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The Globe and Mail

NFL honours coach of Alberta high school team beset by tragedy

Grande Prairie Warriors coach Rick Gilson leads a prayer before a game against the Sexsmith Sabres on Oct. 29, 2011.

JASON FRANSON/jason franson The Globe and Mail

Coaches are supposed to possess leadership qualities on the field. Some have that character off the field too, but precious few have proven themselves amid catastrophe. And on all measures, Rick Gilson, principal and football coach of Grande Prairie Composite High School, is an inspiration.

On Thursday, the National Football League named Mr. Gilson Canada's youth coach of the year.

When four student athletes from his Warriors football squad were killed last month in a car crash, which also left a fifth teen with devastating injuries, Mr. Gilson remained stoic for the families, his team, his school and his northern Alberta community. He also managed to guide his team to a regional championship.

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"Mr. Gilson was not just a leader on the field, he was a leader for everybody," said Darren Davidson, whose 15-year-old stepson, Walter Borden-Wilkins, died in the accident. "When this tragedy happened, he came with the RCMP to our door to let us know what had happened. When it came time for starting arrangements, he was there. When it came time for getting the boys ready for these games, he was there. This man is absolutely incredible in my eyes."

Walter's teammates Matthew Deller, 16, Tanner Hildebrand, 15, and Vincent Stover, 16, also perished in the Oct. 22, early-morning collision with a pickup truck on a highway just outside the city of 50,000. The truck's 21-year-old driver faces numerous charges, including impaired driving.

Fifteen-year-old Zachary Judd is in an Edmonton hospital and is improving, but he has a long road to recovery, according to his aunt, Shelley Judd. He has emerged from a deep coma, is trying to form words and can hear people talking, but he'll still need significant rehabilitation to get his body moving again. It's also not clear what he remembers of the crash.

Ms. Judd, too, was pleased to hear of the coaching honour. Zachary's 16-year-old brother, Louis, is also a Warrior.

Mr. Gilson, 53, who has been coaching high-school football for 30 years, was among 400 nominated coaches for the 13th annual award and was selected by a panel of officials with the NFL, Football Canada and journalists.

"This award is not about winning and losing," said Dan Quinn, managing director of NFL Canada. "[Mr. Gilson]wasn't necessarily nominated just for what he did on the football field with the football team, but really what he did inspired an entire community."

Mr. Gilson rallied the team to play out the season.

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A week after the crash, the Warriors won a game to earn a spot in the northwestern Alberta championship, the Peace Bowl, and then went on to win it. But last weekend, in what would be the final game of its season, the team lost its shot at making the provincial finals. As the Warriors walked off the field, waving, the fans took to their feet and cheered.

Mr. Gilson was humbled by the NFL honour, which brought his team $5,000 in football equipment. His said his faith and the outpouring of support helped give him – and his team – the courage to carry on.

"I'm the person receiving the award," Mr. Gilson said, "but I know the only reason is because I'm surrounded by some tremendous assistant coaches, outstanding VPs, great staff and the players and students who helped us all survive this together."

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