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Warriors football players prepare for their game their game against the Sexsmith Sabres on Oct. 29, 2011. (Jason Franson/The Globe and Mail/Jason Franson/The Globe and Mail)
Warriors football players prepare for their game their game against the Sexsmith Sabres on Oct. 29, 2011. (Jason Franson/The Globe and Mail/Jason Franson/The Globe and Mail)

Fatal crash

Off season in mourning begins for Grande Prairie football team Add to ...

On the field, it’s the end of the line for the Warriors football team of Grande Prairie, Alta. Off the field, one lengthy battle remains.

Three weeks after a car crash killed four teammates, sent a fifth to hospital and left a tightly knit community in mourning, the Warriors football team’s tenacious season ended in a provincial quarter-final game Saturday.

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The team had won two games after the crash to clinch the regional championship in northwestern Alberta, but it was defeated 49-0 by the Edmonton-area Bev Facey Falcons.

Afterwards, the crowd stood and cheered the teams as the Warriors players waved and walked off the field.

“We were very proud of the boys. They kept their head up and kept going,” coach Rick Gilson said. “We truly feel we won by keeping on playing.”

On Sunday, they raised the Edmonton Eskimos flag – from half-mast to full – to a standing ovation at the CFL team’s home playoff game, where the Grande Prairie players and their families were guests of honour Sunday.

Now, they begin an offseason of mourning. As the community continues to rally around the team, the attention is solely on a player who wasn’t on the field Saturday: Zach Judd, the 15-year-old receiver who was critically injured in the crash and who has a long road of recovery ahead of him. He remains in a coma at Edmonton’s University of Alberta Hospital, where his teammates visited him Friday.

“He’s doing better,” said his brother Louis Judd, 16, who is also on the football team. He planned to spend Saturday evening at his brother’s side, recapping the game for him – doctors have recommended the family keep speaking to Zach.

Looking into the stands, which were filled with dozens of people who made the five-hour drive from Grande Prairie to Edmonton to watch the game, Louis Judd praised the support. “It’s amazing. I’m happy so many people came from everywhere, just to watch us.”

Walter Borden-Wilkins, Matthew Deller, Tanner Hildebrand and Vincent Stover, each 15 or 16, were killed on Oct. 22 in a collision with a pickup truck on a highway on the outskirts of Grande Prairie, a city of 50,000. The truck’s driver faces several impaired driving charges, and video surveillance footage shows the vehicles collided as the boys’ car pulled into a driveway to make a U-turn.

The truck’s driver wasn’t seriously injured, while everyone in the car, except Zach, was pronounced dead at the scene.

The community has since rallied around the team. Families of three of the four deceased boys were in the stands in Edmonton for the Warriors’ game Saturday. (The fourth family was at another son’s football game.) “They had a good run. Played hard, played well. We’re still proud of them,” said Joe Taniwa, Vincent Stover’s stepfather. He said the football practices and games have helped the teens cope with the tragedy. “I think they can focus on the field,” he said.

The Warriors coach praised his players and all those who backed them – including rival teams, from high school to CFL level, who wore decals or the Warriors’ team colours as a show of support.

“I’m just so proud of these kids, really proud of this community, these parents, and proud of everyone across the country who have been keeping these boys in their hearts,” said Mr. Gilson, who is also the principal at Grande Prairie Composite High School, the only public high school in the booming city.

He has called for people, kids and adults alike, to redouble efforts to fight what he calls an “undercurrent of acceptability” for drunk driving.

His players, meanwhile, will remember this season for decades to come.

“Always, the rest of their lives, they’re going to be able to draw on the experience of this – how people rallied around them,” he said.

Bev Facey, from Sherwood Park, Alta., now advances to the semi-finals after the emotionally charged game.

“We just tried to keep it as normal as possible,” said Tanney Wishloff, whose son, Bryson Dobush, is the running back for the Sherwood Park team. It was among the many to wear orange, and players prayed for the Warriors Saturday morning.

“This is one game we didn’t know how to prepare for,” she said. “Just feeling bad about playing these boys, after all they went through.”

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