the Class A semistate at LaPorte on Saturday against traditional power Lafayette Central Catholic (25-6).

Union City is the underdog. A big one. Lafayette Central Catholic has nine state championships in baseball. Union City, prior to Dowler taking over as coach in 2021, had won just two sectional titles and never advanced beyond the regional.

“People look at Union City,” said senior catcher Corbin Richards, “and don’t think anything is here. They think it’s just a crappy small town school.”

Union City senior Owen Dowler
Union City senior Owen Dowler

These kids, this team, knew better. After Dylan’s death in 2013, Jason Dowler coached Dylan’s Dawgs, a team made up of Dylan’s former teammates. Dowler’s son, Owen, now a senior first baseman, played on those Dylan’s Dawgs teams for years, even into high school.

Jason Dowler might not fit the box of prototype baseball coach. He might come to practice in jeans and a t-shirt after working a full day for his Comfort Systems heating and cooling business he owns. But he knows these kids, and he knows baseball.

“He’s like a perfect mix of positive and real,” Fulk said of Dowler’s coaching style. “He’s going to keep your confidence at a good level and he’s going to make you want to be a better player. He’s going to tell you what needs to be said.”

Dowler, a 1998 Union City graduate, also knows his hometown. Or at least he thought he did.

On the night of March 14, Dowler was home with his wife, Amy, and Owen. They were dog sitting for adult daughter Kahlee, a Ball State graduate and former three-sport athlete at Union City. There were weather concerns as afternoon turned to evening, though nothing out of the ordinary it seemed for a spring night in Indiana.

“We all just didn’t think anything of it,” Owen said. “We hadn’t had a tornado in forever. We weren’t keeping an eye on the news very much because we thought it was going to go north of us, if anything.”

But the tornado whipped through Eastern Indiana, impacting the communities of Selma and Winchester. By morning, there were reports of 38 people injured, over 4,000 people without power, more than 100 buildings damaged and 22 homes destroyed. Wind speeds were estimated at 155 to 165 miles per hour, just short of an EF4 tornado.

“People compare it to a train horn,” Owen said of the sound of a tornado. “I don’t know what to compare it to. The pressure buildup was like when you take off in an airplane but a lot worse.”

Union City baseball coach Jason Dowler's property following tornado in March.
Union City baseball coach Jason Dowler's property following tornado in March.

The power went out in the Dowlers’ home. Amy looked outside, where the sky took on an ominous greenish tint. Jason, Amy, Owen and Kahlee’s dog took cover in the bathroom. Just as Owen shut the bathroom door, the Dowlers could hear the sound of windows breaking throughout the house.

Jason prayed for God to protect his family as he covered them. The sounds of destruction stopped after a few seconds. Pine needles from the trees on the Dowlers’ property had slid under the bathroom door. But they were alive. Jason and Owen emerged from the bathroom when they believed the tornado had passed.

Jason compared the scene in the house to “a duck blind painting.”

“It was like a cornfield in our house,” he said.

Outside, Owen said the scene was “apocalyptic.” A lightning flash lit up the night sky. The family’s massive two-story barn, which Jason used for his business and kept other family possessions, was diminished to a pile of rubble.

“I didn’t think we saw what we just saw,” Owen said. “Then the second lightning strike hit and that’s when we realized the barn was completely gone. It was completely wiped out. That’s when it got really emotional. The whole night we were just running everywhere.”

Union City baseball coach Jason Dowler's property following tornado in March.
Union City baseball coach Jason Dowler's property following tornado in March.

The Dowlers’ house was still standing but it shifted off its foundation and there was massive destruction. The next day, about 70 members of the community came to the Dowlers’ aid to help with clean up, donating time and machinery.

This is the Union City Dowler knows now. The community that will wrap its arms around you and lift you back up.

“What do you want in life?” Dowler said. “It can be devastating. There are people on that road in straight depression. But what can I do? You have to move forward. It’s not easy for me to say that. My kids grew up in that house. Our memories are there. But do you complain and complain and tear it down or tear it down and start thinking about how to make new memories?”

Dowler told Aaron Black, the superintendent of Randolph Eastern School Corporation, that he might not be able to return to coach. The team had just started indoor practice. Black told him that was the worst thing he could do. Dowler eventually agreed. He might miss some practices here and there, but he could turn it over to assistant coaches to handle and fill in the blanks.

