WALLA WALLA -- DeSales High School has endured its share of tragic moments down through the years.
The school's two main athletic complexes, Ray Lane Field and Ty Baffney Field, are in fact named in honor of former Irish athletes who died before their time.
During the 2010-11 school year, the Irish will recognize another.
Ken Wicher, a three-sport athlete at DeSales who graduated in 1991, died on July 10 of head injuries suffered in an accidental fall from a forklift near Madras, Ore. He was 37 years old and the father of three small children.
Irish football coach Pat Graham, also a DeSales grad who was one year behind Wicher, came up with the idea of wearing special decals -- a black circle with Wicher's initials "KW" emblazoned in white inside the circle -- on the back of each player's helmet throughout the season.
"We wanted to find a way to honor Kenny," explained Graham, who went a step further by asking Louie Murray -- one of Wicher's classmates, teammates and closest friends at DeSales -- to address the Irish players prior to a recent practice.
"Sometimes kids who are part of the program right now need to understand the history of the program and those who came before them," Graham said. "This was an opportunity to come together and talk about a kid who embodied all of the qualities we look for at DeSales, to understand who he was and what he meant to the DeSales community."
Graham said he was pleased with the way his players responded.
"DeSales is a close-knit family," the coach said. "When they started to hear the things that Louie and I talked to them about -- who Kenny was and what he was about -- I think they really embraced it. I think they felt more connected to him and how he lived his life."
Murray transferred to DeSales from Rogers School in College Place as a high school freshman. But he had known Wicher since their years together playing Little League baseball and select soccer, and he considered Kenny his best friend growing up.
"It was pretty much Kenny, Ryan Smith, Eric Rohde and myself during our high school years," Murray recalled. "And we did all the usual stuff that kids do in high school.
"But Kenny and I go way back," he added. "We picked onions together for Buddy Locati in the fields that used to be across from where Wal-Mart is now. And we would go fishing a lot, and swimming at Kenny's house."
Murray said that he attempted to make two points in talking to the DeSales players.
"For one, Kenny never let his size effect his abilities or what he wanted to do," Murray said. "Even though Kenny started out as a little guy, through hard work and dedication, by the time he was a senior he was a pretty good sized guy. And he became an all-conference cornerback.
"Also, it was during his sophomore or junior year that Kenny recognized that if he wanted to realize his dream of playing college baseball, he needed to get his grades up. He was just getting average grades at the time, but he dedicated himself in the classroom the same as he did on the field and worked his tail off in the classroom."
The hard work paid off, too, as Wicher went on to play four years at the University of Portland, earning Northern Division all-Pac-10 honors as a junior.
Murray said that he also stressed to the DeSales players another trait that was always apparent in the way Wicher approached athletic competition.
"I told them that if Ken would have been the person talking to them, he would have told them to work hard to be the best you can be and always do what is best for the team's success, even if it comes ahead of your own personal goals," Murray said.
And like Graham, Murray was impressed with how the DeSales players responded.
"After I was finished, Pat called them all together on the field," Murray said. "They huddled up, and then each and every one of them came over and individually thanked me for talking to them. I thought that was pretty special."
Graham suggested that there may be other ways in which Wicher can be memorialized during the football season.
"We've tossed around a couple of ideas," the coach said. "But we haven't followed through on any of them yet."
While Wicher played both football and basketball at DeSales, baseball was always his first love. And discussions have already begun between Gordon Wicher, Ken's father, and Irish baseball coach Kim Cox regarding improvements that could be made at Ray Lane Field in Ken's memory.
"There aren't a lot of details yet, but there have been some discussions about stuff that could be done around the backstop, improvements, that kind of thing," Cox said. "They are improvements that you will probably see by next spring."
In the meantime, the KW football decals will be on display tonight at Ty Baffney Field when the Irish -- who are 1-0 following last weekend's 31-28 overtime victory over LaSalle in Yakima -- play their home opener against Colfax. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m.
And while this will be a once-a-week observance for Irish football fans, it's an everyday ritual for the DeSales players.
"Every time they put on their helmet and pull on a jersey, they're going to understand that this is more than just football," Graham said. "It's more than a game. It's a way to remember Kenny and why we are really here."