For only a few seconds, all you could hear was the wind – hundreds of people and two high school football teams paused to remember four young men.
Then the game, and the cheering, began.
One week after a car crash killed four of their teammates and left a fifth in hospital, the Warriors football players of Grande Prairie Composite High School laced up their cleats once again, running onto their home field clutching hands and with the five players’ jersey numbers written on their socks.
“During the moment of silence I started to lose it. And I was kind of going: ‘Man, I hope they’re not,’” coach Rick Gilson said. “And then once it was kickoff it was just a really focused group.”
Since the crash, the boys have been focused on the game, treating it as a tribute to their fallen teammates and using the routines of practice to cope with the loss. By game time, the home field crowd was a sea of orange and black – the Warriors’ colours – and roared as the team rolled over its rival, 40-0, to earn a spot in the regional championship next weekend.
“Today’s a good day,” Shelley Judd, the aunt of injured player Zach Judd, said with a smile. “It’s awesome. I love it. I love looking out here and seeing orange.”
Beside the Warriors bench stood photos of the five boys: Walter Borden-Wilkins, 15, Matthew Deller, 16, Tanner Hildebrand, 15, and Vincent Stover, 16, all passed away while Zach, 15, remains in a coma in Edmonton’s University of Alberta hospital.
“That constant reminder, to look over on the sidelines and see our five brothers, it meant a lot,” said Warriors running back Marcus Cooper, 17, who scored one touchdown.
The game was played in high winds that hindered each team’s passing game, but the Warriors scored seven minutes in and didn’t look back. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 people looked on, including relatives of the four boys who passed away.
“The support is awesome. The support is never-ending, just like his memory,” said Connie Strong, Tanner’s mother, whose family arrived early and set up lawn chairs at midfield.
“We were all pretty set on coming to the game, supporting the rest of the players,” said Raven Hildebrand, 17, Tanner’s sister. “I first thought: ‘I’m used to cheering for just Tanner.’ Now I’m cheering for the whole team.”
The boys were killed in a collision along an unlit two-lane highway near Grande Prairie, a city of 50,000 in northwestern Alberta, in the early morning of Saturday, Oct. 22. A truck collided with their car. The other driver, a 21-year-old local man, faces 11 charges, including some for impaired driving.
The community has since rallied around the team. A silent auction and bake sale were held during Saturday’s game to raise money for a trust fund set up for families of the five boys. At halftime, a local hotel company, Pomeroy Lodging, presented a $25,000 donation, drawing cheers once again from the crowd.
It was a long week in Grande Prairie – four funerals and persistent questions about how it is the four gregarious, football-crazy teens could be gone at such a young age. Their teammates attended each funeral, acting as pallbearers in one.
Throughout it all, the Warriors kept practising – even on Friday, a day that included two funerals. They dedicated their win to Walter, Matt, Tanner, Vince and Zach, who faces a long recovery.
“The whole game I couldn’t get him off my mind,” said his brother Louis Judd, 16, who is also on the football team and played Saturday. “To be honest I was scared I was going to break down in the middle of the field. It’s a lot to take in.”
A final community memorial is scheduled for Sunday. Families of the boys who passed away praised those who attended the game, called or sent messages of support and donated money, time or goods. All kept a low profile during the game with the exception of a handful of small tributes – buttons, t-shirts or balloons.
“Quite emotional,” said Darren Davidson, Walter’s step-father. “We’re absolutely just astounded by the support from the community. It’s pretty overwhelming.”