The Dowlers moved into an apartment in town temporarily. Owen did not skip a beat in school or baseball. Two weeks ago, the Dowlers moved back to their property in a mobile home.

“My priorities changed, man,” Jason said. “My priority was getting my family back to live on our property. I have a son who is a senior. I wanted to make his life somewhat normal. We went from a four-bedroom house to a mobile home. It’s a disaster but a blessing. You can have nice stuff, but none of this stuff matters.”

It is a story of resilience that Dowler has used often with his own team this year.

“You try to teach these kids this type of stuff,” Dowler said. “Brother, if you think all your life is going to be good, it’s not. You gotta learn to get up. We’ll teach you how to do it. Then guess what? You did it. Get up and fight, man. That’s what we’re doing now.”

Dealing with adversity is a quality Union City, and this baseball team, knows about all too well.

Why they do it

Dylan is forever frozen in time, that 8-year-old with the big grin and ornery streak. His older brother, Derick, earned a Lilly Scholarship to Notre Dame. His younger sister, Brianna, will be a senior next year and is a standout on the softball team. She has started at third base since her freshman year and has a .430 batting average and 79 RBIs in three seasons.

'Dylan's Field' at Dylan Williams Memorial Park in Union City.
'Dylan's Field' at Dylan Williams Memorial Park in Union City.

The crime of this tragic accident is that Bri, just 4 years old at the time, remembers Dylan only through photos and that tragic day 11 years ago. She has heard stories from her parents about how similar she is to Dylan. But she was too young to have those memories herself.

“To be honest, I really don’t have any memories of him,” she said. “I think it’s the traumatic block. I remember the day he passed away but that’s about it. But I still hear quite a bit about him. Maybe not as much as I used to, but people still talk about him and ask about him.”

Erick Williams and his wife, Georgiana, made certain Dylan was never forgotten. He would have graduated last year. Would have turned 20 in November. There is not a day that goes by that Erick does not wonder what he would be doing now.

“I remember his preschool graduation,” Erick said. “They showed a picture, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up.’ And he said, ‘Working with my dad.’ So, we probably would have been doing that. Who knows what that would have been. Definitely something outdoors because he loved being outside. He never wanted to do his schoolwork when he got home. He was out the back door and back outside.”

Marker for Dylan Williams at Dylan Williams Memorial Park in Union City.
Marker for Dylan Williams at Dylan Williams Memorial Park in Union City.

What happened that July day in 2013 is still hard to believe. Erick has been told it was a “one in a million chance.” But it happened to his son. One in a million is irrelevant. As Dylan ran back to first base, he was struck in the back of the head and neck by a thrown ball. The force of the ball caused the rhythm of his heart to flutter. He went into cardiac arrest.

Erick was coaching in the outfield and yelled at Dylan to get up. He didn’t. As the scene turned more frantic, one of the dads started CPR and 911 was called. The other kids on the field were huddled into the dugout.

“We really had no idea what was going on at first,” Fulk said. “Players get hit with baseballs all the time, but nothing ever comes of it except a bruise or something. I remember parents yelling back and forth and starting to get really nervous.”

Luke Collins, now Union City’s junior second baseman, was on the field that day. He remembers Erick’s voice above the rest, shouting for 911. He remembers the sirens. He remembers a baseball practice ending in tragedy.

A Tuesday night at Dylan Williams Memorial Park in Union City, where kids ages 3 from 13 to play in the summer league.
A Tuesday night at Dylan Williams Memorial Park in Union City, where kids ages 3 from 13 to play in the summer league.

“Dylan was like any of us,” Collins said. “Goofy, playful.”

As the minutes passed, so did Dylan’s chances of surviving. What could have potentially saved his life was the presence of an automatic external defibrillator. There was not one on site at the ballfields but would have been the only chance at shocking his heart back into rhythm. When Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills went into cardiac arrest during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Jan. 2, 2023, his heart was restarted with CPR and a defibrillator.

“I never thought you needed one at a youth sports field,” Erick said. “Once you go into cardiac arrest, there is no age discrimination. Every minute that passes, there is 10% less chance to survive it. The whole AED thing is the education of it. We had no clue.”

At the time of Dylan’s death, the city was ready to give up ownership of the little league fields. Erick bought the fields for $1 and went about the process of raising money to maintain the park — Dylan Williams Memorial Park. This is a special place for Erick, who spent so much time here with Dylan. “It’s my calm space when no one is there,” he said.

