On the Warriors’ hardest season, playing through tragedy and learning to forgive

Grande Prairie Composite Warriors coach Rick Gilson in conversation with Ken MacQueen
EDMONTON AB: NOVEMBER 19, 2011. Rick Gilson, football coach and principal at Grande Prairie Composite High, was named the 2011 National Football League Youth Coach of the Year on Thursday.(Jason Franson for MacLean’s Magazine.)
On the warriors’ hardest season, playing through tragedy and learning to forgive
Jason Franson

Rick Gilson has coached 57 football teams over the past 30 years. This season—his 25th as football coach of the Grande Prairie Composite Warriors, and his eighth as principal at the northwestern Alberta high school—began full of promise. Then, just after midnight on Saturday, Oct. 22, a car carrying five team members home from a party collided with a pickup driven by a 21-year-old. Four Warriors died at the scene, the lone survivor in the car went to hospital in a coma. The pickup driver faces charges of impaired driving causing death. The team elected to play on, finishing the most difficult season the Warriors have ever known.

Q: Let’s start with congratulations. Last week the National Football League named you Canada’s youth coach of the year.

A: It is very definitely an honour and one I’m accepting on behalf of the whole team and everyone who’s been involved in getting us through the past several weeks.

Q: How big is football to Grande Prairie Composite and to you?

A: Football is important to me, something I didn’t want to give up when I went into administration. It’s important for what I think it can do for young men.

Q: What else do players take off the field beyond the usual scrapes and bruises?

A: My philosophy is not so much to make university players or CFL players as much as it is to try to get some core values across. I say this to the boys: it’s important to me that you go on to be great husbands, great fathers, great employees and great employers.

Q: Then came the accident. You were awakened with the news.

A: My son knocked on our bedroom door. He’s a starting corner and a Grade 12 player on our team. He said, “Dad, one of the guys called and there’s been an accident.” I got hold of an RCMP officer at the scene. We worked from there to begin to realize the scope of what had gone wrong, and that Zach [Judd] was in hospital. We headed to the hospital and were able to get there before Zach’s parents. My son accompanied me. The Judd family arrived and we were able to provide some comfort and support to them. I worked through the remainder of the night with the RCMP to help in the identification process. I accompanied the RCMP to the homes of the families to notify them.

Q: It must have been such a difficult night.

A: It was important that there be somebody there that they know.

Q: Vincent Stover, 16, Walter Borden-Wilkins, 15, Matthew Deller, 16, Tanner Hildebrand, 15, all dead, and Zachary Judd, 15, in a coma. How do you prepare the school for such a loss?

A: As we finished the notification of families, it shifted to the need to let my staff know. We met at the school at 10:30 Saturday morning. We also began the process of getting all the players, the managers and their parents together at 11:30. Many of the players knew that there had been an accident. They knew that Zach had been badly injured and that two players had passed away. They didn’t know that there were actually five in the car. The hardest part was telling the team that they didn’t lose two teammates, they lost four. That was very, very difficult. The discussion was how we’re going to get through the next hour, and then the next hour. Then the emphasis was on us healing and focusing on being supportive of each other. Focusing on compassion and mercy over anger and any ideas of revenge. We were definitely upset that it involved an alleged drunk driver, but we focused on mercy toward the driver.

Q: How was that message of compassion received? You’re asking so much of the family and friends of these boys.

A: It was received very well. I still feel today very saddened by this boy’s choices. It’s something I say to students in my office: we get to choose what we’re going to do, we don’t get to choose the consequences of what we do.

Q: Too many principals in their careers deal with the consequences of drunk drivers. Why must this lesson constantly be relearned?

A: There is no learning where nothing changes. Unfortunately, I don’t understand it. I personally don’t drink at all. It seems to me that somehow, some way, there’s only a superficial belief that you shouldn’t drive drunk.

Q: You’re a religious man of the Mormon faith. Did you have words with your God after this?

