Throughout nine days of mourning a tragedy that took four young lives, the people of Grande Prairie have relied on compassion, not anger, to move forward.
A memorial on Sunday capped a tumultuous week for residents of this small northwestern Alberta city after four teenage football players died and a fifth was injured in an Oct. 22 crash. With each day came an emotionally charged event – the vigil, the first practice, the first day back at school, the funerals. On Saturday, the boys’ team won a solemn football game dedicated to the dead and injured, earning a spot in the regional championship. On Sunday, more than 1,000 attended a public memorial.
At each turn, mourners leaned on laughter, music and prayer. What they avoid is anger, particularly toward 21-year-old Brenden Holubowich, who faces 11 charges in the crash, including impaired driving and fleeing the crash scene. He is to make his first court appearance Monday.
Few are laying blame. In interviews, they say they don’t see the point. Instead, they are reaching out to six families, not five, as a community grieves.
“There is one more young man that we need to give some compassion to. Our thoughts and prayers are with you too,” Darren Davidson, the stepfather of one of the deceased boys, Walter Borden-Wilkins, said at the Sunday memorial, not mentioning the accused driver by name. “If Walter left one message behind, it is to love.”
That’s a message the team’s coach, Rick Gilson, echoed throughout the week to his young players, who have focused on football as a way to cope while grieving for their teammates.
“May we all have the courage to choose mercy and compassion over anger and revenge,” he said at Sunday’s public memorial, while urging mourners to redouble the battle against drunk driving, which police allege was a factor in the crash. The coach, who is also the principal at Grande Prairie Composite High School, gave up drinking as a teenager. What he calls an “undercurrent of acceptability,” however, persists that enables drunk driving.
“This heavy hearted week, no one else should have to have. No one. And that can only come with a change in attitude,” Mr. Gilson said.
A day earlier, his team took the field for the first time since the crash killed defensive lineman Matthew Deller, 16; linebacker Vincent Stover, 16; running back Tanner Hildebrand, 15; and Walter, a 15-year-old defensive back. Receiver and kick returner Zach Judd, 15, remains in a coma.
Clutching hands and with the jersey numbers of their five dead or injured teammates scrawled on their orange socks, the Warriors football team ran onto the field in front of a roaring crowd of hundreds, nearly all of them wearing orange and black, the team colours. The Warriors had practised all week, even on Friday after earlier attending two individual funerals. Football is their final tribute.
Before the game began, the crowd observed a moment of silence. The Warriors stood shoulder to shoulder along the sideline, heads bowed and helmets in hand. Only the wind made a sound.
“During the moment of silence, I started to lose it. And I was kind of going: ‘Man, I hope they’re not,’ ” the coach said. “And then once it was kickoff it was just a really focused group.”
The Warriors scored seven minutes in and didn’t look back, cruising to a 40-0 win while five large photos of the boys stood next to the bench.
“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.
Among the Warriors players was Louis Judd, 16, brother of the injured Zach.
“The whole game I couldn’t get him off my mind,” he said. “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.”
Sunday’s memorial was played in Zach’s hospital room over the Internet, as his family watched. “And Zach, wake up buddy. Wake up soon,” the coach said Sunday. “The angels are by your side and you know that better than us. We look forward to your return.”
The events of the fatal weekend night remain unclear. The boys had just left a barbecue, with Matt serving as the designated driver. The house is metres from the crash site.
Police haven’t said what happened next, but interviews over the weekend revealed that a video camera at a local business captured the crash, and showed a car making a U-turn when it was struck by a truck. (The teens’ car was most heavily damaged on its driver's side and rear end.) RCMP have asked the business not to release the video.
What happened on the road may become clear as the case against Mr. Holubowich proceeds, but few among the Warriors players, families or supporters are focused on such details.
Instead, the families have been overwhelmed with support – thousands of dollars in donations to a trust fund, well-wishes from across the continent and thousands of mourners across the funerals, memorial and game. Football teams across Alberta, including the CFL’s Eskimos and Stampeders, have worn orange or a Warriors logo as a tribute to the team.
“This week I saw amazing grace under pressure,” Mr. Gilson said. “The flowers will eventually fade and wilt, but the memory of the support and the compassion demonstrated will never leave us.”
There are rays of comfort in Grande Prairie. Mayor Bill Given praised the community support, saying the boys’ legacy should be a more closely knit city. “The way we’ve come together over the past few days has shown we’re capable of being more understanding, more forgiving, more caring, more compassionate,” he said at the Sunday memorial. “If we were able to continue that, wouldn’t this be a fantastic place?”
The sentiment was echoed by the families of the four boys who died. All have struck a gracious tone, sharing memories and reflecting on a week none expected, but one they’ve not faced alone.
“There is a whole community with as big a heart as theirs that will miss and cherish their time with us, and will help us to never let them be forgotten,” said Martin Stover, Vince’s father. “I hope this tragedy will help all of us learn how precious the time we all have in this world is.”