Dylan Williams with teammate Luke Collins in a picture at Dylan Williams Memorial Park.
Dylan Williams with teammate Luke Collins in a picture at Dylan Williams Memorial Park.

Eric and Georgiana, along with Derick and Brianna, have poured their hearts into the park. For two months, 200 Union City kids from ages 3 to 13 play t-ball and baseball here. The mowing, groundskeeping, scheduling games and umpires and running the concession stand is a big job. But come here on a Tuesday or Thursday night in the summer. It’s magical.

“The t-ball games are some of the most fun to watch,” Erick said. “You see a kid hit the ball and run to third base or four or five kids pile on the base at once. They don’t understand. But they are having fun. That’s what makes it worth it.”

There is another reason they do it. Later this month, June 28-30, the 11th annual Dylan Williams Memorial Baseball Tournament will be played here through their non-profit organization, Dylan Williams Forever an All-Star Foundation. The tournament is an annual fundraiser and the winning team in each age group is awarded an AED for its organization. In total, they have donated nearly 200 AEDs in Indiana, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina. Each one is worth about $2,500.

Picture of Dylan Williams at Dylan Williams Memorial Park in Union City.
Picture of Dylan Williams at Dylan Williams Memorial Park in Union City.

The high school also hosts a wood bat baseball tournament and softball tournament each year in Dylan’s honor.

“The continued awareness and importance of having AEDs available means a lot to us,” Georgiana said. “In our situation, prior to (Dylan’s accident), we had no clue. I don’t think a lot of players, parents or fans were aware of the safety risk or importance of having one. Because of the cost, that’s why we do what we do. To bring awareness and get the AEDs donated out so it doesn’t happen to someone else.”

Dylan's Dawgs play on

Dylan’s Dawgs were at the heart of Union City’s first regional championship. Fulk took a no-hitter into the fifth inning against Wes-Del before the skies opened up. He struggled with his control in the wet conditions in Logansport and Wes-Del went ahead 6-4 with a four-run fifth inning.

“We weren’t sulking or crying,” Fulk said. “We’ve stuck together and dealt with a lot of adversity as a team. I think our strength as a team is how supportive we are of each other. We don’t view our players as better or worse than anybody else. Any of us can perform at a high level in any game.”

Fulk responded by driving in a run with a single in the sixth. In the top of the seventh, trailing by a run, Richards and Brayden Huggins singled to start the inning. Richards scored on a single by Brennen Hoggatt and Caleb Lutz drove in the go-ahead run with a sacrifice fly. Sophomore Jayson Connor slammed the door with a 1-2-3 seventh inning, getting the final out on a strikeout.

Union City, the favorite in the sectional and the regional, is now back in its familiar role as the underdog of underdogs against Lafayette Central Catholic.

“I love it,” Owen Dowler said. “Being the person to beat is like having a target on your back. We had to beat Wes-Del. Now we have nothing to lose, really. Coach Dowler loves to speak about inspiration. He’s told us many times he believes in us and we’re confident about being the underdog and feeling good about the weekend.”

There were some initial complaints about the semistate assignment, which sent Union City on a 3-hour, 12-minute journey to LaPorte. But after all this team has been through, Dowler said the game’s location is nothing to discuss.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” he told his team. “We can complain and go to LaPorte, or just go to LaPorte and play.”

It is a game after all. A wonderful game. For many of these kids, their introduction to sports and each other was on a baseball field.

Dylan Williams' gravesite in Union City.
Dylan Williams' gravesite in Union City.

There is another quiet spot in Union City, about equidistant from the high school and the little league fields, where Dylan Williams is buried. You can see his headstone from Winchester Street, across from the city swimming pool. Below his name, Dylan Thomas Williams, is a baseball diamond. Further below is a photo of Dylan wearing a “UC” hat, two baseball bats outlining his face.

On the other side, below the words “Shining Star” and a photo of a grinning Dylan is a touching message with 16 lines. Dylan wore No. 16. The eighth line reads:

“A team, that played beside him, that he always made proud.”

From here, you can’t quite see the baseball fields with Dylan’s name or hear the dads and moms and grandmas and grandpas cheering. But you can turn your head in that direction, close your eyes and imagine. And you hope it goes on forever.

Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IHSAA baseball regional champion Union City story of tragedy, triumph