A: My God and everybody else’s is probably the same God. Personal prayer and a belief in the eternal nature of man definitely helps me get through this. The belief that these young boys are in good hands, that we will have an opportunity to be reunited. It’s not going to happen right away but I firmly believe it will happen. That helps me get through the day, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t shed an awful lot of tears at their loss.

Q: Was it your decision or the team’s to finish the football season?

A: Our decision. It was a collective.

Q: What did they draw from playing on?

A: To not have played is a decision you would have made in an emotional moment. By making a decision to play you had a place you could go to step out of the grieving process. It wasn’t easy. At first it was very solemn, like they were afraid to laugh and enjoy themselves. I said, “What do you think the boys would say?” Vince and Matt, the two Grade 11s, were very focused on getting the Peace Bowl, the league championship. If you don’t play, these guys are going to chase us around and haunt us, and you know it.

Q: What was the impact on Grande Prairie Composite and the larger community?

A: We didn’t anticipate the broad response for mercy and compassion. That did resonate far further than I ever thought. People who had gone through similar events on smaller scales had been holding high levels of resentment and anger forever. They sent notes and emails saying, “Thank you for this, it allowed me to let go.” And we didn’t expect, request, or desire to have such a broad nationwide response to us continuing to play. We drew inspiration from the people writing us to say they were inspired.

Q: You visited Zach this weekend. How is he?

A: At the time, I said to [the team] you have to prepare yourself, Zach could die. But with each passing day the worst-case scenario is moving closer to the best-case scenario. He woke up [from a coma] about 10 days after the accident. He spit out his respirator and started breathing on his own. He’s looking better every day. It’s a miracle, quite honestly. He’s still got a lot to do to [regain] movement, and the [mental] processing is delayed. There’s lots of reason for hope there. He doesn’t yet know the full scope of the accident. There will come a time when that conversation will have to take place.

Q: Two trust funds have been established.

A: The Warrior Fund is to support all five families, to help with the expenses they’ve experienced and to support the families moving forward, and in honouring their sons in some way. The Zach Judd Fund is to support Zach himself. Even though Zach has made tremendous progress from when I saw him at ground zero on Oct. 22, he’s still got a lengthy period of rehabilitation ahead of him. Both funds are through the Royal Bank. My understanding is you can go to any Royal Bank, or you can go through the school.

Q: The Warriors won two games after the accident and the regional championship. They had a shutout loss in the provincial quarter-finals. The scoreboard doesn’t really tell the tale, though. Does the loss of the game seem significant when you have lost so much more?

A: Well, the scoreboard certainly tells a tale. We liked it when it said that we won. But all of that said, the character that they displayed was so outstanding that they didn’t lose. As the game ended, I said before you shake hands I want you to go across the field to wave and clap to your parents and thank the crowd because we did receive tremendous support. That created a whole flood of tears. Unexpectedly, it hit me pretty hard. We did all we could, against an extremely strong opponent, with what was left in the tank.

Q: Now comes the off-season. Without football, are you worried about that void?

A: I’m very concerned about that, for everyone. It will be an off-season where we are doing more things and following up with get-togethers, touching base with each player to see how they are doing. And coaches, too. We have some catching up to do, on work, and on sleep, and on grieving.

Q: How are you handling this?

A: I have, quite honestly, been richly blessed through this whole experience. I had an opportunity to watch such a high level of courage and composure by a group of young men, and the four young women who are our managers. I had the chance to provide support to five families going through the most difficult time a family can go through, and watch them try to handle that with such grace and dignity.

Q: When you agreed to this interview, you said you wanted to focus on what can be learned from this. I’d like to hear your thoughts on that.

A: Around the subject of alcohol and driving, we have to stop kidding ourselves. We’re not doing a good enough job. Too much lip service and not enough change in behaviour. If we don’t change the attitude, people need to stop crying about people getting killed by drunk drivers. Learning is when behaviour changes, otherwise it’s just information. We shouldn’t have 18-year-olds drinking [the legal age in Alberta and Quebec]. Matt and Vince aren’t going to be 18. Not in this life. Never. And Tanner and Walter didn’t even get to be 16.