Kenneth John Coulter was born on June 16, 1974, in Kitchener, Ont., to Kenneth, a factory worker, and Karen, who worked at an insurance company. Ken’s parents separated about a year after he was born, and he and Karen moved into an apartment in Waterloo, Ont. A big boy from birth, Ken was nonetheless “constantly on the go,” says Karen, forever outside hitting a ball with a blue plastic bat. When Ken was four, he and Karen were in a car accident, and Ken began having seizures—18 in 2½ months, says Karen. Teachers later noticed that Ken had difficulty with reading and comprehension, and recommended he be transferred to a school that offered special education.
When Ken was seven, Karen signed him up for T-ball. During one game, after hitting a ball so hard it nearly hit a church quite a ways from the diamond, the other kids started calling him “Slugger.” When sister Kim came along in 1984, it wasn’t long before Ken was teaching her to catch a ball and standing in as her protector (Kim’s father wasn’t in the picture). “Ken was the one to give the third degree to my first boyfriend,” she says.
Seeing Ken’s enthusiasm for sports, a high school teacher suggested he look into the Special Olympics program. At 17, he began playing on a floor hockey team, and when Karen picked him up from his first out-of-town tournament, it was clear that Ken was hooked. He informed her he’d be travelling to P.E.I. the following summer to compete in the national championships. It was Ken’s first plane trip, and he later confessed to Kim that he’d been afraid to walk the aisles for fear he’d tip the plane with his size.
After graduating in 1992, Ken worked at a T-shirt store and at a car wash—whatever it took to pay the bills—but sports was always his main focus. “One way or another, he’d be playing sports every day,” says friend and teammate Brian Dowding. Ken added baseball, bowling and soccer to his roster, and was angling to get a basketball team together. When he met Steve Singer playing basketball at a local school gym, Steve invited him to join his weekly game. Before long, Ken had persuaded Steve to coach a Special Olympics team.
As a player, Ken was competitive and intense, but fair, and a natural leader. Steve recalls a provincial championship game in 2007: “Three minutes to go, we were tied 19 all. We came into a huddle and Ken just lit into everybody, ‘Okay guys, we’ve come this far, we’re not gonna let this team beat us.’ We won by three.” It was their second provincial win (the first was in 2004) and the boys were planning to “three-peat” this May, says Steve.
Off the court, Ken was “a big teddy bear,” says Don Schnarr, another friend and teammate, and he wasn’t the least bit shy around women. After a friend of Karen’s suggested her niece Emily might be a good match for Ken, he courted her with letters and phone calls, and married her in 2000, just four days after finally meeting her in person in Trinidad, but the relationship didn’t last. By 2004, Ken had settled into regular work as a security guard, and met Ann Nagy after being posted at the company where she worked following a bomb threat. Their first date was at a Tim Hortons with Ken’s entire family, and Ann fit right in. On Dec. 7, 2007, Ken proposed, and they married the following October. “He was my prince,” says Ann. “We promised each other 50 years.”
With his weight creeping ever upward and numbness in his legs that doctors couldn’t relieve, Ken began to slow down. But when he heard that there might finally be enough teams across Canada to merit a national Special Olympics basketball championship in 2014, he was determined to get back in shape. Ken joined a gym, changed his eating habits, and dropped more than 60 lb.—and 10 inches from his 58-inch waist.
Last November, a month after securing an extra night of practice for his team (after years of hounding Steve), Ken collapsed putting on his shoes—he’d lost all feeling in his legs. An MRI revealed compressed vertebrae were putting pressure on the nerves of his spine. He had emergency back surgery in Toronto on Dec. 4 and came out “with flying colours,” says Kim. He was thrilled that he could feel Ann’s playful slaps to his legs, and even took a few steps on his own. Ken talked about his plans to compete in the nationals, maybe even the worlds one day. Pleased with Ken’s progress, doctors arranged for a transfer to Waterloo on Dec. 7. But while being moved from his bed to a gurney, Ken’s heart stopped. He was 36.