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The Grande Prairie boys and why they play the game

Mourners look on as the hearse leaves during the funeral for Matt Deller in Grand Prairie Alberta October 28, 2011. Matt Deller, 16, was killed in a car accident along with Walter Borden - Wilkins age 15, Tanner Hildebrand, 15 and Vincent Stover, 16, in Grand Prairie on Saturday, October 22, 2011.

JASON FRANSON/Jason Franson/Globe and Mail

There were no classes on Monday, but there was practice. Nothing would keep the Warriors from regrouping on the field. Not a day off school or the car crash two days earlier that took the lives of four of their fellow Grande Prairie Composite football players, leaving a fifth in hospital.

About half the team scrimmaged that day while others mourned. The running back was late, typically a sin in organized sport. His teammates applauded him as he ran on the field. For two hours, plays developed slowly and huddles lasted a moment longer. Parents watched nervously from a nearby parking lot. At the end, the players came together and chanted, as they always had: "Three, two, one, brothers. One, two, three, Warriors. Fight on."

Football has long been a crux of the identity of The Comp, the only public high school in this small northwestern Alberta oil-sands city. This week, however, it has meant more – a salve for teens coping with tragedy. "The best place for these kids all week has been between the white lines," coach Rick Gilson says. "The practice. That's been their sanctuary."

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As the Warriors rely on ritual and routine to mourn, much of the city has rallied behind them. A large crowd of family, friends and strangers alike is expected Saturday for the second-last game of the team's season. If the Warriors win, they will go on to play in the regional championship. They considered forfeiting, but vowed not to as a tribute to those they've lost.

"Every one of these kids that passed away, if they knew that we didn't play, they would be ripped at us," Mr. Gilson says. "And we believe they know. We believe, quite frankly, they'll be watching."

It could have been anyone's party, anyone's kids. That Friday night, it just happened to be a barbecue at the home of Shauna L'Hirondelle, whose son and daughter attend The Comp. A Mormon, she insisted on dry parties, but had taken her youngest son to Edmonton to play volleyball while her sister checked in on the dozen teens. The party wasn't entirely dry, but wasn't out of control, either. One neighbour didn't hear anything. "Otherwise, I would have been there," says Matthew Donovan, 16.

Just after midnight Saturday morning, five boys headed home. Matthew Deller, one of the Warriors' defensive linemen, was the designated driver and had a 1 a.m. curfew. Star receiver Zach Judd took the passenger seat of an older-model Mercury Sable, while Walter Borden-Wilkins, Tanner Hildebrand and Vincent Stover piled into the back. Two more teens got into another car behind them.

Matt, 16, stopped at the end of the driveway, facing an unlit, two-lane highway along the city outskirts. The speed limit is 80 kilometres an hour, but locals say it's regularly ignored. The boys were heading west. Some 20 metres to the east is the crest of a small hill that makes it difficult to see oncoming vehicles. Matt pulled out. Just before the car behind him could follow, its driver saw a GMC Sierra pickup coming over the hill heading in the same direction as the Sable.

The events of the next few seconds are unclear, as RCMP have stayed quiet, but the vehicles collided. The Sable flipped, landing upright in a ditch. The Sierra was found lying on the driver's side roughly 100 metres further down the road.

The pickup's driver, Brenden Holubowich, wasn't seriously hurt and now faces 11 charges, including four for impaired driving causing death. He is scheduled to appear in court on Monday. Many here pity Mr. Holubowich, who had been living in Grande Prairie. Mr. Gilson stressed to his players that healing comes from "compassion and forgiveness and mercy, not from revenge and anger."

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Seconds after the boys left, the kids at the party heard the crash. "All they saw was a bunch of metal go up in the air and smash," says a devastated Ms. L'Hirondelle.

When rescue crews arrived, they saw Matt, a Grade 11 International Baccalaureate student, slumped in the driver's seat, lifeless but with few external injuries. Zach, 15, was alive and cut free from the wreckage in four minutes. He remains in critical but stable condition at an Edmonton hospital. Vince, 16, and also an IB student, was discovered a few metres from the car in the ditch. Tanner and Walter, both gregarious 15-year-olds, were thrown from the back seat deep into the brush. At first, emergency crews thought the Sable had three occupants, not five.

"I've been doing this for almost 32 years now, and this was the worst night I've ever experienced," says Grande Prairie Fire platoon chief Barry Chorney, who was on duty. He deliberately avoided looking at the boys' bodies. "It's always hard on a responder when you're dealing with youth, because you think of your own family, you think of your friends. You think these kids haven't had a chance to live."

Mr. Gilson has coached football at The Comp for 23 years. He's also the principal. Minutes after the accident, he was woken up by his youngest son, another Warrior player who had received a text message about the crash. He came to the scene and watched as the boys were identified by their clothing. "My heart was sinking," he says. Hours later, he accompanied officers to each home to notify the families. "There's an awful lot of parents who just want to hold on to their kids just a little bit tighter."

Dawn broke over a city in mourning. "I've never seen one group of boys cry so hard for so long," says Lana Groth, whose son is on the team. Two boys built four white crosses, using a jigsaw to cut out nine letters: VS, TH, MD and WBW. Flowers, baseball caps and balloons (orange and black, the team colours) have since surrounded the crosses at the crash site and a trust fund was set up.

When tragedy struck the Warriors, its impact rippled across the region.

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It was up to the players whether to attend each of four funerals. Nearly all did, wearing white home jerseys over dress pants and, in one case, serving as pallbearers. "This has been a long week for all of us and it's time to start healing now," Jenny Wilson, Vince's mother, said at the fourth funeral. "You guys have a big game ahead of you, and we'll all be cheering for you."

Win or lose, the game will be one few here will soon forget. The coach has asked people to take it easy on the opposing players, who will be facing a home team that is, at once, emotionally charged and exhausted. The Warriors, however, are determined – their tribute to Walter, Matt, Tanner, Vince and the injured Zach will take place between the white lines.

"It's so great and powerful that, you know, even though you know they're gone, you know you're fighting for them," says running back Marcus Cooper, 17. "The whole team knows that this year we're fighting for that championship for them. It's not about our seniors, our team, our coach – it's for them."

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Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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