He fought rare cancer with a smile, and support of a Carolina Panthers defensive end

He found rare cancer with a smile, and support of a Carolina Panthers defensive end

CHARLOTTE, NC (Jourdan Rodrigue/CharlotteObserver) - Wes Horton went to see Noah Hays for the last time on a Saturday night, in his home in Charlotte, in a room where everything was too still.

The defensive end for the Carolina Panthers had come to think of Noah, 19, as a brother. They would joke and laugh together and forget the evils of the cancer that burrowed through Noah's body.

On this night, though, Horton could not easily find words. Noah could hardly move, and couldn't speak.

Noah's aunt, Jacquie, saw Horton struggle. She sat on the bed and began to talk to Horton in words she thought Noah would use.

And Horton talked back — to her, but really to his young friend. He joked a little about how Noah could always beat him in video games, but then he became earnest as he told Noah his life changed when he met him. Horton said seeing Noah smiling even on days when he was in pain gave his life new purpose.

Noah had his gaze locked on Horton as he spoke.

The next day, Noah was gone.

And that evening as the sun went down, the sky was a vivid orange and tendrils of its brightness lingered as the deep blue night crept in.

That sunset was a reminder to those who knew and loved Noah, because orange was his favorite color.

Horton will remember him for so much more.

Noah Hays and Carolina Panthers defensive end Wes Horton, center, and Noah's parents, Joe and Gina Cugliari. (Credit: Courtesy of Jacquie Cugliari)

An immediate friendship Horton, 28, first met Noah while on a Panthers team visit to the Levine Children's Hospital in Charlotte three years ago.

Noah was 15 at the time, and had just been diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare bone and tissue cancer. About 350 new cases of the cancer are diagnosed each year, according to the American Cancer Society.

Horton was drawn to Noah's vibrant personality, and marveled at how the frightening nature of the disease never seemed to affect Noah's attitude.

Horton visited him nearly every Tuesday, the Panthers' day off, and the two bonded over video games and Noah's love of sports.

They'd often take small trips together — to eat barbecue at Mac's Speed Shop or hit golf balls. They would talk about football and about life, but not about cancer, because Noah just wanted to be treated like everybody else.

Horton understood that.

"I think Wes really tried to take Noah under his wing," said Jacquie Cugliari, Noah's aunt.

Horton became like part of the family, even joining them for Thanksgiving dinner. And he became an honorary member of their annual Christmas sock exchange, and in December received a pair of quirky, calf-high socks with pugs in Santa hats on them, drawing giggles as he held them up proudly in photos.

Noah Hays, Wes Horton and Hays' large family at Christmas, when the family does its annual sock exchange. (Credit: Courtesy of Jacquie Cugliari)

Horton also became a witness to some of the greatest joys of Noah's life.

Noah and his mother, Gina, went on trips often funded by a community that rallied around Noah, which allowed him to live as fully as possible while he still had the energy.

They went to Boston for baseball games, and met the rapper Logic backstage at a concert. They toured the NFL Network studios and met former Panthers receiver Steve Smith Sr.

A lacrosse player at Providence High, Noah signed a one-day contract with Charlotte's Major League Lacrosse team, the Hounds.

He was accepted into the sports journalism program at the University of Tennessee, his favorite college, and his collection of orange Volunteers gear grew enormously.

Jacquie helped Noah and Gina meet Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry in Oakland, and Curry, who grew up in Charlotte, slipped one of Noah's "#NoahStrong" bracelets around his wrist and wore it during a game.

And always, Noah showed his gratitude.

"Noah used to thank me all the time, the kid was saying 'thank you' until the day he died," said Jacquie, her voice cracking with emotion. "You'd give him a sip of Gatorade and he could barely talk, but he'd say thank you.

"He was so polite and respectful to the nurses and the doctors, who just loved him. ... He would get to know everyone on a personal level. He would just come into a room, and he'd light it up. He truly, truly had an impact on other people." Optimism in darker daysSometimes, Horton was part of Noah's happiest memories. He drove from California to Las Vegas in the offseason to join Noah to watch a Final Four game. And Noah watched the Panthers play a game from a suite in Bank of America Stadium with his family, as a part of the Make-a-Wish program.

Noah Hays and his family at a Carolina Panthers game in September 2016, as a part of the Make-A-Wish foundation. (Credit: Courtesy of Jacquie Cugliari)

But Horton saw Noah's pain, too. Noah endured 52 weeks of chemotherapy to battle the disease, fending it off twice before it raged back a third time as he turned 19, then spread mercilessly through his body.

Noah used to slot his chemo treatments around Panthers games, Jacquie said.

"He would schedule (them) so that he would be feeling OK and well enough to watch the games," she said. "He lived for Panthers football. And it really did help him get through the awful treatments."

And he'd always be ready to see Horton on Tuesdays. Horton would walk in the house or hospital room and Gina would feel an immediate sense of calm fill the room. She and Noah cherished that feeling when things got painful for them.

Those Tuesdays are the times Horton will especially remember Noah, and how they could forget the bad things and simply laugh and joke together, like brothers. In memory and celebration.

Horton was one of three speakers at Noah's funeral service earlier this month. He called it an "absolute honor."

The family wanted it to be a celebration of the remarkable life Noah lived, of his positivity, and of the many lives he touched — Horton's included.

Horton, like others at the service, wore both Panthers gear and Tennessee gear to represent Noah's favorite sports teams. Horton also wore the Christmas socks with the pugs in Santa hats on them.

The love of the family who gave those socks to him, the family he consoled as the sky turned orange the night of Noah's death, steadied him as he walked to the front of the church. One of Noah's sisters, Kayla, played guitar softly. He held a passage written by another of Noah's sisters, Zoe, as he faced the crowd.

And then Horton found the right words.

"I spoke about the type of man that he was, the attitude that he had going through cancer," he said. "Even in the midst of what he was going through, he showed gratitude. He still showed that positive outlook on life. He always thought he'd beat it."

"And I think everyone left feeling a little more upright."

As he shared his experience a week later after a Panthers practice, Horton was perspiring heavily in the Carolina heat.

When asked about Noah, the sweat trickled into the crinkles around his full, sad eyes as he thought of the young man who brought so much joy into his life.

And this fall, he said, he'll step out onto the football field in honor of his friend, his brother, who was buried too young in Horton's game jersey.